The way Washington sings, he takes some of his cues from worship singing. It’s an anthem, after all, he said, meant to be sung together. He sings at a quick tempo, with only a few twists toward the end. His tenor is clear and unwavering.
“It’s an anthem, not a dirge!” he said. “It’s celebrating who we are as a people, as a country. So although I have some stylistic things I do, they’re in keeping with the tempo, they don’t take away from the notion that we can all sing together.”
As a worship leader he applies the same principle to congregational singing, which he says should be made up of songs that the congregation is comfortable singing, not songs that make the leaders the center of attention. The words of a song are the most important thing to him, which is why his favorite worship songs are hymns, either old or contemporary.
‘It’s an anthem, not a dirge! It’s celebrating who we are as a people, as a country. So although I have some stylistic things I do, they’re in keeping with the tempo, they don’t take away from the notion that we can all sing together.’
As batting practice continued, Washington waited on the field with Nationals staffers. Bob Carpenter, the television play-by-play announcer for the Nationals and a legend going back to his days covering the St. Louis Cardinals, approached Washington near home plate.
“You doing the anthem tonight?” Carpenter asked. Washington affirmed. “Sweet,” said Carpenter. “I don’t know if it’s a guaranteed win, but that’s a good start for us. … You’re amazing. I love the way you do it, man.”
This kind of greeting continued throughout batting practice, from Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo to more broadcasters. Washington avoids talking to the players unless they approach him because he thinks they need to focus on doing their jobs. The broadcast on-field reporter Dan Kolko found him, and Washington greeted him loudly, “My man!”
They chatted. “I’ll be listening, like always,” said Kolko at the end of a conversation.
Dave Jageler, who is one half of the Nationals’ radio broadcasting duo, popped over next. “You got the anthem tonight?” he said. “Awesome.”
As batting practice wound up, Washington headed to a locker room where he waits until the start of the game. He doesn’t eat before singing, but he doesn’t have much of a special routine otherwise. He and his church friends swapped stories. One, Ron Owens, said he and his wife have already told Washington that they want him to sing at their funerals, and they’ve picked the song: “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.”
“Your hair will just tingle it’s so good,” said Owens.
An African-American who grew up in segregated Arkansas, Washington carefully talked over the national anthem protests in sports, where some athletes have knelt to protest police brutality. As a guest invited to sing the anthem, Washington would never protest, and he says he is “proud of being an American.” But he thinks the kneeling protest is respectful (as opposed to sitting), and that the act of peaceful protest is a very American tradition.
One time he was on the anthem singing schedule for Black Heritage Day at Nationals Park, and he got to sing what historically is known as the Negro National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” After “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” he sang the national anthem, then “God Bless America” in the 7th inning.
“The Negro National Anthem helped me understand how to sing the national anthem,” said Washington. He doesn’t see it as a substitute to the national anthem, but a supplement. He began reciting the song: “Lift every voice and sing, till earth and heaven ring, ring with the harmonies of liberty.” “It provides me a sense of foundation, that says even though we are not that more perfect union, don’t give up. ‘Sing a song, full of the faith that the dark past has taught you. Sing a song, full of the hope that the present has brought you.’ That informs my ability then to get out and say, ‘I am an American.’ Even though America may not always live up to the ideals.”
It was showtime. Washington walked the tunnel from the locker room to the field, flanked with team staff and behind an honor guard carrying the flag. He stood on home plate, a cameraman in his face.
“Please remain standing as we honor our country, with a performance of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’” boomed the announcer in the stadium. “Ladies and gentlemen, D.C. Washington.”
The crowd whooped, and the Jumbotron filled with his face. Washington sang the anthem—gorgeously, perfectly. He came back to the sidelines relieved, as the players poured onto the field. He and his two church friends exited the field to watch the game in their seats.
—This story has been updated to correct the title of Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo.