More than two days after it occurred, a performance by the most famous pop-musician on the planet is still reverberating across the country. One of the most significant talents of her generation, Beyonce needs no introduction. And by all accounts, her long-anticipated performance, headlining this year’s iteration of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival on Saturday night was one for the record books.
The New York Times called it “A gobsmacking marvel of choreography and musical direction,” while Chance The Rapper (who also performed during the fest) tweeted, “I just saw the greatest show to ever happen,” and tagged the 36-year old, Queen B, in the tweet.
It also included a performance of a song deeply rooted in the cultural heritage of Northeast Florida. Among the litany of well-known hits during Beyonce’s performance—a raucous, forceful, visually lush, politically explosive two-plus hour production—one deep cut, a rendition of a tune written right here in Jacksonville, Florida, has everyone talking.
The song, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which the Beyonce performed as a transition to her popular tune, “Formation,” was written by author, educator, lawyer, and civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson, who was born in Jacksonville and was, at the time, the principal at Stanton College Preparatory School. Johnson penned the song, initially, as a poem for a celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday in 1899. After Johnson’s brother, James Rosamond, put his words to music, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” was performed by a chorus of 500 African American school children in Washington D.C. and the song quickly became a rallying cry for black communities in the south. Generations since have embraced the song as the “black national anthem.”
Social Media erupted in celebration of the turn-of-the-century hymn, as Beyonce’s performance resonated with African Americans far and wide, many of whom had grown up knowing the song by heart.
— Reese Waters (@reesewaters) April 16, 2018
Here in Jacksonville, The Ritz Theatre and Museum’s permanent collection, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” takes its name from the original title for Johnson’s song, and features a popular, interactive exhibit in which the Johnson brothers tell the story of how they came to write the song. The Ritz sits on the edge of Downtown Jax, where the once bustling La Villa neighborhood was, during the height of its activity in the 1920s-1960s, called “The Harlem of the South.”
Due largely to Beyonce’s reach, by Monday morning #lifteveryvoice was a trending hashtag (right up there with #baychella), earning the Johnson-penned song a new audience nearly 120 years after it was written.