by Mya Scarlato, Chair of Music, Assistant Professor of Music & Music Education, University of Bridgeport
“What song would you like to learn next?” I asked my third-grade piano student during the fall of 2018 as he leafed through songbooks before delivering his choice: “The Star-Spangled Banner.” I remember feeling conflicted at the time, recalling the bravery of Black football players Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid, who had recently begun kneeling during performances of the anthem in protest of systemic racism and police brutality. Why this song? “We came to the conclusion that we should kneel rather than sit… because it’s a respectful gesture,” Reid wrote in the New York Times, “like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy” (Reid, 2017). In the article, Reid acknowledges his admiration for those who died fighting for the United States, emphasizing that the fight for justice and freedom of these American heroes also includes the right to protest.
I had a choice: We could proceed through the piano lesson with a surface-level focus on the notes and rhythms, ignoring the backdrop of public discourse that been ignited by these acts of protest; or we could endeavor to reach deeper — to grapple with the social context of the anthem in relation to our work at the keyboard. We began to plunk out the melody as I tried to think of ways to connect these sonic fragments to the larger mosaic of U.S. society, eventually recalling a rendition I knew would challenge us: Jimi Hendrix’s 1969 Woodstock performance of the Star-Spangled Banner.
From the moment Hendrix released that first blast of sound, my student’s discomfort was palpable. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched his expressions morph from the narrowing of his eyes — “what?” — to a face tightly scrunched — “what?!” — to hands clasped over his ears before being cautiously lifted to hear more. The deliriously complex harmonics, the distortion of sounds that denature into stratospheric overtones, the familiar melody that forges through the chaos of rocketing glissandos and explosive chords: it was a lot for a third grader — and for me — maybe for anyone — to take in. “Why?! Just–WHY?!” he burst, halfway through the video. The piano lesson had ended rather abruptly and without closure that day when the student’s mother arrived. And yet, the journey I have been traversing toward better understanding how the lived experiences of individual Americans impact our own relationship with the National Anthem had only just begun.
An idea that has shaped my thinking over the years comes from educational philosopher Maxine Greene, who viewed art as a medium through which we might endeavor to re-imagine our societies to be more just, equitable, and free — social imagination, as she came to call it. “Imagination is not only the power to form mental images,” as we might ordinarily think of it: “It is also the power to mold experience into something new” (Greene, 1980, p. 30). As I think back to Hendrix’s iconic anthem, I am struck by the realization that social imagination, or rather, social re-imagination is exactly what he gives us of the Star-Spangled Banner: Through the sonic images he evokes of war — bomb-like chords that burst open upon Hendrix’s electric guitar and an ode to the famous Taps bugle melody that signifies the death of a soldier — we can begin to understand pieces of Hendrix’s lived reality, such as his time in the 101st Airborne Division during the Vietnam War.
Jon Batiste is another musician whose modern, re-imagined anthem has inspired me to think more deeply about patriotic music. Batiste’s anthem aired on public television during the summer of 2020 — amid the surge of worldwide protests against racial injustice in the wake of George Floyd’s murder — at the first NBA game played after months of COVID-19 quarantining. The performance is significant in that it pays homage to two anthems: The Star-Spangled Banner and Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing — a melody claimed by many Americans as The Black National Anthem since 1921. For the duration of Batiste’s rendition, both melodies are present: the Star-Spangled Banner begins in the tinkling register of Batiste’s piano in tandem with Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing, which sits in the rich, woody bass notes of a cello. The arrangement also nods to Jimi Hendrix when Batiste leaves the piano to pick up an electric guitar in time to play “And the rocket’s red glare,” accompanied by a New Orleans bounce music backbeat — part of Batiste’s own heritage as a Louisiana native.
In contrast to the NFL’s reception of Kaepernick’s and Reid’s engagement with the Star-Spangled Banner in 2017, Batiste’s re-imagined anthem garnered noteworthy support from the athletic community: on March 11, 2020, NBA players and coaches of the Utah Jazz and New Orleans Pelicans are assembled for their first game: as the anthem is introduced, a wave of athletes swiftly dropping to one knee sweeps across the camera; the players’ heads are bowed with arms around one another. As the camera pans across close-up footage of the players, we see that each athlete is wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt; several coaches bear name tags that read “racial justice”; one athlete holds a Black Power fist in the air. In a Facebook post attached to the sharing of his anthem, Batiste wrote, “My rendition of ‘our national anthem’ speaks to the moment and is a representation of what this country is grappling with in real-time” (Batiste, 2020).
Both Batiste’s and Hendrix’s performance of the Star-Spangled Banner opens our senses to the idea that a singular, performative ideal for an anthem — one interpretation, one perspective — cannot possibly account for the plurality of experiences and voices in our diverse society. Although my own journey is unfinished, the act of bearing witness to the patriotic, musical offerings of each of these musicians has helped me learn to better address and grapple with such topics alongside my students at University of Bridgeport. As a member of the diverse body of students, faculty, and staff at UB, I look forward to working alongside my community to re-define, re-create, and re-imagine renditions of the U.S. National Anthem that represent who we are at UB.
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Batiste, J. (2020, July 31). (Untitled Facebook Post). Jon Batiste (Facebook Page: @JonBatisteMusic. https://www.facebook.com/JonBatisteMusic/?rf=109498325736220
Greene, M. (1980). Notes on Aesthetic Education. In Variations on a Blue Guitar: The Lincoln Center Lectures on Aesthetic Education (pp. 7–43). Teachers College Press: New York.
Reid, E. (2017, September 25). Eric Reid: Why Colin Kaepernick and I Decided to Take a Knee. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/25/opinion/colin-kaepernick-football-protests.html
Mya Scarlato joined the University of Bridgeport as Assistant Professor of Music Education and Chair of Music in 2021. Prior to her appointment at UB, Dr. Scarlato served as Visiting Assistant Professor of Music Education at the Crane School of Music, State University of New York Potsdam for three semesters; she also taught K-12 music in a variety of schools (public, private, and international) including general music and beginning band at an international school in Seoul, South Korea, as well as general music and studio lessons in public and private schools in New York City.