I was on my way to Nissan Stadium in Nashville on Sunday morning when I got a phone call informing me that my performance of the national anthem before the Tennessee Titans game would be televised nationally later that day. President Trump had already spent the day before attacking the NFL players who’ve been kneeling during the anthem to protest police brutality against African Americans, so of course news outlets and all of America would be watching.
I started to get nervous, because I knew what I had to do.
I am a recording artist living in Nashville. I come from a country music background, but I grew up in and around New Orleans, where all kinds of music and cultures mix. When I was 10, we moved to a tiny Louisiana town called Ponchatoula. I remember hearing the “n-word” for the first time at school. It shocked and saddened me. It still does. I saw racism all around me growing up: I remember getting a homecoming ballot in high school and seeing the names divided on the page. One section read “black,” the other “white.” I remember thinking it couldn’t be real. That was in 2004.
Racism is still a huge stain on the heart of this country, and it is still very much alive. I see it often when I am touring with members of my band, who are primarily black men. We recently played a venue where I was told that the promoter did not want to pay me because my “drummer was threatening.” This was at a country club in the Deep South. I was with my drummer, who is like a brother to me, the entire day, and I never saw any type of aggression from him. The only threat she saw was the color of his skin.
So on Sunday, even though I had been looking forward to singing the national anthem at this game for about six months, I knew I had to find a way to stand in solidarity with my brothers, sisters, fans and friends who live with the effects of such toxic hatred all the time and are experiencing an even higher level of anxiety and fear because of the polarizing rhetoric Trump spews out.
I walked out to the middle of the field, sang the song and then peacefully locked arms with my boyfriend and took a knee. I took a knee for those who are mistreated, beaten down and disregarded in this country. I took a knee because every movement needs allies, and I knew that someone who looks like me and comes from my background needed to do it. When you’re white, it’s easy to disregard racism and not see your own privilege. Instead, I wanted to use my privilege — and my platform — to shed a light on systemic racism and social injustice.
A lot of people are calling my peaceful protest “un-American,” but that could not be farther from the truth. I love this country and the men and women who serve and die to protect our freedoms. Part of that freedom is being able to speak out when things are not right. I chose to stand during the anthem because I didn’t want my message to get misconstrued. I was not protesting the military or police or flag. I was protesting in solidarity with those whom the flag also represents: my fellow humans of color.
My decision may hurt my career, but it was the only choice for me. This cause is more important than my record sales.
I walked off the field to mixed reactions. Some people got my attention and shouted “thank you.” A lot of them booed. The booing didn’t bother me so much. What bothers me more is the silence: the silence of millions of white people every day, when they watch a video of a black woman’s son who is murdered simply for reaching for his driver’s license. We have to do better. We have to speak, and we have to be allies.
In the past few days, I have received death threats and had cancer wished upon me by the same people who claim to be great patriots. I’ve had people say that they should have executed me on the field. People are threatening my life because the idea that someone who looks like me would act against racism upsets them so much.
I can’t think of anything more un-American than threatening someone for an act of free speech. I am not afraid of these people, because I know that I am living on my mother’s prayers and God will protect me. It just hurts my heart to stand in the face of real unadulterated hate. But it’s the same hate that so many other people in this country face simply because of the color of their skin.
The only way we can move forward as a nation is if we bring it all back to love. We have to live it and demonstrate it every day in our own lives — and we have to point out injustices every time we see them. I am praying for our country. I know that there has to be more love out there, and I pray that we find it and fast.