Alright. I said I’d blog about what I’m reading, time to start.

I’m beginning today with an extremely relevant book by Dr. Shana L. Redmond called Anthem: Social Movements and the Sound of Solidarity in the African Diaspora. Now is an especially important time to amplify black voices, so I’ll have Dr. Redmond start us off in her own words:

Music is a method. Beyond its many pleasures, music allows us to do and imagine things that may otherwise be unimaginable or seem impossible. It is more than sound; it is a complex system of mean(ing)s and ends that mediate our relationships to one another, to space, to our histories and historical moment…Within the African diaspora, music functions as a method of rebellion, revolution, and future visions that disrupt and challenge the manufactured differences used to dismiss, detain, and destroy communities. The anthems developed and deployed by these communities served as articulations of defense and were so powerful that they took flight and were adopted by others…Listening to Black anthems is a political act in performance because it mobilizes communal engagements that speak to misrecognition, false histories, violence, and radical exclusion.

Redmond, Shana L. 2013. “Introduction.” Anthem: Social Movements and the Sound of Solidarity in the African Diaspora. New York: NYU Press. 1.

Note: In this book, “diaspora” refers to Africans no longer in their country of birth. One reviewer, Mareli Stolp, thinks “pan-Africanist” is a more appropriate term than “diasporic” but agrees that these songs are anthems (Stolp 2016).


Dr. Redmond’s book focuses primarily on six Black anthems, each of which she describes as a transnational text with a set of musical forms and a set of organizing strategies. She pins the starting point for Black anthems as 1920, when Mamie Smith became the first black artist featured on a “race record,” creating commercial investment in Black music.1, 2 Race records were driven by financial gain, and Black movement anthems emerged as a sort of counterpoint built not on commercialism but on what Robin Kelley calls “freedom dreams.” Black anthems “publicly grappled with how the ‘race’ of ‘race records’ was (and should be) constituted” (Redmond 8). They aimed to liberate what Redmond calls the collapsed Black identity through race (“a different way of living”) and sound (“a different way of hearing”).

Mamie Smith & Her Jazz Hounds "Crazy Blues" LYRICS (song ...

1 Okeh Records, the studio that recorded Mamie Smith, also had a line of “foreign” records for immigrant communities prior to the “race records” produced from the 1920s-1940s. (source)
2 Mamie Smith’s recording was extremely popular among black audiences despite the fact that it cost the equivalent of roughly two hours of work at an average black person’s salary. Her “Crazy Blues” record sold over 100,000 copies! (source)


When someone sings an anthem they become part of a collective, amplifying a message and its associated struggles and refusing the limitations of an “audience,” choosing instead to merge into a “public.” Singing an anthem is an act of what Christopher Small calls “musicking,” an active engagement with music rather than a passive one (9).

Anthems cross borders, carrying musical traditions, performance techniques, history, politics, and associated struggles across the world. More than just casual songs, anthems construct what Redmond terms sound franchises.

Sound franchise: An organized melodic challenge utilized by the African descended to announce their collectivity and to what political ends they would be mobilized (4-5).

Here are six anthems mentioned in Redmond’s book and the sound franchises they construct:

