Rene Marie sees music as a way to speak her mind.
In 2008, the jazz vocalist and songwriter substituted the words to the “Star Spangled Banner” at Denver’s State of the City address with the lyrics from “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as the Black National Anthem. She’s released songs on homelessness and racial strife, one called “3 Nooses Hanging.”
On Sunday, the Grammy-nominated Marie returns for the fourth time to the Spoleto Festival where she will unveil a song inspired by last year’s shootings at Emanuel AME Church. It is called “Be the Change” and honors the nine victims.
Marie, who grew up in northern Virginia, was already working on a song based on the shootings last year when former Spoleto jazz programmer Michael Grofsorean contacted her about writing a song commemorating the event. The piece became a commissioned work.
The song is a retort to John Mayer’s “Waiting on the World to Change,” Marie said.
“The first time I heard (Mayer’s song), I was like, ‘What? You’re waiting on the world to change?’ It’s not going to change while you sit around waiting,” she said. “You can’t wait on the world to change. You have to be the change.”
Marie said there’s a segment of her Spoleto concert dedicated to the Emanuel Nine. “(They’re) songs that I have written that speak to the experience of the descendants of enslaved Africans,” she said. “It speaks to our experience of discrimination, racism and basically the path that we’ve been forced to stay on as a people.”
Quentin Baxter, Marie’s drummer and a Charleston native, said he’s looking forward to performing on the debut of “Be the Change.”
“When (Marie) takes on a concept to compose, without fail, it’s no less than splendid, powerful and impactful,” he said.
Baxter was on the road when the shootings took place, he said.
“I’m extremely attached because I’m a church musician,” Baxter said. “A lot of the faces are familiar to me. Even though no one was blood-related, my family could’ve been the ones in the church at the time.”
Marie’s appearance at the festival coincides with the release of her latest album, “Sound of Red.” She said some of the songs were inspired by issues such as adultery, domestic abuse and homelessness. The album’s all-original 11 songs are largely autobiographical. One song is loosely based on a poem her father wrote when he was a young man.
The album features longtime bandmates Baxter on drums and Elias Bailey on bass, and includes newcomer John Chin on piano. A longtime fixture on the New York jazz scene, Chin joined the band about a year ago.
“I can’t imagine any place I’d rather be than with these guys on the road,” he said. “The musical dynamic is fantastic. It’s always changing, and it’s progressive.”
Marie, who writes the music and lyrics to her songs, said the challenge with “Be the Change” was editing her ideas, “deciding which flavors, like in cooking, are going to dominate and complement.”
“You have to keep that in mind,” she said. “You can’t just throw the kitchen sink in.”
For Marie, music is an expression of her deepest self.
“I don’t think of music as being a career because it’s part of who I am,” she said. “It is my life. It’s not like I try to balance my singing and my life because I think of them as one.”
Stephanie Jade Wong is a Goldring graduate student at Syracuse University.