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‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’: The song's meaning and Super Bowl history

Plus, why it's become a staple at the Super Bowl.
Sheryl Lee Ralph
Entertainer Sheryl Lee Ralph performing "Lift Every Voice and Sing" at the 2023 Super Bowl.?Charlie Riedel / AP
/ Source: Today.com

"Lift Every Voice and Sing," often referred to as the Black national anthem, will be performed at the Super Bowl for the fourth time in a row, the latest legacy of the traditional song.

Andra Day will sing a rendition at the 2024 Super Bowl on Sunday, Feb. 11, following in the footsteps of Sheryl Lee Ralph, Mary Mary and Alicia Keys who each performed it before the big game in 2023, 2022 and 2021, respectively. (Beyoncé sang it during her 2018 Coachella performance, too).

"For me, it's worship," Day told Apple Music ahead of her performance, calling the song a hymn.

Read on for its origin story, and for how it ended up a staple performance of the Super Bowl.

What is the history behind 'Lift Every Voice And Sing'?

The song was originally written as a poem in 1899 by James Weldon Johnson, the NAACP's executive secretary for 10 years, per the NAACP.

The poem became a song when Johnson's brother John Rosamond Johnson composed an instrumental arrangement for it. The song was first performed in 1900 during a celebration of former president Abraham Lincoln. It was sung by a choir of 500 children at their segregated school in Florida, per the NAACP.

The song held different meanings depending on the tenor of the era. When the song was written at the turn of the century, "Johnson’s lyrics eloquently captured the solemn yet hopeful appeal for the liberty of Black Americans," as the NAACP puts it.

The song recognizes the Black freedom struggle of overcoming inequality for centuries with the lasting hope of a better future. It became a rallying cry against the realities of lynching, segregation and discrimination at the time, and later used during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

Why is 'Lift Every Voice And Sing' controversial?

The song, in recent years, has been cited as reinforcing or creating racial divides.

Supporters of the tune want it recognized as a national hymnal because it has a unifying effect, said U.S. Representative James Clyburn, a Democrat representing South Carolina, on X in 2021.

"To make ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ a national hymn, would be an act of bringing the country together," he wrote. "The gesture itself would be an act of healing. Everybody can identify with that song."

What is the history of 'Lift Every Voice And Sing' at the Super Bowl?

In response to the racial reckoning that played out during the summer of 2020, the NFL committed to playing the Black national anthem before season openers that season.

For the following Super Bowl in 2021, Alicia Keys performed a rendition of the hymnal. It has been part of the pregame show since then.

Notably, Ralph, in 2023, was the first to perform the song in the Super Bowl stadium. Keys, in 2021, performed the song in a pre-recorded broadcast. Mary Mary performed it outside the stadium in 2022.

Day, like Ralph, will perform within the stadium in Las Vegas.

What does 'Lift Every Voice And Sing' say? Read the lyrics

Lift ev’ry voice and sing,

‘Til earth and heaven ring,

Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;

Let our rejoicing rise

High as the list’ning skies,

Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.

Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,

Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;

Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,

Let us march on ’til victory is won.

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