Pop star Jennifer Lopez’s performance during US president Joe Biden’s inauguration on Wednesday delighted those who noticed her playful ad-lib and appreciated her Latina presence at the historic event, but left much to be desired for many First Nations viewers.
JLo sang a medley of “This Land Is Your Land” and “America The Beautiful,” before ending with a reference to her own hit “Let’s Get Loud.” Sung in English, she briefly spoke in Spanish mid-performance. According to the Los Angeles Times, her words translate to “One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” or the final line of the US pledge of allegiance.
The main song, written by folk musician Woody Guthrie in 1940, saw a spike in online searches during the inauguration.
The song has been covered countless times over the decades and was revisited last year by New York Representative Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for an emotional message shutting down racist hate directed towards fellow politician Ilhan Omar.
The version Lopez sang its most recognisable for its main hook:
“This land is your land,
This land is my land,
To the New York Island,
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters,
This land was made for you and me.”
Watch: Jennifer Lopez performs at the 59th inauguration. Story continues below.
Many Indigenous people on Twitter, including Juno award-winning Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq, noted how much they disliked the song, however.
Cheeky memes also got across the disdain for settlers singing such lyrics in relation to unceded territories, also known as stolen land.
As Abenaki musician Mali Obomsawin wrote for Folklife — an online magazine by the Smithsonian — in 2019, the lyrics of “This Land Is Your Land” never sat well with her for representing how US patriotism erases Indigenous representation.
“In the context of America, a nation-state built by settler colonialism, Woody Guthrie’s protest anthem exemplifies the particular blind spot that Americans have in regard to Natives: American patriotism erases us, even if it comes in the form of a leftist protest song,” Obomsawin wrote at the time. “Why? Because this land ‘was’ our land. Through genocide, broken treaties, and a legal system created by and for the colonial interest, this land ‘became’ American land.”
“Because this land ‘was’ our land. Through genocide, broken treaties, and a legal system created by and for the colonial interest, this land ‘became’ American land.”
From this understanding about who land belongs to, Indigenous and settler allies on Twitter made clear how they themselves felt about the song choice.
The political backstory of ‘This Land Is Your Land’
While used in this instance to swear in a Democrat ― and for many mainstream commercial purposes ― the song’s roots lie in social commentary, specifically hitting back at rich property-owners. “This Land Is Your Land,” in its original form, contained verses that referenced income inequality.
Before in his death in 1967, Woody Guthrie invented the phrase “This machine kills fascists” and wrote a song condemning Donald Trump’s developer father for being an anti-Black landlord.
It’s unknown if Guthrie was aware of the Indigenous-centered criticism of the colonial themes in “This Land Is Your Land,” but The Conversation notes that he previously spoke out in solidarity of Indigenous people living in the US.
Pete Seger brought the song into the mainstream, long before fellow cover artist Bruce Springsteen called it “the greatest song ever written about America,” adding “It gets right at the heart of what our country was supposed to be about.” Seger would sing a modified version of the folk anthem, with verses penned by Indigenous activist Carolyn “Cappy” Israel. It goes:
“This land is your land,
But it once was my land,
Before we sold you Manhattan Island,
You pushed my Nation to the reservation,
This land was stole by you from me.”
BBC writer Dorian Lynskey posits that, given the valid criticism, the lyrics of “The Land Is Your Land” can and should be changed, depending on who is singing it and why.
While likely done as an attempt to be inclusive on Inauguration Day, Lopez’s rendition did not strike the right chord as many used their voices to remind settlers whose lands they were really on.