For the last two years and three months, players in the NFL have taken a knee during the national anthem. Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is credited with sparking the protests, but players from a number of teams joined in, particularly during the 2016–2017 season. Although coverage of the protests has slipped from the news, players like Panthers’ safety Eric Reid, one of Kaepernick’s 49ers teammates, have continued using the two-minute musical platform to raise awareness of violent racial injustices. The drama surrounding these events reached a peak in 2017 when President Donald Trump weighed in on the controversy, sparking team actions across the NFL, including kneeling by the owners of the Dallas Cowboys and Jacksonville Jaguars.
Much of the coverage surrounding the national anthem protests concerns several intertwined opinions. The first is that what Kaepernick and others did and continue to do is a First Amendment right, protected under free speech. The converse is that this action is disrespectful, particularly towards veterans who fight for the rights and privileges that we enjoy every day, including the First Amendment. The second line of argument concerns the nature of work and what employers can demand of their employees. In this contention, football players are on the clock and must do what employers tell them to do, which might include standing for the anthem. Moreover, those who argue this point often revert to the opinion that the ceremonial performance of the national anthem is no place for politics. The counter-argument is that mandating that players stand for the national anthem is forcing employees (i.e. players) to participate in politics already and that players, as employees, cannot and should not be compelled to participate in employer-arraigned political spectacle.
As an interested observer of this debate, and a scholar of music and politics, I was disappointed in the fact that these ongoing events rarely contain an argument about music. Any discussion about what a national anthem is, as a form of modern music that tracks the development of the contemporary nation-state, is conspicuously absent. Informed perspective on the national anthem sheds meaningful light on the appropriateness or tastelessness of these divisive political displays.
National anthems in the West are rooted in the practices of European monarchy, initially as musical tribute, invocation and accoutrement to royalty. These songs reinforced divine power, prestige and presentation. Eventually, the purposes of these songs morphed as power devolved and was ceded to representative citizen bodies rather than hereditary rulers. The songs that sounded for royalty came to represent the peoples of a nation, the theoretical seat of power and justice.
The history of the national anthem as a form tells us two things. First, a national anthem is always connected to the presentation and practice of state power, therefore its use is always political, whether one stands at attention or takes a knee in protest. Inside the sonic and ceremonial confines of the anthem, there is no apolitical space. Second, the anthem represents the entirety of a people equally, particularly in the case of the United States, a Western power whose history contains no monarchy or divine rule. In a democracy, no individual or group of individuals are more representative of the nation than any other. In the case of U.S. democracy, the military cannot be more American than any other citizen, or else we truly lose what has been fought for: representative democracy itself.
This opinion does is not meant to sway any feelings on what Kaepernick did, or what Marshawn Lynch and Eric Reid continue to do before work on Sundays. But the injection of musical history into this debate is meant to steer it out of the partisan and racial quagmire that has framed these Black athletes demanding justice. By first asking what the meaning and history of the national anthem is, we can then ask what the purpose of protest is and assess its appropriateness.