Unprecedented: The Musical Making of a President

Black History Month

Volume CIX, No. 2February, 2009

Elise Bryant
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Pete Seeger (center) with his grandson Tao at left and Bruce Springsteen at right, singing “This Land is Your Land” at the celebration for Barack Obama two days before his inauguration, at the Lincoln Memorial.

When James Weldon Johnson wrote “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the song often referred to as the black national anthem, I am sure he could not imagine that some day it would be sung at the gates of the White House.

On Jan. 21, the day after the inauguration of President Barack Obama, a group of musicians and singers gathered in front of the White House to serenade the Obama family with patriotic songs, concluding the impromptu concert with Johnson’s song.

It was a humble ending for the musical tsunami that continues to “Barack” the house from Accra to Zanesville.

The people of the African diaspora (and everybody else who had a digital camera and access to YouTube) lifted their voices and sang — in rock, reggae, house, hip-hop and soul.

Did any living or dead U.S. president ever inspire the magnitude of creativity generated by Obama’s campaign and election?

Did George Washington inspire 800 songs in one year?

Did the slaves on Thomas Jefferson’s plantation lift their voices to sing him into the White House?

The election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States is the dream of the ones who stood in the fields, whose unpaid labor built the White House, and who lifted their voices in the bowels of the slave ships and sang, “Oh, freedom. Oh-oh, freedom. Oh, freedom over me.”

You can hear the voice of the ancestors in the cadences of President Obama’s speech.

The hip-hop artist heard it and put it to music in the YouTube video “Yes We Can.”

I will never forget sitting in my office and crying over a music video.

The images of Barack Obama and the words “yes we can” echoed through my genes back to the ancestors: Phyllis Wheatly — yes we can; Fredrick Douglas — yes we can; Shirley Chilsolm — yes we can; Fannie Lou Hamer — yes we can, and Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. whose dream that some day we would be judged not by the color of our skin, but by the content of our character — oh, yes we can!

We can “lift every voice and sing, ‘til earth and heaven ring, ring with the harmonies of liberty.

Let our rejoicing rise, high as the listening sky.

Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.”

Elise Bryant is a professor at the National Labor College in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at

The Obamas were celebrated with a concert at the Lincoln Memorial on Jan. 18, two days before the inauguration. Clockwise, from below the Obamas: Mary J. Blige, Bruce Springsteen with gospel choir, and Beyonce.
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