While the message of “Lift every Voice and Sing” has drawn most attention to the song’s lyricist, James Weldon Johnson, music composer J. Rosamond Johnson is also an important figure in American history. Two years younger than his brother James, J. (John) demonstrated musical talent as a child and was sent to study at the New England Conservatory and under Samuel Coleridge-Taylor in London. Upon returning to the United States, he joined his brother in Jacksonville, where the pair produced their anthem.
While the song has been re-arranged to suit the style of different performers, the original arrangement coupled the ¾ beat of a waltz to the anthemic chords of 19th-century American hymns. Most of the music that Johnson wrote, however, tapped more fully into contemporary sounds like ragtime. Shortly after composing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” Johnson moved to New York to work as a songwriter. He collaborated for a time with his brother James, but he worked more extensively with Vaudeville performer Bob Cole. They wrote several show tunes before turning to musicals, writing The Shoo-Fly Regiment in 1907 and The Red Moon in 1909.
As the century progressed, J. Rosamond Johnson became an increasingly important figure of New York’s music scene. He headed New York's Music School Settlement for Colored People, and as African American artists began to define distinctive forms of music within the movement labeled the Harlem Renaissance, he played an important role. Along with his brother James, he even produced an anthology of black poetry and two collections of spirituals, and he also compiled collections of “shout songs” and black folk songs.