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Here’s why Anthony Hamilton is ending his break with the national anthem for the NBA

Anthony Hamilton on National Anthem: It’s a political statement, but it’s not.

Singer-songwriter, Anthony Hamilton will sing the national anthem at the NBA All-Star Game after taking a break with the song.
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Singer-songwriter, Anthony Hamilton will sing the national anthem at the NBA All-Star Game after taking a break with the song.

“I’m gonna take a little time away from the anthem until it starts feeling like it’s for me.”

That’s what Grammy-winning R&B singer Anthony Hamilton said about “The Star-Spangled Banner” in 2016, in an interview with the Associated Press. At the time, the national debate around the national anthem was red-hot, fueled by then-NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during it in protest of perceived police brutality against African-Americans.

Now, just shy of 2 1/2 years later, Hamilton is finally feeling like the anthem is for him again.

So on Feb. 17, he will perform “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the 2019 NBA All-Star Game in his hometown’s Spectrum Center as a global audience looks on — just two weeks after soul singer Gladys Knight belted out one of the most inspiring renditions of the anthem in recent memory at Super Bowl LIII.

“I had some conversations with some great people,” the 48-year-old Charlotte native says, singling out his friend David Banner, a rapper, activist and philanthropist. “It was just like, you know what? It’s a moment. I can go out there, and I can stand up, and I can be as black as I want to be, as proud as I want to be. I can represent for those who feel like me, and feel like Kaepernick, but take what we stand for and put it back into the anthem.”

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Courtesy of Anthony Hamilton

Don’t confuse the issue, though: Hamilton says it might have been a different conversation if the NFL had extended the invitation. During a call with the Observer, Hamilton’s manager Eli Davis said “The team owners in the NBA are a lot different than the owners of teams in the NFL; the NBA represents and supports their players and people’s beliefs, where the NFL does not.”

To which Hamilton added: “Exactly.”

(Knight, 74, had initially taken some heat after it was announced she would perform the anthem at the Super Bowl, as other prominent African American artists had said they would not be willing to perform at the game in solidarity with Kaepernick.)

A former choir boy at New Shiloh Baptist Church in west Charlotte and a graduate of Harding University High School, Hamilton is part of an All-Star Game entertainment lineup that also includes a pregame appearance by rapper Meek Mill; a performance of the Canadian national anthem by Carly Rae “Call Me Maybe” Jepsen; and a halftime show by N.C. hip-hop artist J. Cole.

Here are nine more headlines from our recent sit-down with Charlotte’s most celebrated R&B singer.

1. He’s humbled by the opportunity to sing the anthem at the All-Star Game. Hamilton has earned 17 Grammy nominations and one win. He’s sold more than 50 million albums. He’s performed for President Barack Obama. In 2017, he was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame. And he considers doing the anthem for a national audience live from his hometown an equally great honor. “It’s a beautiful thing ... to be able to show we’re not just a banking city, we’re a bangin’ city. ... I’m very proud to hold this city up on my shoulders as much as I can. They’re not really tall shoulders,” the 5-foot-6 singer says, laughing, “but they’re mine.”

2. He’s hosting an unofficial NBA All-Star Weekend kickoff party on Valentine’s Day at STATS Restaurant Bar in north Charlotte, along with “celebrity friends.” (As to who those might be, Hamilton says the list could include pals like fellow R&B singer Teedra Moses, former NFL Pro Bowler/ex-UNC star Dré Bly and actor Omari Hardwick. Stay tuned...) “I just want to do something to welcome people and be an ambassador to the city. To give people that have never been here a chance to see what a beautiful city it is. To show we’re not just a banking city, we’re a bangin’ city.”

3. The rosters for the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game have been announced, but they are subject to change, and there’s a chance Hamilton may find his way onto the court. The one obstacle is his health: Over the course of his career, he has suffered tears to his right and left ACL, MCL and meniscus while performing on stage, and has had multiple surgeries to repair those injuries. As of Wednesday afternoon, he was still hoping to get a green light from his doctor to play. If he does suit up? “I got a pair of mean Jordans that I’m waitin’ to wear,” Hamilton says, rubbing his hands together and grinning. He’s referring to a rare pair of custom-made Air Jordan 1s that he came up with the creative vision for, during a trip to Mexico organized by Michael Jordan in 2015. He came away with the only 30 pairs ever made; they’re chocolate-brown with bubblegum-pink soles. (He says he’s given away just three or four pairs.)

