Behind the Song: “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
Featuring ETM Music Teacher Antoine Dolberry
In celebration of Black History Month, Education Through Music staff members and teachers are sharing stories of influential black artists, songs, and moments that have impacted their lives and classrooms, often in their own words.
This week, ETM music teacher Antoine Dolberry shares the history and importance behind “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often called the Black National Anthem, written as a poem by James Weldon Johnson and set to music by his brother J. Rosamond Jonson. The hymn was written for the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday in 1905. As Antoine puts it, “the first verse opens with a command to optimism, praise, and freedom!”
Read Antoine’s reflection, and learn why he teaches the anthem to his students every year.
Why I Teach
By Antoine Dolberry
“Lift Every Voice and Sing”, otherwise known as the Negro National Anthem, was first performed in 1900, at a segregated school in Jacksonville, Florida, by a group of 500 children celebrating the anniversary of the birth of President Lincoln.
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” was written at a crucial time in American history, when Jim Crow was replacing slavery, and African-Americans were searching for an identity of their own. Author and activist James Weldon Johnson wrote the words as a poem, which his brother John Rosamond Johnson then set to music. In 1905, Booker T. Washington endorsed it, and in 1919, it became the official song of the NAACP.
The reach of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” continues to expand around the world. When Beyoncé sang it at Coachella in 2019, she knew the majority of her audience didn’t know the history; however, she understood the feeling it gave them.
Today, I teach it to my scholars yearly, having learned it as a young music student. Not because of its rich musical melody, but because of the rich and powerful message it offers to Black and brown students around the world.
Prior to the pandemic, Antione’s students performed their rendition of the famous anthem.