No Refuge: For the Love of The Game

On Super Bowl Sunday, my friend Tariq Touré and I released a collaborative track, titled No Refuge: For the Love of The Game. I wanted to share some thoughts about how my part in this project came to be.

I’ve been fascinated by The Star-Spangled Banner for some time. It wasn’t so long ago that I was introduced to my favorite version of the song, Marvin Gaye’s rendition at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game. Gaye transforms the anthem into a love song, at once patient and urgent, his singular gift for phrasing turning each line into a work of art.

I had this version on my mind while writing Inner City (2013), a love song to my hometown of Baltimore, for piano and pre-recorded track. The third movement of that piece, “The Key to the City,” was my own take on The Star-Spangled Banner, intertwined with audio that I recorded in and around Oriole Park at Camden Yards. I also included sounds recorded at Fort McHenry, where Francis Scott Key wrote the poem that would become our national anthem.

After the premiere of Inner City, a former student remarked that the movement based on the anthem struck him as sad. It made sense: the marking at the top of the score was “tender, fragile,” and the C-major chords in the piece glow in the shadow of something darker. At that time, I wasn’t aware of Key’s third verse. It includes a line directed at enslaved Africans, who sought their freedom by fighting alongside the British during the Battle of Baltimore: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave.”

I was thinking of Marvin Gaye’s anthem again while finishing Rise (2015), a piece about America’s civil rights journey from Selma to Ferguson. The sixth and final movement of the piece sets a poem, by my collaborator Tameka Cage Conley, titled “MericanAnthem.” The poem ends with a litany, the names of murdered Black men, followed by these words: “Resound -- a drum / like faith / that conceived them / in early light.” It is an epilogue to an unfinished story.

In 2016, The Star-Spangled Banner became the site of NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protest against police brutality. Initially, Kaepernick sat on the bench during pregame performances of the anthem. After conferring with former NFL player and U.S. Army Veteran Nate Boyer, he decided to kneel instead. In Boyer’s words, “soldiers take a knee in front a fallen brother’s grave, you know, to show respect.”

As team after team passed on signing Kaepernick in 2017, Tariq Touré wrote and began performing a stunning new poem, entitled “Colin Kaepernick: For the Love of The Game.” Tariq captures the dilemma faced by Black athletes who choose to speak out against injustice: “I assure you they love me! / surely they’ll understand today / So when I take this knee / as that anthem starts to play. / You think they could look at me / with this passion in my face / And truly be able to say / this is the land of the free / and the home of the brave?”

I had written some essays about what was happening in the NFL, but it was only after hearing Tariq’s poem that I realized I had already written a musical response as well: one that could work as an epilogue to “For the Love of The Game.” I changed the title to No Refuge, set aside the pre-recorded audio, and cut the final C-major chord. The last, low note hangs in the air, leaving space for a country that, so far, even Marvin Gaye couldn’t sing into being.