Q & A
A Statement from Rene Marie – July 2008
Last month, I was contacted by a staff member of the Mayor’s office and was asked to sing the “Star Spangled Banner”. I knew if I sang at this event I would not be singing the standard version of this song, but would be singing my own version of it. After thinking about it for a day I called back and said I would like to sing for the event. On the day of the event I arrived and followed through on my intention to sing my version of the national anthem. When I finished singing, I returned to my place on the podium with the other participants and listened to the Mayor’s speech. When it ended, I left the podium and went home. I didn’t get that much feedback, but the responses I did get were all positive.
WERE YOU PAID FOR THIS?
No, I was not paid.
WHY DID YOU AGREE TO SING THE NATIONAL ANTHEM AND THEN NOT SING IT? WASN’T THIS DISHONEST?
I can see how it may be perceived that way. But I looked at it a different way: I am an artist. As such, if I wait until I am asked to express myself artistically, or if I must ask permission to do it, it would never get done. I wanted to tell them what I was going to do, but I couldn’t because I knew the answer would be ‘no’. I knew that, even if I asked to do my version of the national anthem, the answer would be ‘no’. There are times, artistically speaking, when an event chooses us, a door is opened to heal ourselves and others through our artistic expression, so to speak. When that happens we can trust our instincts and walk through it or we can shrink back in fear. It is my firm belief that artists have the responsibility and privilege to walk through that door every single time it opens to them.
WHY DIDN’T YOU SIMPLY TURN DOWN THE REQUEST TO SING THE NATIONAL ANTHEM?
I viewed the invitation to be a door opened to me to sing this version of the Star Spangled Banner; that others needed to hear it as much as I needed to sing it. Also, I had sung the song successfully right in the city of Denver only two months earlier and received much positive response. The organizers of that event did not know I was going to sing that song, either.
WASN’T THIS JUST A SELF-CENTERED AND CALCULATED PUBLICITY STUNT?
While it’s true many artists take advantage of today’s mammoth-sized media machine, this is not the case for those artists – writers, painters, choreographers, dancers, poets, composers, musicians, singers, filmmakers, etc. – who risk so much when they courageously walk through that unpopular door, or make doors of their own through which to walk and speak out through their art about injustice, poverty, corruption, greed, nepotism, and other unpopular and uncomfortable topics. Rather than being a stunt, the ensuing publicity, many times, is an unfortunate and distracting side-effect an artist has to endure. Actually, I didn’t expect that singing the song would garner this kind of negative attention. After all, I had sung the exact same song in May at the Colorado Prayer Luncheon, an event attended by members of the Executive, Judicial and Legislative branches of the state government earlier this year and, to my knowledge there wasn’t even a ripple of complaint. In fact, I got nothing but positive remarks about my song. This played a large part in my decision-making process to sing the song again at the State of the City address.
BUT THIS WASN’T ABOUT ‘YOU AND YOUR ART’. THIS WAS AN EVENT FOR THE MAYOR AND THE DENVER COMMUNITY.
This is true. It was not specifically about me and my artistic expression. I agree also, that it was for the Denver community. If I may say so, I consider myself a part of that community and, as an artist in that community, wherever I am, there my art is also. It isn’t something I can set aside or ignore depending on the occasion or what the reaction might or might not be. The two cannot be separated.
WHAT KIND OF POLITICAL STATEMENT WERE YOU TRYING TO MAKE?
I wasn’t making a political statement. I am apolitical, neutral when it comes to politics. I choose to address social issues through my art, not politics. I believe personal action is the key to social change. It is personal action that preceded every major advancement in this country, including the very establishment of the United States of America itself and its constitution. This is the aspect of being American that gives me the greatest sense of pride. Though others may impute a political or racial motive, for me, the issue can only be addressed from an artistic standpoint because that is the nature of its inception.
WEREN’T YOU PROMOTING RACISM BY SINGING THE ‘BLACK NATIONAL ANTHEM’ INSTEAD OF THE NATIONAL ANTHEM?
