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Quartz Obsession — National anthems — Card 1
National anthems are supposed to be rousing ballads of unity, sung in schools, sporting events, children’s beauty pageants, and movie theaters. But ever since the rise of the nation-state, they’ve also been contentious symbols of national identity.
In recent years, we’ve seen how powerfully symbolic a national anthem can be, as US football players knelt during “The Star-Spangled Banner” in 2016 to protest police violence against minorities. On the other side of the world, the fight over China’s national anthem has become a flashpoint in relations between Hong Kong and Beijing.
Stand up—or kneel, if you like—and let’s take a listen.
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Quartz Obsession — National anthems — Card 2
4: The number of national anthems without official lyrics. Spain has argued over which words to add for years.
4:35: The amount of time it took Aretha Franklin to sing the US national anthem before a football game in Detroit in 2016—double the average length, and possibly the longest rendition ever.
6,000: The number of slaves rescued by the British in the battles that inspired “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Composer and slaveholder Francis Scott Key included a lyric warning they would find “no refuge” in the “land of the free.”
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Quartz Obsession — National anthems — Card 3
Never has the importance of a national anthem as a symbol been more evident than in the way a fight over China’s is playing out in Hong Kong.
In 2017, China enacted a law against disrespecting its anthem, “March of the Volunteers.” Performing “distorted” or “mocking” renditions became a crime punishable by up to three years in detention. The legislation required anyone at a public event to stand as the anthem was played and banned relegating it to background music or featuring it in ads, funerals, and other “inappropriate occasions.”
Beijing required Hong Kong to pass its own version of the law—no doubt hoping to stamp out the booing of the Chinese anthem at sports games that’s become common as mounting concerns about China’s interference with the territory’s legal autonomy have grown. Those fears sparked a mass protest movement in 2019, over a controversial extradition law—and the birth of a song that for many in Hong Kong has become their true anthem.
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Quartz Obsession — National anthems — Card 4
“Glory to Hong Kong,” a rousing orchestral piece created by protesters, has been sung in chorus in malls, and played on the streets on the harmonica, sending Beijing a clear message. Hong Kong-based writer Vivienne Chow wrote last year: “When people identify with a song, you don’t need a law to make them sing and love it.”
Suggestions for the lyrics were crowdsourced on LIHKG—Hong Kong’s Reddit equivalent—and within weeks, the finished result had spread to the lips of thousands of protesters.
“Music is a tool for unity,” the composer of “Glory to Hong Kong,” who wants to be known only as Thomas, told Time. “I really felt like we needed a song to unite us and boost our morale.”
Nevertheless, Hong Kong lawmakers began moving ahead in late May of 2020 with the anthem law, and police shut down an effort by protesters to stop them. It could be voted on as soon as June 4,
On June 4, 2020—the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests (and the day after this email was originally sent)—Hong Kong’s legislature voted to make it illegal to mock China’s anthem.
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Quartz Obsession — National anthems — Card 5
In August 2016, then-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled in protest of police violence against minorities during “The Star-Spangled Banner,” inspiring a flood of US football players to do the same, and prompting a heated debate about free speech and national unity. US president Donald Trump reignited the controversy in 2017 when he denounced Kaepernick in inflammatory terms.
The symbolic protest quickly spread to other arenas, with players kneeling at soccer, baseball, ice hockey, college volleyball tournaments, and more.
In 2018, the Wall Street Journal, together with Clemson University, detailed how Russian trolls fanned the controversy in the wake of Trump’s comments by sending thousands of tweets criticizing the protests. “They clearly are using it as a wedge issue,” said Clemson communication professor Darren Linvill, who helped track the tweets. “It’s like we handed them a loaded gun.”
With the current unrest surrounding the death of George Floyd at the hands of a policeman in Minneapolis, Kaepernick is being lauded for his actions four years ago. “Some truths make people uncomfortable until we hear them enough, and that is really all Kaepernick did,” Michael Rosenberg writes for Sports Illustrated. “He told the truth and made people uncomfortable.”
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Quartz Obsession — National anthems — Card 7
Crafting a new national anthem is a pressure-filled job: You need to communicate a national identity, stir up pride, and make it catchy enough that people sing it repeatedly without rolling their eyes. Maybe that’s why the practice has stirred up accusations of plagiarism.
It took seven years for Germany to decide what its new national anthem would be after the end of World War II.
“South Sudan Oyee!”—the national anthem of the world’s youngest nation—was selected by a committee and its melody was chosen in a “Sudanese-style X Factor talent show.”
When South Africa was trying to craft its image as a democratic nation after apartheid, it looked to one of the continent’s oldest freedom songs, “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika.” The revision included Afrikaans, the lingua franca of the apartheid regime.
The composer of Bosnia’s national anthem was a Serb who entered his song on a whim, hoping the winnings would help pay off a hotel bill. His was picked and the resulting controversy nearly ruined his life.
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Quartz Obsession — National anthems — Card 8
Alex Marshall is the author of Republic or Death! Travels in Search of National Anthems, a fascinating book about the politics of national anthems. He spoke with the Atlantic about traveling the world to discover the history of these songs, and why he hates “God Save the Queen.”
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Quartz Obsession — National anthems — Card 10
The oldest known national anthem melody belongs to the Netherlands. “Wilhelmus” was composed around the 1570s and became the Dutch national anthem in 1932. Japan, which has one of the world’s shortest national anthems, holds the honor for oldest lyrics—“Kimigayo” is based on a poem dating back to the 10th century.