"What is American music?": Ryan Coogler leads a fresh exploration of the national anthem

The "Black Panther" director and composer Kris Bowers ponder what a national anthem written today would sound like

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published July 2, 2023 8:00AM (EDT)

Ryan Coogler and Kris Bowers (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Ryan Coogler and Kris Bowers (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

America has a love-hate relationship with "The Star-Spangled Banner." Diehard patriots —conservatives, mostly, are in love with the national anthem. They stand when it's played, right hands pressed against their Republican hearts, thinking about their families in combination with how much they love their country.

Many Black Americans, especially those who hail from oppressed communities, don't care for the song. They don't get excited when it's played, shed a tear when it comes on, or feel any connection to a love of country. They know that the song was written by Francis Scott Key, a slave owner, who was ironically fighting for freedom.

A new Hulu documentary, "Anthem," backed by Ryan Coogler's production company, Proximity, and helmed by director Peter Nicks, asks the question what if America's national anthem actually sounded like America? I talked to Coogler and renowned film composer and pianist Kris Bowers ("Bridgerton," "When They See Us," "King Richard") on "Salon Talks" about why some Americans cling to the anthem. "Everybody has their individual reasons," Coogler said. "If we were to try to blanket it and simplify, I think that this country, like many others, but maybe more than a lot of others because it's so young, it is very tied to specific narratives."

In the film, available now on Hulu, Bowers along with Grammy Award-winning producer Dahi take a road trip through America to explore those narratives and connect with people along the way who represent all genres of music — from country to the blues — in an effort to rewrite the tainted song.

Watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Ryan Coogler and Kris Bower here or read our conversation below to learn more about "Anthem," what America could gain by  embracing a new national anthem and Coogler's take on the Hollywood writers' strike. 

The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Congratulations on "Anthem." What does the national anthem actually mean to you?

Kris Bowers: As far as the song, it's the beginning of a conversation. It's actually a conversation in song form. Each person getting their moment to speak and share their story and then finding a way to have some sort of common ground essentially. I think that as far as it being a starting point, this whole project's really about the process more than anything else. We could have made whatever song we were going to make, but the process was the most impactful thing and that feels like it carries through the song. But because the process was so important, it really is our hope that the people take the song and continue to do that work to it, continue to bring their story to it, their sound to it, and want to invite as many people to the table as possible.  

"You have some of those songwriters that feel very differently about the country . . . if it weren't for this film they probably would never have been friends or talked to each other."

Ryan Coogler: I became involved with the film through our filmmaker Pete Nicks, who had a relationship with Kris. We founded a company called Proximity Media. It's me, my wife, Zinzi Coogler, our friend Sev Ohanian, and on the journey with us later on, came Pete Nicks, who runs non-fiction for us, Ludwig Göransson and Archie Davis who run music for us.  We're looking to tell stories that bring audiences in closer proximity to subject matter that's often overlooked and specifically through Eventize Entertainment. 

Pete had this idea when he came aboard, and we loved it because it's ambitious. What the film is, is taking a look at the national anthem for a few minutes, just studying and breaking it down:  where the music came from, it's origins, how it became the song that we played at graduations and before sporting events and what have you. What's great about it is that's only the first five minutes or so of the film.

He finds these incredible musicians, Kris Bowers and Dahi, and they go on a road trip on the mission to answer the question, "What would an anthem sound like if it was written today?" And then they make the song all in the film. The song that they make I think is just absolutely beautiful. I think it's going to be a utility for people to use and go to and whatever rituals they want to use it in.

Did you guys grow up with the Black National Anthem?

Coogler: I did.

Bowers: Yeah, same.

Coogler: "Lift Every Voice and Sing." Yeah, for sure.

In my high school, Dunbar High School in Baltimore, we didn't have any white students and we never sang "The Star-Spangled Banner." We always hear the first stanza, but in the third stanza there's a line that goes, "No refuge could save the hireling and slave from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave." That was Francis Scott Key's message to slaves that wanted to fight with the Brits because they promised freedom if they won the war. When people know this history, why are so many people clinging to that song knowing what's attached to it?

Bowers: I think it's the same reason why people cling to idealized versions or stories about family or ourselves. I feel like there's always trauma in any family. I think about any trauma from my ancestors, my grandparents, my parents that they experienced. I feel like they don't really want to talk about the hard stuff that much. And then I think that there's overwhelming feelings sometimes that if you look at that darker moment that we're going to be stuck there or that it's going to tarnish the beauty of what we have. 

I feel like what this film does that I really appreciate is it shows that looking at that darker thing only makes what we have now more beautiful or what we can have more beautiful. People that want to ignore any of the darkness are really just trying to hold onto the facade of something that's really to them feels like safe or whatever it might be. Through exploring conversation and being open about those things we try to explore in this film, it's really just about how you can hold and balance the darkness with an optimistic look towards the future and have some sort of beauty out of that pain.

Coogler: Kris spoke about it beautifully. It's hard to say, right? Because this whole concept, man, we in New York City right now, and they say it's eight to 10 million people here right now, individuals, you know what I'm saying? And you'll still hear people say, "Oh yeah, New York is this or New York is that." In many ways that's like an over simplification that you have to do. So if you ask me why do some people cling to something that is the knowledge is out there that is very flawed? Everybody has their individual reasons. If we were to try to blanket it and simplify, I think that this country, like many others, but maybe more than a lot of others because it's so young, it is very tied to specific narratives. 

"Looking at that darker thing only makes what we have now more beautiful or what we can have more beautiful."

There's a story of America, there is an American dream. There's a lot of these things and there's just stories that we tell ourselves. Some people tell a different story about the place and some people, they can sleep easier with a certain story. Everybody got a different perspective on that story. For them, what I think it's great in the film is that they look at it through both an emotional perspective, but also a straight-up scientific perspective. What is this music from? The music was from a British pub song they was singing when they was drinking ale or whatever. 

They asked the critical question: Why is this the music that we singing? If this was about coming a time when the country was fighting the British, why would the song even have this music associated with it? And then from there, what is American music? What I love about it the most is that it's constructive. It's not just being critical of something, it's actually constructing something new that can be put up and used as a utility, whether it's in that argument or whether it's why you want to sing some music.

What was the wildest thing that happened while you were on the road?

Bowers: I was actually expecting more craziness to happen. I think I was mentally preparing myself to have experiences that shocked me, but it wasn't that much. Honestly, I feel like it wasn't a wild experience. I think that something that was really interesting to me, we had conversations with people outside of the film that just happened to be cleaning up at the venue or opening the venue for the night after we finished our filming. A couple of them talked about the anthem. In Detroit, there was a woman that came into the club afterward and she's like, "Oh, I love that you guys are doing this thing about the national anthem. I love that song. It means so much to me." Dahi was like, "And not everybody feels that way," and she was like, "I just don't understand that. I just don't really get it." We asked her, "Why do you love that song?" And she was like, "Well, it just reminds me of my family. It makes me think of my home. It makes me think of these things." And it was like, that's so wild.

That's so wild. 

Bowers: That has nothing to do with the song. It's this symbol now for her. She hears this thing and she thinks of these other things. She's projected these feelings she has about her family and about all these things that she loves deeply onto this song, so now she has that same love that she has for her family for her song.

And it's not even a good song. I would've asked her, "So telling me you think Francis Scott Key is better than Lil Baby?" 

Coogler: It's ritual, bro.

Bower: Ritual, yeah.

Coogler: What I'd imagine is she probably participated in some rituals that involved that song with other things. Maybe her family took her to ball games, and when she hears a song, she thinks about she next to her dad with a hot dog at the stadium or whatever. Or she liked a specific school where she learned it at. I think rituals a lot of times can associate. 

It's legal now everywhere. I never was a big weed smoker, but "Five On It" come on, I'm back with my family. I'm back as a kid, and it's really ritual and memory association. "Five On It" is a great song, but it's a lot of that.

Do you think this country is open-minded enough to embrace something brand new that includes us all or is that too loaded of an idea?