Nothing could be further from the truth. The song you are referring to as the Black National Anthem is correctly titled “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”. As a kid living in a segregated, southern town I grew up singing both songs. It seemed apparent to me early on that the sentiments expressed in each song are diametrically opposed to one another. The “Star Spangled Banner” spoke of ‘proudly hailing the flag’ in ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave’. I could see how some folks could have pride for the flag and feel free and brave and at home. But that sentiment was not a reality for black folks living in a town with Jim Crow laws, where the flag often hung from buildings they could not enter. It was not a reality for black soldiers (among them my own father) returning home and being denied their civil rights after having fought for the nation the flag represented. On the other hand, nobody but black folks found comfort in “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”, even though the lyrics focused on ‘ev’ry voice singing’ the ‘harmony of liberty’. Why was that? I loved singing both songs but each one seemed to have their own aspects of exclusivity and segregation, not by design, no. But still the separation was palpable. Could I find a way to marry the two ideologies musically by melding the two songs into one harmonic thought? That would be a helluva thing. The fear of alienating both blacks and whites by blending these two sacrosanct songs was very real. But through the door I went, not heedless of the offense that might be taken. And to complete the effort, I re-wrote the melodies to “America the Beautiful” and “My Country Tis of Thee” but retained the lyrics. I combined all these songs in a suite and named it “Voice of My Beautiful Country”. The song I sang at the Mayor’s State of the City speech is the third movement of that suite. It is a love song to my country.
YOUR ‘ARTISTIC EXPRESSION’ OFFENDED MANY PEOPLE. WHY DON’T YOU APOLOGIZE?
No one is more surprised than I am by the furor, though I believe much of it to be media-fueled. The last thing I wanted to do was cause trouble for the Mayor and so I have apologized directly to him for any and all distress that may have resulted from my blending The “Star Spangled Banner” with “Lift Ev’ry voice and Sing”. As for offending others with my music, I cannot apologize for that. It goes with the risky territory of being an artist.
SOME PEOPLE BELIEVE YOUR ACTIONS HAVE JEOPARDIZED OBAMA’S BID FOR THE PRESIDENCY.
Believing that would be a serious over–estimation of my influence as an artist. Again, let me reiterate that, being apolitical, I do not support or favor any candidate. I am neutral when it comes to politics. Rather, I believe personal action is the key to social change. It is personal action that preceded every major advancement in this country, including the very establishment of the United States of America itself. This is the aspect of being American that gives me the greatest sense of pride.
WHAT DID YOU ACCOMPLISH WITH ALL THIS?
Sometimes, the simple act of ‘doing’ is accomplishment enough.
1. THE RUMOR IS YOU’RE NO LONGER TOURING. WHY DID YOU COME OFF THE ROAD? WILL YOU EVER GO BACK? HAVE YOU GIVEN UP SINGING ALTOGETHER?
give up singing?!?
i’ve been singing all my life; how can i keep from singing?? let’s put it like this – i’ll be singing as long as i have breath, whether i’m on a record label or not. the universe always presents us with many choices. right now, i’m choosing stillness and tranquility, doing only local gigs right here in denver – no more than 1 per month at the most. the decision to come off the road was an easy one to make, and incredibly difficult to follow through on. what can i say? i miss my guys – rodney and quentin and kevin. we have an interaction that is unlike any other i’ve had, musically speaking. and we all get along just so damn great. now THAT is rare. so i miss those times and i miss those guys like crazy. i miss making music with them. but when i get up in the morning and water my flowers, go down the hall to my studio to compose and write, go for walks, eat right, make time for exercise all while spending my days and nights with the man i absolutely adore, i know without a doubt that i did the right thing.
