Sheryl Lee Ralph of Abbott Elementary makes Super Bowl history with ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’


It’s three hours before she is set to perform on the biggest stage of her life and Sheryl Lee Ralph is, in her words, in the middle of getting glamorous. She’s wearing her comfortable golden shoes, making sure the licorice tea is ready, double-checking with her daughter, who is also her stylist, about her outfit and preparing a yoga routine to calm the nerves that come with performing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in front of an estimated 100 million television viewers on Super Bowl Sunday.

“My favorite position is the downward dog,” Ralph told The Washington Post on Sunday. She’s emphatic about the position that will help her get ready for the big game: “It’s absolutely a downward dog!”

Ralph is known to millions for her Emmy-winning performance as Barbara Howard on the ABC hit show “Abbott Elementary.” The actress and singer knows the significance of performing a song commonly called the Black national anthem before the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles kick off. Ralph, 66, is the first person to perform the song live inside a stadium for Super Bowl Sunday. Singer Alicia Keys performed a prerecorded version that aired before the big game in 2021, while the gospel duo Mary Mary were accompanied by the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles outside of SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles last year.

“Why would God be so wonderful to give us this blessing that we are performing this song inside the stadium?” she said with joy. “It’s just like winning the Emmy — all of this still hasn’t sunk in yet.”

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The Super Bowl performance means even more for Ralph knowing that her history-making presentation of the song comes on the 123rd anniversary of the first time it was performed in public. On Feb. 12, 1900, a choir of 500 schoolchildren at the segregated Stanton School in Jacksonville performed “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in public to celebrate what would have been former president Abraham Lincoln’s 91st birthday, according to the NAACP. James Weldon Johnson, an NAACP leader who was principal of the school, wrote the hymn as a poem before his brother, John Rosamond Johnson, composed the music for the lyrics.

“The blessings have been amazing, including this one, singing in front of millions of people,” Ralph told The Post. “It’s just really neat. What an exciting time to be me!”

That sentiment has been echoed by many since she arrived in Arizona. Ralph has been the talk of a pregame lineup loaded with talent, from R&B legend Babyface performing “America the Beautiful,” to country star Chris Stapleton singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

“We are watching the Sheryl Lee Ralph show,” Babyface told reporters at a media event this week.

After working nearly a half-century in Hollywood, Ralph, 66, is in the middle of a dream run. Ralph used to be largely known for her Tony-nominated portrayal of Deena Jones in the original Broadway version of “Dreamgirls.” But she has endeared herself to a new generation of fans thanks to the smash hit “Abbott Elementary” and her portrayal of Howard, a tough but loving kindergarten teacher. Ralph earned her first Emmy nomination and win for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series in 2022, and is fresh off winning Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series at the 2023 Critics Choice Awards last month.

“I got to tell you, in so many ways, all of this has been unbelievable,” Ralph said. “If none of this would have happened, you could have easily said, ‘She’s had a great career.’ But with all of this happening, it is phenomenal, unexpected, out of this world. Can you believe it? And it just keeps on coming!”

She then briefly channels her own inner Buzz Lightyear to describe the heater she’s been on since “Abbott Elementary” debuted in late 2021: “It’s like, to infinity and beyond!”

Ralph has also earned praise for her tear-jerking remarks during her acceptance speeches, such as her career-defining win at the Emmys: “I am a woman, I am an artist, and I know where my voice belongs!”

She’s also been celebrated for her lack of filter, like when she said in January that she would tell her younger self to embrace her beauty and to know “there will be some people called Kardashians and they will pay $10,000 for your lips.”

When Ralph got the call asking her to perform the song during the Super Bowl’s pregame festivities, she said she didn’t hesitate to say yes.

“I was in such shock and remain in shock,” she said, likening it to the Emmy win. “I always say that I feel at home on center stage. To be on the 40-yard line for the song, I’m like, ‘OK, God, this is pretty doggone wonderful.’”

The song itself holds a special place for Ralph, the daughter of a fashion designer for a mother and a college professor for a father. Ralph, who said she wishes her parents were still alive to see what’s happened to her in recent years, noted how the lyrics in the song — “Ring with the harmonies of Liberty,” “Let our rejoicing rise,” “Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us” — have given her hope during times of darkness. She also applauded the NFL for taking some of the necessary steps to talking about racism out loud and giving diversity and inclusion a worldwide platform.

“Change can come slowly, but here we are,” she said.

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As she takes time explaining this over the phone, Ralph sprinkles in her Eagles fandom — “Ma-Homey is going to have the hurt put on him by Hurts!” She reflects on catching up with Rihanna, who “personally asked me to be in the Savage X Fenty show, and here we are again on this major world stage.” And she also guessed what her character’s Super Bowl Sunday would look like back in Philadelphia.

“The difference right away is Sheryl Lee is singing at the Super Bowl and Barbara Howard is watching it from home at Philadelphia with her husband and a great spread,” she said, laughing. “And you know she is not going to miss Sheryl Lee Ralph singing ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing!’”

She has to finish getting glamorous, but not before predicting that the Eagles were “absolutely winning” in a blowout of 30-7. When she’s asked if she’ll enjoy the moment, she laughs again and reassured anyone around her who was listening that she was embracing history.

“Oh, I am!” she exclaimed. “And I will!”

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