Beyoncé Pays Tribute To Song By Jacksonville's James Weldon Johnson

Apr 17, 2018

Beyoncé brought a significant piece of Jacksonville’s history to a national stage over the weekend at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, California.

During her performance, Beyoncé sang a variety of songs to the crowd including, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which was penned by Jacksonville-born James Weldon Johnson.

Before the 118-year-old song was belted out by one of the biggest stars in the world to a crowd of thousands it was first sung by a 500-member Jacksonville children's choir on February 12, 1900. The song rose from its first Jacksonville crowd to fill the halls of black churches and colleges across the country.

The song began in Jacksonville where James Weldon Johnson was working as a school principal of Stanton School and an author in 1899. Johnson was asked to address a crowd that was going to gather in Jacksonville in celebration of President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. He penned the poem, which was set to music by his younger brother John Rosamond Johnson.

The song’s lyrics were passed along from generation to generation through Sunday school books, churches, and choirs at historically black colleges and universities. The song became so powerful in the African-American community that it has been labeled the “Black National Anthem” and was adopted by the NAACP in the 1920’s as its official song.

During Johnson’s life he served as a principal, poet, novelist, songwriter, lawyer, a United States consul in Venezuela, and a member of the NAACP. In 1894 Johnson was admitted to the Florida Bar.

Beyoncé paid homage to the song and sang a few of its lines in front of the mostly white audience at Coachella. The 90 second rendition was a moment that stood out.

Over the weekend Beyoncé made history at Coachella as the first black women to ever headline the festival.

She spent two hours Saturday performing what can be explained as a celebration of black culture - she had black backup dancers, a black step team, drumlines, she performed historically black songs, and two days after the performance she announced she was donating 100,000 dollars to four historically black colleges, including $25,000 to Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach.

Gabrielle Garay can be reached at newsteam@wjct.org, 904-358-6317, or on Twitter at @GabbyAGaray

Photo used under Creative Commons license.

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