Oh Say Can You See & Me
Tomorrow, I will take the stage at the Brooks Running PR Invitational, a national competition of high school students who are at the top of their events in track and field, at Renton Memorial Stadium and perform “The National Anthem.” The tune is as engrained in me as any of us, but up until last December I had never actually sung it in public. At that time, I was asked to sing at the NCAA Volleyball Finals at Key Arena, and I said yes to the opportunity mostly because it scared me, and I try to consciously choose to do things that totally freak me out when I have the luxury of doing so.
Singing “The National Anthem” challenges me as a performer, first. The song has an insane vocal range and is so beloved and well known that the slightest missed word or pitch is instantaneously noticeable even to those who know very little about music. Because it’s so ubiquitous, it’s that much easier to scrutinize. The fact that the song is performed solo, a cappella, means that it’s all about the voice and the confidence of the person behind it. It’s one thing to sing a tune amidst a full wall of sound, and sometimes if you’re lucky with dancers and musicians doing their thing behind you; another thing to be the sole focus of attention in such a way, commanding a crowd – standing with their hands above their hearts, no less. The notion of performing it was a big fat dare to myself. As someone who identifies so much with making music through songwriting and performance, the question was simple: are you that good of a vocalist that you won’t blow this?
But singing “The National Anthem” also challenges me on a personal, philosophical level. I was born an American citizen, with my mother an immigrant and my father from a military background, and throughout much of my adult life have learned about and wrestled with the deep enduring flaws of this country. As a History major who focused on postcolonial studies, it was enlightening and troubling for me to understand the impact of the United States historically and presently, how romanticized the origin of this country has become in our public consciousness, and the multitude of ways that policy, corruption and inaction has failed and even persecuted the marginalized and politically powerless both within our borders and worldwide. I believe it’s important to stay critical and skeptical, interrogating truth that is fed, demanding to see what’s behind it. It’s why historical figures like Malcolm X and the recently passed Yuri Kochiyama inspire me so greatly, why I strive to be of the legacy of activists across the decades who risked their lives and livelihoods to challenge authority and push against injustice.
And, with all of that, the fact remains: I am an American citizen, thoroughly of this country, would not and could not have come into being anywhere but here. And in many moments, I can look to see how this country’s singularity and founding principles are a remarkable thing. In college, I was part of a human rights fellowship in NYC called Humanity in Action that took us to a day of hearings at the US Immigration Court. We spent a day observing immigrants pleading for asylum. I happened to see two women from China testify: one, who fled for fear of being sterilized for having a second child; the other, a practitioner of Falun Gong, a forbidden religion in communist China. In emotional, high-stakes cases, both of these women were granted asylum to stay in this country. Is the system perfect? Not in the least. But in that small glimpse I saw how two peoples’ lives were changed by a principle that all people have a right to self-determinism. Is that right denied to many? Absolutely. But the possibility, the hope, can and should not be abandoned but rather advocated and fought for to extend to all.
I approach singing “The National Anthem” more seriously than anything else I perform. I am intentional about building my instrument towards the best possible technical – yet with personality! – performance of the song, hoping it will deeply resonate with the power and tone of my voice and how I carry myself onstage. But I also take singing this anthem seriously as an opportunity to reflect and engage myself as a citizen of this sometimes infuriating, sometimes exquisite land whose soil I spring from. I want to take accountability for the enormous privilege of my citizenship here and for whatever ability I may possess to influence the future of how it marches onwards. I want to honor the history of those who have risen up and fought against oppression, discrimination, violence, and genocide, as one that is thoroughly American, to be claimed by generations to come. When I sing the anthem, I want to harness both the intrinsic hope as well as struggle that is found here, to sit with those realities, and to recommit myself to moving through the world with lucidity. The song puts me on the spot in a number of ways, and I want to embrace that discomfort instead of slink away from it.
“The National Anthem” is literally about watching the stars and stripes fly tattered and proud after a hard-fought battle, and I think about the wars in which we involve ourselves today where gunfire explodes through night, and air strikes streak the sky. I believe that we are far from all people within our borders having the freedom that is sung about; so many whose bravery is not recognized. But because this is my home, one in which I have had the freedom and agency to be an artist and determine my own course, I take on the challenge of vocalizing its anthem, hoping each opportunity to perform gives me a deeper understanding of how I fit in within its history and what I can do to chart its course moving forward.
[Art by Jasper Johns.]