Bowers: I think the impossibility behind it is really that we don't have the time or space maybe to have the conversations that we even have in this film. In this film, you have some of those songwriters that feel very differently about the country, feel very differently about the anthem, and if it weren't for this film, probably would never have been friends or talked to each other. It's because of putting them into the same space and allowing them to express their feelings about things — going back to that woman in the anthem, it makes sense if she hears this on the surface level or hears somebody say on the surface level, "I don't like that song." If she's tying her family to that song, that's basically somebody saying, "I don't like your family." And that's not what's being said at all. I think you have to have a deeper conversation to get into, "Well actually I don't like it for these reasons, and I hear you about your family. I actually respect your family," and then we can actually move forward from there. And I feel like we just don't have time for that. And there's just millions of people. 

We be on on our phone too much. No time to be having conversation about unity, we got to check our notifications.

Bowers: And also with social media, you're talking at people, you're not talking with people, so I feel like we're just breeding this culture of, "I'm going to say what I got to say and then I'm out." I'm not trying to listen.

I think this film could only be made by people who are very accomplished because you get a chance to pull back from the grind of being an artist and pour into things you care about. Is that true? And if so, can you talk about just being able to create the work that is meaningful and that speaks to you the most?

Bowers: I definitely went into this feeling like I was a student. That's what's fun for me. I'll never forget, I did this show once with an indie rock band. At the time I was a jazz student and I was like, "Oh, it's easy music." I showed up, and they all had sounds dialed in and they knew the music already, and I was really out of place and I didn't know how to get the sound. I just was recognizing immediately that I looked down on this music and I was the one that was ill-prepared for the situation. That happened when I was maybe 20 or something like that, so I feel like ever since then, I've always looked for moments where I'm going to have that beginner's mindset of I don't really know. 

We go on this road trip, and there's some genres that I actually don't really know very much about, and there's some that I maybe knew a little bit more about, but in each of those spaces, I just wanted to ask questions and learn. That was fun for me. I definitely feel like because I never feel like I can stop learning and growing as an artist, it's nice to have a situation where that's facilitated. 

"I'm a Black man from Oakland approaching my 40s. There's not a national symbol of this country I don't have a complicated relationship with."

Coogler: Pete [Nicks] is not here, but I was very confident in him and I agree with you in terms of this being a film that would have to be made by people who really knew what they were doing. Had a lot of experience. Pete's made at a film about the American healthcare system. He made a film about police reform when he embedded himself with a really controversial police force at a time when a lot of scandals erupted. Made a film about public education. He's got a lot of chops in being in a lot of difficult environments. Being able to allow people to express conflicting opinions in the film, still holding it.

The film was in good hands, and it actually goes down easy when you watch it. You don't think about how crazy of an idea it is. There's tension there in terms of like, "Are they going to get it done?" But it took a really deft hand and it was great to be there to support it. I think that assessment is correct, man. These people, Kris, Dahi, Pete, the songwriters, are crazy skilled. Joy Harjo, one of our writers, Indigenous woman, was a U.S. Poet Laureate. The sections in a film where she just breaks into poetry. You seeing some really, really skilled artists at work.

Did you guys change your position on the original anthem while working on the film? Was there any eye-opening type of situation where you found yourself wanting to stand up at a baseball game and go like that.

Coogler: Nah, man, Nah. I'm a Black man from Oakland approaching my 40s. There's not a national symbol of this country I don't have a complicated relationship with, but that said, that don't make me non-American. I think it is something I wrestle with since I was born.

Are going to be seeing more documentaries since we're dealing with the strike? (Salon's unionized employees are represented by the WGA East.)

Coogler: Oh, that's a great question, man. Obviously the Writer's Guild's in the midst of a massive strike right now. I'm a member of that union, obviously expressing solidarity with all the writers, and I'm here able to talk to you now because this work did not originate with WGA work. It's nonfiction. Had this been a television show or film, I wouldn't be here talking to you. But yeah, I think that you will see the effects of the strike, we don't know when it's going to end, but it always affects the business and what you and see because the work starts with writers. The things that are able to move forward, it'll be a little bit of a ripple effect, but I think in months coming, you'll feel the work stoppage as an audience for sure.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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Anthem Hulu Kris Bowers Music National Anthem Ryan Coogler Salon Talks The Star-spangled Banner