Lift Every Voice and Sing – Cover by Beyoncé, Coachella 2018
Growing up in Black communities, a song heard throughout history is “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” It is also known as “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” This song, written by James Weldon Johnson, got put to music by his brother John Rosamond Johnson. James Weldon Johnson got approached to write a poem for Abraham Lincoln’s birthday (thejaxsonmag.com). While initially planning to write a poem focusing on Lincoln, James Weldon Johnson instead chose to create a hymn that would rise as a song of protest. This hymn eventually became known as the Black National Anthem.
James Weldon Johnson, born in Florida on June 17th, 1871 (biography.com), is historically considered an activist and a leader of the NAACP. Reports say he became the first Black person to pass the bar exam in Florida at the time. He is known “as one of the leading figures in the creation and development of the African American artistic community known as the Harlem Renaissance” (biography.com). Therefore, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” had an impact within the community that was unexpected. It “captured the solemn yet hopeful appeal for the liberty of Black Americans” (naacp.org).
“Lift every voice and sing,
‘Til earth and heaven ring”
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” became known as the Black National Anthem by the NAACP in approximately 1919 (blackexcellence.com). The hymn became shown as a symbol of hope within the Black community. “It’s important to mention that there are no personal pronouns in this song; the words ‘us’, ‘we’, and ‘our’ suggest unity” (blackexcellence.com). The fact that there is no personal pronoun present within the song shows how this song is meant to embrace and lift up the community.
Lift Every Voice and Sing was an anthem throughout the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s. Also, in the 1960s as a “rallying cry” for people (naacp.org). The song continues to be used as such even in recent history.
The Black National Anthem has been performed in many settings and by many artists. NPR.org cites that in 1972 it was performed by Kim Weston in front of approximately 100,000 people. Then, in 1990 there was a version performed by Melba Moore, Anita Baker, Stevie Wonder and Diane Warwick. In 2009 at President Obama’s inauguration lines from Lift Every Voice and Sing were recited by Reverend Joseph Lowery. In 2018 Beyonce brought the song to the Coachella stage in which she was a headliner that year. Most recently, at the 2023 Super Bowl Sheryl Lee Ralph performed the song prior to the game.
“Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on ’til victory is won.”
Lift Every Voice and Sing is a song which brings hope, joy and unity to the Black community. Therefore, this anthem has inspired many people around the world. It encourages people to continue fighting against the injustices historically stigmatized groups face daily. Therefore, it is important to keep not just this song alive, but the history surrounding it as well. All in all, knowing the history behind this anthem helps us to recognize and understand its true meaning.