  1. “Ethiopia (Thou Land of Our Fathers):” Composed in 1918 by E. Burrell (coauthor of lyrics) and Arnold J. Ford (composer, coauthor of lyrics).
    • Anthem of the UNIA (Universal Negro Improvement Association).
    • 1920: In a manifesto titled Declaration of Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World, UNIA president Marcus Garvey announced a human rights platform for the protection of the Black race. Members of the UNIA sang this anthem after the manifesto was read, marking ” their moment of exultation and collective advance, signaling the introductory chapter of their ascent into the world corps of nations” (21).
    • “Ethiopia” set the stage for the use of anthems for global community building and mobilization.
    • 1927: Marcus Garvey’s deportation led to the rapid decline of the UNIA and its anthem.
    • “Ethiopia” enforces notions of male superiority and power but is nonetheless historically important as what might be the first example of a Black anthem.
  2. “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing:” Composed by James W. Johnson and James R. Johnson. Based on a poem by James Weldon.
    • Anthem of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).
    • 1933: Request to translate it into Japanese. Example of the global reach of a tool of representation for blackness.
    • Widely considered to be one of the most important Black anthems of all time, though it is not as popular today due to non-performance (276).
  3. “Ol’ Man River:” Composed by Jerome Kern (melody) and Oscar Hammerstein II (lyrics) for the 1927 musical Show Boat.
    • Singer/actor/activist Paul Robeson rewrote the words and transformed the song into a personal anthem for his work in Civil Rights Movement, the Spanish Civil War, movements against fascism, movements for social justice, etc.
    • 1950-58: Robeson’s passport was revoked under McCarthyism, but his message spread across the globe through his performances.
    • “Ol’ Man River” became Robeson’s signature performance in crusade for civil and human rights, creating an association with freedom struggles in US and abroad.
    • According to historian Mark Naison, Robeson is the “most complex and challenging African-American cultural figure of the twentieth century,” yet “within a span of ten years, 1947–1957, [he] was virtually erased from historic memory.” (278)
    • 2004: The American Film Institute named “Ol’ Man River” one of the “top movie songs of all time.” (276)
  4. “We Shall Overcome:” Known by many previous names and versions. One possible origin is Charles Albert Tindley’s gospel hymn “I’ll Overcome Some Day,” published in 1900. Melodically, “We Shall Overcome” is similar to the spiritual “I’ll Be Alright.” Although I don’t have a source to back this up, I learned from Rev. Robert B. Jones that “I’ll Be Alright” was a code song used by slaves to signify who was staying behind when an escape was planned.
    • 1938: Under the leadership of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, African American tobacco workers in Richmond, VA went on strike and sang the spiritual “We Shall Not Be Moved.”
    • 1945-1946: First documented singing of the “modern” version of Tindley’s hymn. Became the anthem of Black women industrial workers in Charleston in the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organization) who lead strike action against the tobacco industry.
      • Regarding the song’s importance for the Charleston strike, Local 15 member Isiah Bennett said: “Everytime [sic] we opened up a meeting we would sing a song. ‘We Shall Overcome,’ ‘We Shall Not Be Moved.’. . . The song ‘We Shall Overcome’ originated on the picket lines, in the union halls and in the churches where we would meet” (164).
    • 1947: Zilphia Horton (music director of the Highlander Folk School) taught the song to Pete Seeger and it was published as “We Will Overcome” in the People’s Songs Bulletin (directed by Seeger). Seeger began singing the song in performances.
    • 1959: Guy Carawan became song leader at Highlander and spread his and Seeger’s version. Other folk singers picked it up and started singing it at rallies, protests, etc.
    • The song grew from a locally-situated protest song to become the rallying cry and unofficial anthem for the Civil Rights Movement and a universally recognized protest anthem.
    • Malcolm X didn’t share the general enthusiasm for this anthem. In his speech “The Ballot or the Bullet” he stated: “Uncle Sam’s hands are dripping with blood, dripping with the blood of the black man in this country. He’s the earth’s number-one hypocrite. He has the audacity—yes, he has—imagine him posing as the leader of the free world. The free world!—and you over here singing ‘We Shall Overcome.’ Expand the civil-rights struggle to the level of human rights, take it to the United Nations.” (280). Similarly, he said: “Revolution is never based on begging someone for an integrated cup of coffee. Revolutions are never fought by turning the other cheek. Revolutions are never based upon love-your-enemy and pray-for-those-who-spitefully-use-you. And revolutions are never waged singing ‘We Shall Overcome.’” (ibid). Nonetheless, “We Shall Overcome” remains a universal anthem for social change.
  5. “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” by Nina Simone (1969), lyrics by Weldon Irvine.
    • Written in memory of Simone’s mentor, writer Lorraine Hansberry (author of A Raisin in the Sun) who passed away in 1965.
    • Written as “a defiant celebration of and for the young people who through sit-ins, marches, and community organizing continued the fight of the many leaders gone.” (Redmond)
    • 1971: Became the anthem of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which then led to its popularity as an unofficial civil rights anthem.
    • Nina’s voice drew people together. As Redmond writes, “it is necessary to note that often it literally was her voice that put them in the same place at the same time. The power of these acts, then, is not simply as sonic art—as important as that is; it is also pedagogical and organizational in that these performances compelled reactive and proactive engagements and debate, all of which contributed to political alternatives in the present” (14).
  6. “Nkosi Sikilel’ iAfrika” (“God Bless Africa”): Hymn by Xhosa choral music composer Enoch Sontonga
    • 1897: Adopted by African National Congress (ANC), considered to be the most significant political force in the resistance struggle against apartheid in South Africa.
    • Best known version sung by Miriam Makeba
    • Multilingual composition made it an easy choice for a resistance anthem across Africa in the 1960s and 1970s.
    • 1994: Nelson Mandela installed as president of South Africa, gets to choose symbols of post-apartheid. Replaced “Die Stem” with “Nkosi Sikilel’ iAfrika” as South Africa’s national anthem.
  7. Bonus: “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy (1989)
    • Featured in Spike Lee’s film Do The Right Thing
    • Redmond presents “Fight the Power” as possibly the last Black anthem of the 20th century, adopted by various urban communities and uprisings.
    • Its relevance goes beyond Brooklyn to other locations, conditions, and political mobilizations: “The song’s growth from and response to collective Black struggle went beyond reporting to build discourse and debate; it was not simply narrative but was instructive” (261).
    • Long but very relevant quote: “’Fight the Power’ joined in the lexicon of anthemic sound bites like ‘We Shall Overcome,’ becoming an oft-repeated way to signal the Black response to the acquittal of the four white LAPD officers who in 1991 brutally beat Black motorist Rodney King within a few inches of his life. The anthem played in the streets of the Palms neighborhood of west L.A. during the events, becoming a critical voice and strategy within the Black rebellion. ‘Fight the Power’ was the song that marked this last decade of the Black century—the violence of its turning and the innovation of its future. Through their Brooklyn performances, the members of Public Enemy were organizers whose sonic manifesto moved bodies and reconstituted the multiple centers of Black diasporic existence.” (269)