4. He’s lived in the Longview neighborhood in the northernmost part of Waxhaw for about 14 years, but he’s thinking about moving — because he’d like a home with a basement, where he could build a recording studio. His house has a small makeshift recording space upstairs but, he says, “I want it in the basement so people don’t have to go all the way through the house to get to it.”

5. He has six sons, ranging in age from 6 to 30. The three youngest live in Cleveland with their mother, Hamilton’s ex-wife Tarsha McMillan. The two oldest — Anthony Jr. and Romeiro — just recorded a song that he hopes to help them get released. “If my distribution deal is done by then, I definitely will have a home for it. If not, I’ll just have to pull out my Amex and see what I can do,” he says, laughing. “Whatever I gotta do to get behind it.”

6. He’s working on his ninth full-length studio album, which should be out before the end of the year. He teased that, on it, he’ll be collaborating with two South African artists: Afro-pop star Vusi Nova and Afro-soul singer Amanda Black. Hamilton traveled multiple times last year to South Africa, where he says he’s got such a big following that “you’d think I’m the black Justin Bieber.”

7. His personal all-time fave “Star-Spangled Banner” performances? Jimi Hendrix’s at Woodstock in 1969, Marvin Gaye’s at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game, and Whitney Houston’s at the 1991 Super Bowl.

8. He has a simple and practical strategy as he readies for his NBA All-Star game gig: “I’ll probably do it a lot different than Fergie,” he says, chuckling.

He’s referring to the Black Eyed Peas singer’s performance last year in Los Angeles, where she contorted the national anthem into a jarring jazz song that featured scatting and missed notes — and instantly was logged in the annals of history as one of the worst renditions ever.

Of course, Hamilton knows a little something about being forced to face the music after putting a risky twist on the anthem.

Back in 2005, the Observer reported that officials at Lowe’s Motor Speedway (now Charlotte Motor Speedway) received roughly 100 complaints after Hamilton took the tune in a decidedly nontraditional direction while singing it before the Nextel All-Star Challenge (now known as the Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star Race).

“I put a little too much soul (in it), or salt and pepper. Then I put a little paprika on it,” recalls Hamilton, who at the time was 34 and fresh off his first three Grammy nominations. “I guess they wanted me to pretty much sing it how it goes, pretty straight-laced. ... So yeah, you gotta be careful. You don’t want to get booed. ‘Cause they’ll boo you, believe me.”

While he likely will keep closer to a traditional rendition than he did at the speedway in 2005, he still plans to give the anthem some soul on Feb. 17. Or, as he says: “Put some fried chicken on it. Or fried zucchini.”

9. He’ll be a little nervous right before he steps up to the mic under the lights at Spectrum Center. “I always get more nervous singing one song or two songs than I do doing a whole concert,” he says, “because at a concert I get to ease into it. ... For one or two songs, you’re kind of just like, ‘This is it. This is the one time, and it’s do or die, baby.’ But I just say my prayer: ‘God, you know why I’m here, and this is what you designed me to do,’ and I go out there and I just get into it.”

At the same time, due to the sometimes racially charged conversations that have swirled around the anthem in recent years — and his own personal mixed feelings about the song — he expects to feel a weight that wasn’t there when he sang it at the speedway in 2005 (or at the Jordan Brand Classic in 2012, or at the Democratic National Convention, also in 2012).

“This time around, it’s gonna be (about) Kaepernick and all the people who are standing up and fighting for justice for the unjust, and we’ll be thinking about how this country has let us down somewhat, and just mistreated some of the people who didn’t deserve it. And to bring back that common bond, the common thread, and the goal of America, back when it was about serving God, serving the people and bringing together love, justice and just the pursuit of happiness, man. Getting back to that. That’s what I want people to feel when they hear me.”

Théoden Janes: 704-358-5897, @theodenjanes

Théoden Janes has spent 12 years covering entertainment and pop culture for the Observer. He also thrives on telling emotive long-form stories about extraordinary Charlotteans and — as a veteran of 20-plus marathons and two Ironman triathlons — occasionally writes about endurance and other sports.
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