Isn’t it time to think about a new black national anthem? I love “Lift Ev’ry Voice,” it’s a moving song, but it was written in 1900 and chosen by the NAACP to be the Negro National Anthem in 1919, and there may be another song that expresses who we are now a little more sharply.
National anthems are special songs not meant to be played at parties. They’re solemn, perhaps epic, and they speak to the character and soul of the nation. But shouldn’t the black national anthem be something with a little more flavor and soul? Something you could maybe slip into a party? To us, it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing, and I think there’s a song that can combine the solemnity of an anthem with the soulfulness of the party space. Of course it has to be something deeply evocative of what it means to be black in America. A song that would unite people, make us proud, and tell a righteous story about who we are really are. That’s why I move that our new black national anthem should be Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man.”
He’s an iconic artist everyone loves: Gaye’s arguably the greatest black singer ever and a gentleman you can’t help but respect. “Trouble Man” is a song with a momentous feel to it. It’s operatic but in a jazzy way. It soars with sonic ambition. It’s a song that’s autobiographical, it’s about a character, perhaps Gaye, definitely a black everyman. It’s a song about black resilience in a world where problems are certain and thus captures what it means to be black: we are nothing if not resilient. And there’s a heroically resolute steadfastness to the character speaking in “Trouble Man.” He knows he can and must constantly hurdle trouble and he’s neither arrogant nor wearied by it. He’s a survivor. So are we.
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“Trouble Man” is a unique song in that it draws from many sonic aspects of blackness. It’s a blues song in spirit, but the blues isn’t about sadness, it’s about survival in spite of adversity and that sense is at the heart of this song. “Trouble Man” is also a classic soul song but in the middle of it there’s a rap. (There’s a handful of songs from the pre-hip hop era that give us moments that presage full-fledged rhyming and this is may be the best.)
“Trouble Man” starts deeply, with booming Africanesque drums that give way to Marvin’s incredible falsetto sliding in to encapsulate the story of the speaker and perhaps black America as a whole: “I, I, I come up hard, babe, but now I’m cool.” He’s not cool in terms of everything’s alright, it’s that he’s escaped whatever happened in coming up hard and righted the ship that is his life and now he knows how to really play the game: “I didn’t make it baby, playin’ by the rules.” Now he knows how to deal with life and its curveballs and not let it stop him: “I’m takin trouble, sugar, movin’ down the line.”
The song also captures the sense that our history remains a work in progress. We’re not “there,” we’re not at Dr. King’s mountaintop, but we’ve made gains, yet those gains are often washed away with the tides as if we’re always taking two steps forward and one back. The growth of the black middle class in the ’80s has been stripped away by a recession that hit blacks harder than anyone. The cool brilliance of Barack Obama is followed on the national stage by the small-minded buffoonery of Herman Cain. This sense of gains and losses that has marked our history is captured by the deep line, “I had to win, then start all over, and win again.”
Resilience amid persistent adversity is what marks black history and the black spirit and that’s what “Trouble Man” is all about. “I had to fight, to keep my dignity, with all my might.” “Trouble Man” speaks to who we are at a deep level and does so beautifully. It is, in many ways, the black experience boiled down into one amazing song. I move we consider electing “Trouble Man” as our new black national anthem. I will be putting it on the ballot at the next black meeting. I hope to have your support.