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How Whitney Houston Gave a Nod to Black Liberation at the Super Bowl 30 Years Ago

It’s been thirty years since Whitney Houston performed the national anthem at the Super Bowl in 1991 and yet her performance — the voice, attitude, the subtle message she conveyed with it — still echoes in the heads of so many people all these years later. While “The Star-Spangled Banner” is supposed to be an ode and declaration of freedom, history tells us that it was not created to encompass the same ideal for Black Americans. For many, the song is impossible to separate from the racial injustice that pervades the United States. (That’s one reason why “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is considered by many as the Black national anthem.) But in 1991, Houston set out to reclaim the national anthem for Black Americans with a powerful performance that still is just as powerful today.

Don’t remember it — or want to revisit its glory? Take a look and listen:

For Houston, her bravura is front and center as she sings each note. But what made her performance so iconic was the way the heart of the national anthem revolved around the way she sang “free.” The word “emotional” doesn’t even begin to capture the meaning of the singer’s rendition.

In a New Yorker analysis of Houston’s performance, Cinque Henderson wrote, “By making the idea of freedom the emotional and structural high point (not just the high note) of the anthem, Houston unlocked that iron door for Black people and helped make the song a part of our cultural patrimony, too.”

This year, “Fearless” singer Jazmine Sullivan will be performing the national anthem at the Super Bowl, and many fans are already noting the significance of the two performances:

“I think it’s really iconic that Whitney Houston and Jazmine Sullivan will have performed the National Anthem at the #SuperBowl in the same city: Tampa, Florida, 30 years apart,” one user wrote on Twitter. “THAT’S BLACK HISTORY! #BHM”

Before you go, check out our gallery on Super Bowl Halftime Performances Through the Years:

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