Spain's national anthem, dating back to 1770, is the oldest in continual use — it also happens to be wordless. For other nations, what can be done about aging anthem lyrics that may need to be placed in their original context to avoid upsetting or offending contemporary ears.
PARIS — Algeria’s national anthem, Kassaman (Oath), is a war song penned by jailed nationalist and poet Moufdi Zakaria in 1955 during the Algerian War of Independence against the French colonialists. Three out of five verses evoke fighting the colonization of Algeria, with the most controversial verse being the third, which calls out France directly.
In the 1980s, to avoid diplomatic tensions with Paris, Algeria decreed that the third verse could be omitted if the circumstances called for it. But on June 11, a presidential decree restored the controversial third verse, making all five verses obligatory. Now, Kassaman will be performed in its ‘full form’ at official events – allusions to imperialism included.
There was backlash from Paris, as French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna called the decision “outdated.” Algerian Foreign Minister Ahmed Ataf responded quickly that he was "astounded by the fact that the French foreign minister thought she could express an opinion on the Algerian national anthem."
Alas, this is far from an isolated topic, as people have vehemently expressed their views on whether anthems should be maintained, modified or scrapped for years.
While national anthems are often marches or hymns celebrating a military event, some are considered too bloody and graphic for modern times. Amongst those which literally evoke blood, often that of their enemies, are Algeria’s Kassaman, Portugal’s A Portuguesa, France’s Marseillaise, Vietnam’s Tiến Quân Ca (The Marching song) and Belgium’s La Brabançonne.
Altering these texts would surely be subject to great public debate, as these anthems are representative of a strong national pride and history. In the case of France’s La Marseillaise, some have called the song xenophobic and colonial, and would like to change it. Such a move, however, would require a constitutional amendment, as La Marseillaise was enshrined in its second article in 1879.
Music for the people
Meanwhile other anthems have come under fire for not being representative of the nations they are supposed to represent. In another former French colony, Senegal, the anthem is not in the majority local language, Wolof, but instead in French. Adopted in 1960, Le Lion rouge was composed by a Frenchman, its lyrics written by Senegal's first president. Since its text is strongly tied to the Senegalese landscape and people, would it not be better for people to sing their country’s anthem in their native language? Le Lion rouge has partially been translated, but the French version still remains most prominent.
The Star-Spangled Banner, is derived from a poem by a slave owner
The question of the anthem's composer has arisen in the U.S, where The Star-Spangled Banner, is derived from a poem by a slave owner, Francis Scott Key, who turns out had a very limited notion of “the Land of the free and the home of the brave. Indeed, amid the Black Lives Matter movement, along with statues of slave owners being pulled down, a petition circulated to change the The Star-Spangled Banner.
Protesters are seen singing ''Glory to Hong Kong'' on the 4th year anniversary of the Hong Kong pro-democratic movement. London, United Kingdom, June 11, 2023
Sung at important political events, sports matches, and in some countries sung in the classroom, the national anthem tends to be omnipresent in a country's psyche. But in protest, some groups have refused to sing their national anthem, often to show discontent towards their government.
In the months following Masha Amini’s death in police custody, Iranian athletes bravely demonstrated their solidarity with protesters by refusing to sing their national anthem. After the national men's football team stayed silent during their World Cup match against England, the team feared reprisals for this “insult” to their anthem and flag from the Iranian leadership, while their symbolic gesture was censored by the Iranian press.
There is also the reality of would-be "counter anthems," which are essentially protest songs that take on a national scale. Iran's theocratic authoritarian government has cracked down over the past year on the protest anthem Baraye, which had been woven together entirely from a Twitter hashtag trend of “Woman, Life, Liberty” to unite protesters against the Islamic Republic.
Meanwhile in Hong Kong, the unofficial national anthem has gotten so much traction that Google can no longer distinguish it from the state sanctioned one. Glory to Hong Kong was written and composed during the 2019–2020 Hong Kong protests "to boost protesters' morale and unite people." In response, the Hong Kong authorities told schools to not allow it to be played, and authorities broke up public renditions of the song. In June, an attempt was made to ban the song, even from the internet, but was rejected by the High Court.
Glory to Hong Kong, Street performance in front of Quarry Bay Station in Hong Kong, China - 19 Nov 2022
All thy sons ... and daughters?
Some national anthems around the world have been adapted to fit their countries contemporary values, such as inclusivity and historical memory. Canada modified their anthem to make it gender-neutral in 2018, changing part of the second line in "O Canada," from "in all thy sons," to "in all of us."
In 2021, Australia’s national anthem, Advance Australia Fair, had its lyrics changed from ‘For we are young and free’ to ‘For we are one and free’ in order to acknowledge the pre-colonial presence of Indigenous Australians, who were present on the island for far longer than the Europeans.
Prepare for our answer!
In a similar vein, the anthem has also been written in Dharug, an Australian Aboriginal language spoken around Sydney, and was sung at an international Rugby match in 2020.
Amidst the larger process of adapting a nation's anthem to the modern day, the update to Algeria’s anthem is not all that drastic, even if it has certain French politicians huffing. Sure, there's no doubt that Kassaman’s third verse is a not-so-subtle warning: "O France, this is the day of reckoning. So prepare to receive from us our answer!"
But the French are far more blunt — and graphic. La Marseillaise, after all, calls for violence against France’s enemies so that “impure blood waters our furrows.” Ooh la la...