Singing the Nation Into Being: Anthems and the Politics of Black Female Performance

This project  focuses on black women’s performance of James Weldon Johnson’s  “Lift Every Voice and Sing” to examine what these evocations might reveal about black subjectivities, diaspora, and identity formation vis-a-vis discourses on national belonging. Part of a larger Omeka-based project called Nation Songs, “Singing the Nation Into Being” features a large collection of video performances of artists (both professional and amateur), which includes individuals, celebrities, groups, choirs, and other formations.

René Marie performs her composition of the national anthem, a fusion of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” in Denver, Colorado, 2008.


Melba Moore and various artists perform “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Video directed by Debbie Allen, 1990.

My aim is to consider how the performances, their venues, as well as the use of this particular anthem might provide us with new ways of conceiving of the meanings of “nation”—and the role that music, performance, and black female subjectivity play in this discourse. The larger project, Nation Songs, expands to examine performances of national anthems by celebrity singers such as Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Leontyne Price, and Beyoncé. I engage Farah Jasmine Griffin’s “When Malindy Sings: A Meditation on Black Women’s Vocality” as a framework for organizing the performances and of making meaning of the demand for the black, female singing voice to “sound” and embody nation even as she is outside of it. While Griffin’s focus in “When Malindy Sings” is on African American women performing various anthems/healing songs, at history-making moments, in this instance, I want to consider Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and those performances of the song that speak to this notion of the always-more—the demands, the desires, and the excesses. These performances, which carry their own and separate vocal politics of black female singing, nevertheless speak to this duality of desire for healing, on the one hand, and what Daphne Brooks terms “spirited dissent,” on the other. What might we better understand about nation—or understand differently about the desire/demand for the black, female singing voice and the meaning of that demand, if we, perhaps, attune our ears to these performances?

The aim for this project, ultimately, is to make it publicly available and to bring the research into the classroom through an interactive website, which will serve as both a teaching tool as well as means for students to contribute their own ideas and analyses to the conversation.