That last quote makes me think. Redmond deemed “Fight the Power” as the last Black anthem of the 20th century. Here in the 21st century, while we wait to see what will happen with another group of four cops involved in the unnecessary murder of George Floyd (among many others), will a new Black anthem emerge? At one of the protests I attended last week, a trumpeter played “We Shall Overcome” and people laid down flowers while the names of black people killed by police was read aloud. That anthem is clearly still a part of the ongoing movements for civil rights, but others have emerged along the way. What’s waiting in the wings now?


It is only fitting to end where we began, with Dr. Redmond’s own words, shared below. I hope this blog post has been useful. I believe it is important to know the history of the songs we sing, and the same can absolutely be said for Black anthems.

The fact that some of these songs have passed the time of their utility in movement cultures does not diminish their importance to the political histories and futures of the diaspora…With every reference to these movements and musicians, with every performance, a conversation continues between the actors of the past and those of the present. The histories that these anthems have helped to build and the present efforts that they condone structure a radical movement timeline for members and actors within diaspora. Anthems, therefore, have a future, even if the nation does not. The project and practice of Black anthems represented here will, with any luck, mobilize another cohort with the talents to remake the world.

Redmond, Shana L. 2013. “Introduction.” Anthem: Social Movements and the Sound of Solidarity in the African Diaspora. New York: NYU Press. 288.
Paul Robeson photo credit here
nina simone
Nina Simone photo credit here
Fight the Power - Wikipedia
Public Enemy photo credit here
The Transatlantic Impact of civil rights anthem “We Shall ...
Photo credit here

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