will i ever go back on the road? well, picasso is reported to have said that it’s good for an artist to have an idea of what they want to do, but it should be a vague idea. in keeping with that thought, i’m not the kind of person that plans things too much in advance, mainly because it’s pointless. besides which, to have the illusion that things are firmly planned is like having tunnel vision – it eliminates the possibility for unexpectedly delightful things to come into one’s life. i know that i still have songs to sing and that i don’t want to sing them in a vacuum. where that takes me, we’ll just have to wait and see…
2. WHAT IS YOUR ONE-WOMAN SHOW ALL ABOUT?
y’know, i used to talk about that a lot. but i found that the more i talked about it, the fuzzier it became, as though its energy was being dispersed with each discussion. based on its name, Slut Energy Theory, people naturally started forming their own opinions and asking me questions about it that i hadn’t yet asked myself – or perhaps wasn’t ready to answer. thus, i found, in the process of trying to answer the questions, i was losing focus of its original premise. for now, it is enough to say that the show sprang from a discussion i was having with a dear, dear friend about the energy and creativity women expend during sexual activity, why so many of us choose that route and how that energy and creativity can be re-directed.
3. HOW OLD ARE YOU AND WHERE ARE YOU FROM?
i love satchel paige’s quote: “how old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?” for me, that age would be 12. but if you want to know when i was BORN, well that was november 7, 1955 in warrenton, virginia. that’s right. scorpio and damn proud of it. plus, i’m GRITS – a Girl Raised In The South. i lived in warrenton for 9 years, then moved with my mom to roanoke, virginia. i lived in the south all mylife until i moved to colorado in 2005. as of this writing, aug 2007, i’m still here.
4. WHY DID YOU LEAVE JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES? WILL YOU EVER GO BACK?
i left jehovah’s witnesses because i became increasingly unable to reconcile my viewpoint of the world and the people in it with the teachings espoused by that organization. the fear of rejection and disfellowshipping was gradually surpassed by the knowledge that i was not being true to myself. in other words, i felt like a hypocrite – a characteristic i’ve always detested. i had to be true to myself. it has not been something i’ve regretted and therefore is difficult for me to see myself returning to that religion.
5. WHY DID YOU LEAVE MAXJAZZ? ARE YOU LOOKING FOR ANOTHER LABEL?
being on the maxjazz label was a huge learning experience for me. rather than a learning curve, was a learning vertical line! after leaving my was-band and then my religion, leaving maxjazz was my third big exit in the “learning as you leave” department. having fulfilled my contractual obligations to them with the release of “serene renegade”, i wanted to experience the freedom of deciding how to present myself onstage, what to say during interviews, what to record, who to record with, where to record, what the CD would look like, etc. i did not have complete autonomy while on the label.
am i looking for another label? i wasn’t looking to be on a label when i signed on to maxjazz, soi’m content to just let things unfold as the universe would have it unfold.
6. WHO’S BOOKING YOU NOW? OR ARE YOU BOOKING YOURSELF….?
in keeping with my decision to come off the road, i also ended my contract with Brad Simon Organization in 2006. ok, wait…let me just say something right here: I BELIEVE IN RISK – it sweetens everything. for some reason, when my life feels too predictable, too safe, when i can look at a calendar and know whati’ll be doing a year, two years down the line, that, to me, is too damn predictable to be called ‘living’. the bounty of life forbids predictability. what else do we have except our gut to tell us when it is timeto move? i am, therefore i move…
uh…what was the question again? oh, yeah! yes, i am booking myself.
7. DO YOU ACCEPT MUSICAL OR LYRICAL SUBMISSIONS FOR FUTURE RECORDINGS?
no, i do not. i have so much material that has yet to be even rehearsed that it’s sad, it’s just sad. and some of it, i think, is pretty good. so, much as i admire fellow composers and lyricists, and appreciate their faith in my ability to do justice to their compositions, i just cannot bring myself to even listen to someone else’s submissions at this point in my life.
