MS. REBECCA SHEIR
We'll head 90 minutes east of Sheperherdstown now to Baltimore and a story about American identity. So here we, Fourth of July weekend, and all over the place, you're seeing flags and hearing our national anthem. These American emblems have served as inspiration for all sorts of artists and musicians through the years. But some interpretations of these beloved elements of American culture have been pretty controversial. Those interpretations and the reactions they've inspired are the focus of a new exhibit at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African-American History and Culture. Lauren Landau takes us there.
MS. LAUREN LANDAU
The exhibit is called "For Whom It Stands," and includes artifacts, photographs, music, art and documents dating from the Revolutionary War to the present. Most of the pre-World War 2 era objects are military related. And reflect more traditional uses of the flag. But Associate Curator Asantewa Boakyewa says after that period, things get a bit more creative.
MS. ASANTEWA BOAKYEWA
So, whether they are painting it upside down or creating sculptures that are abstract or made out of unique materials, or printing it on beer cans and posters, how diverse this very iconic and familiar object is. But how it's used as a device to express our own personal affirmations and aspirations.
In the 1950s, American artist Jasper Johns created his first series of flag paintings, using non-traditional materials such as newsprint and wax.
He, sort of, if you will, took apart a traditional object and recreated it in an unusual, non-traditional way.
She says if you look at it against the backdrop of McCarthy era politics, when holding alternative viewpoints landed many Americans, including numerous artists in the hot seat, this was a pretty provocative move.
It starts to make sense, why you see why, oh this is important. It wasn't just an everyday occurrence where people are like, tell us the flag outright. We want to hear your ideas about what the flag means to you. No, this is what the flag means to you, and the American public is expected to follow that.
Asantewa says that with more than 100 objects in the show, it's hard to pick a favorite. But with some prodding, she draws my attention to a piece by Helen Zughaib.
What it is is an Islamic prayer rug fashioned with the colors and the stripes of the United States flag. So, she's dealing with her sort of hyphenated identity as an Arab and as an American. You think about the power of art and the power of visual objects to start very difficult conversations.
Very difficult conversations are also par for the course when you're talking about some of the more controversial interpretations of the national anthem. Baltimore based beatboxer and musician Shodekeh curated the musical portion of the exhibit.
First half of my mission was to uncover some of the more, I guess you could refer to them as, culturally alternative perspectives regarding the musical flag of the national anthem, "The Star Spangled Banner."
He settled on 15 different renditions of the song. And says he focused on examples that stemmed from the experiences of minority groups such as African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans.
I wanted to see if I could find other songs that implemented some elements of protest, perhaps, or implemented some elements of personalizing the American flag. Not just for themselves, but for a larger public and for the listeners of these various renditions. I'll start here with entry number five. This is Jimi Hendrix's performance of The Star Spangled Banner in 1969 at Woodstock. At the time, very controversial.
Another controversial performance came from the lips of jazz vocalist Rene Marie, in 2008, just before Denver's State of the City address, City Council President Michael Hancock welcomed Marie to the stage to sing the national anthem. Which she did, but not with the words people expected.
Talk about ripping the anthem to pieces and putting it back together again. She took the lyrics of "Lift Up Your Voice and Sing," the African American cultural national anthem, and sang it to the tune of The Star Spangled Banner. Realistically, I think there is a larger white default culture that has absorbed the way that the song is shared and observed, but within that relationship, there are these other indispensable stories and takes on it. So, let's listen to what they have to say and let's break up this larger default culture of the anthem and the flag as much as possible.
In September, Shodekeh will demonstrate his vocal percussion skills by performing a new interpretation of the national anthem alongside improvisational hip hop group Baltimore Boom Bap Society and Classical Revolution, a collection of classically trained musicians. I'm Lauren Landau.
"For Whom It Stands" will be on view through February at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore's inner harbor.
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