8. I WAS UNCOMFORTABLE IN CONFRONTING “WEEKEND”. WHAT POINT ARE YOU TRYING TO MAKE WITH IT? IS THERE SOME UNDERLYING NEED YOU HAVE TO EXPRESS? CAN YOU PROVIDE SOME CONTEXT FOR THE SUBJECT? DID THE EVENTS IN THE SONG HAPPEN TO YOU PERSONALLY OR SOMEONE YOU KNOW? DO YOU CONSIDER THIS SONG TO BE PRO-RAPIST OR ARE YOU ESPOUSING THE ‘RAPIST-AS-LIBERATOR’ VIEWPOINT?
the events in “weekend” did not happen to me specifically, but they sprang from an informed life. for instance, though i have been pushed around and ‘manhandled’, i have never suffered any physical beatings at the hand of anyone. however, i have known many women who have, not the least of which was my own mother. (a composition of mine, “blood on the wall” will be on our next CD and address that). on the other hand, i know what it means to be verbally and emotionally abused, to feel trapped in a marriage and the ensuing powerlessness it engenders. i know the sad, domestic comedy of expressing anger by slamming pots and pans in the kitchen while preparing your abuser’s favorite meal. i have experienced trying to drink enough to dull the emotional pain that a life like this causes…
with “weekend” i am not trying to make a point. i am raising questions – “what constitutes abuse and force and freedom of choice?” and therein lies the dilemma: i am a composer, a lyricist. i have a question about something, but i don’t have the answer. in the process of not seeking an answer but living the question, an idea forms in my brain and, shortly thereafter, the lyrics to a song are born. but wait! what’s this? this one’s not turning out nice and neat like “don’t look at me like that” or “i like you”. this one has a scenario that i cannot define. it…it continues coming out of me, unbidden. it is a story whose ending i do not know. should i still write it? what if it offends some fans? some friends? some family members? should i still sing it?
a question that’s often asked about this song is “so, did he rape her or not?” this question surprises me because i truly believe the listener already knows the answer. the listener’s own viewpoint of what they believe they have just heard gives the answer. and i’m not trying to be cagey here. i simply do not know the answer. and i would never be so presumptuous as to make up an answer just to ease someone else’s discomfort. not knowing the answer, however, hasn’t stopped me from writing about it.
9. IN VIEW OF THE SUBJECT MATTER OF “WEEKEND”, WOULD YOU CONSIDER PUTTING A LINK ON YOUR WEBSITE FOR VICTIMS OF SEXUAL ABUSE?
no, i would not. here’s why: on my second CD with maxjazz, “vertigo”, i decided to pair “dixie” with “strange fruit”. this was a tough decision for me, inasmuch as, being from the south, the word ‘nigger’, the rebel flag, and the song ‘dixie’ dredge up for many black folks some seriously difficult emotions. i knew that there would be friends and relatives who would detest hearing ‘dixie’ no matter how it was sung or by whom. but i also felt that if they could get past that distaste for ‘dixie’ until we started into ‘strange fruit’, their emotional equilibrium would be restored. for many, hearing those two songs juxtaposed was too much. it brought back memories of relatives killed by lynchings, one person attending a lynching with his grandfather, another’s family being sent to a japanese internment camp, sexual abuse – the list goes on. the tears flowed, the anger swelled and the impact was intense. the song did what it was supposed to do – move the listener. the intention behind this song – indeed, behind all my songs – is to touch the listener’s emotional G-spot. its intent is to make you laugh, cry, squirm uncomfortably in your chair, think of a loved one, get angry, hang your head in shame, raise your hand in protest, apologize as soon as you get a chance, decide to leave, write that letter, place that phone call, take that leap, make that change, turn that corner. if they inspire conversation, wonderful! it’s my offering. what you do with it – or not – is up to you.
10. WHAT ARE YOUR MAIN SOURCES OF INSPIRATION?
that’s always a difficult question to answer because i’m inspired to compose by so many different things – love, frustration, family, hypocrisy, birds, artists, the moon, shoes… but harry belafonte inspires me not to take myself too seriously. ella fitzgerald inspires me to sing with joy; sarah vaughan inspires me to consider all the possibilities in every melody; nina simone and oscar brown, jr. inspire me to write about it and sing about it whether it’s popular or not; henry threadgill inspires me to just let go and my mother inspires me to fall down 6 times, get up 7.
11. WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE SINGER (fill in the blank)?
it doesn’t matter what i think.
12. I WOULD LIKE TO PURCHASE YOUR CDS BUT DON’T USE CREDIT CARDS. WHAT SHOULD I DO?
send an email to email@example.com describing what you would like to purchase. in return, you’ll receive an email showing the total due which will include shipping costs. at that point you may send a money order – NOT CASH AND NOT A CHECK – to
PO Box 9
Broomfield, CO 80038
once we receive the money order, your purchase will be shipped within 24 hours.
13. YOUR LAST TWO CDS ARE MOSTLY ORIGINALS – HAVE YOU STOPPED SINGING STANDARDS ALTOGETHER?
yeah, pretty much. standards that were written 50, 60, 70 years ago – mostly by white or jewish men – just don’t resonate with me, y’know? although there are still some that i really get a kick out of singing – especially ballads.
14. I ORDERED A CD FROM YOUR WEBSITE AND RECEIVED A HANDWRITTEN NOTE IN IT. ALSO, MY ADDRESS ON THE CD MAILER WAS HANDWRITTEN. DID YOU REALLY WRITE THESE YOURSELF?
yes, i did. every line and every word.
15. I HAVE ALL YOUR CDS, BUT ON “EXPERIMENT IN TRUTH”, THE ‘COLOR’ OF YOUR VOICE SEEMS DIFFERENT THAN WITH PREVIOUS ONES. CAN YOU EXPLAIN?
well, i’ll try. imagine the different people to whom you’ve made love and how they all have touched you in basically the same places. but then there was this one person who could somehow elicit a response from you that no one else could, a response that you didn’t even know you were capable of. it’s like that with the musicians i sing with. i’ve used the same basic combination of instruments – piano, bass, drums – for all my recordings and gigs. but these guys – kevin bales (p), rodney jordan (b), quentin baxter (d) – they bring out something in me that no other group of musicians has ever done. this is the ‘color’ you’re hearing on that CD. and when we’re playing before an audience it’s even mo’ bettah because now you, the audience, feel this thing happening on stage and you feed us with your energy. ah…it’s magic! magic, i tell you!! now. let me just say this (and i will capitalize the following for emphasis): IF YOU ARE A SINGER (or musician of any other kind) AND YOU ARE NOT EXPERIENCING THIS KIND OF ECSTASY, DO NOT RESIGN YOURSELF TO WHAT YOU HAVE. DO NOT SETTLE, KEEP LOOKING. KEEP THE MUSICIANS WHO TOUCH YOUR SOUL AND REPLACE THE OTHERS UNTIL YOU GET WHAT YOU NEED. BECAUSE UNTIL YOU DO, YOU WILL NEVER KNOW HOW YOU COULD SOUND, HOW YOU REALLY SOUND.
is this difficult? it can be, but it doesn’t have to be. i’ve changed musicians many times and still remained friends with them because i know that it’s not personal. the more i did it, the easier it became the next time. I REPEAT: DO NOT SETTLE, NO MATTER WHAT AND NO MATTER WHO. YOU OWE IT TO YOURSELF TO KNOW WHO YOU ARE AND BE THAT, MUSICALLY SPEAKING. ANYTHING LESS THAN THAT IS A MISREPRESENTATION OF WHO YOU ARE. AND YOU KNOW IT.
16. YOUR FIRST CD, “RENAISSANCE”, RELEASED UNDER YOUR MARRIED NAME, RENE CROAN, IS NOW OUT OF PRINT. WILL YOU EVER RE-RELEASE IT?
yes, it has been my goal to re-release “renaissance” for several years now. we’re getting closer. when we do, you – and only you – will be the first to know. shhhh. don’t tell anybody else.
Color photos © Ernie Gregory, black and white photos © Ned Radinsky