Can a song written for a movie about events of 50 years ago, with a rap verse that dares to be relevant and edgy by inserting hot-button topics and incidents of today, possibly become an Oscar winner a week from now?
That’s what Common and John Legend, composers of the Oscar-nominated song Glory from Selma, are certainly hoping. The most successful tunes in Oscar’s song category are meant to complement the film they are written for and have some meaning for the story at hand. There can be no argument that “Glory” does that, and more.
Sample lyrics of Common’s rap verse: The movement is a rhythm to us. Freedom is like a religion to us. Justice is a juxtaposition in us. Justice for all just ain’t specific enough. One son died, his spirit is revisitin’ us. Truant livin’, livin’ in us, resistance is us. That’s why Rosa sat on the bus. That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up. When it go down we woman and man up. They say, “Stay down,” and we stand up. Shots, we on the ground, the camera panned up. King pointed to the mountain top and we ran up.
Selma is about the Martin Luther King Jr.-led march for voting rights between Selma and Montgomery, Ala., in 1965. In writing the song, though, Common and Legend invoke current events, because they see the film as a mirror of what’s happening today. Is it a risk? They certainly could have chosen to play it safe, but went another direction.
“I think it is a little controversial to bring the now into the song because these are things that are being debated right now in this moment, but we have to also realize that Dr. King was controversial,” Legend told me in a recent phone conversation. “Dr. King was seen as a radical by a lot of people. Dr. King wasn’t extremely popular before he died, and so for us to talk about things that may not be popular with everybody, it is part of carrying on with his spirit. I always quote (jazz singer and civil rights activist) Nina Simone. She said, ‘It’s the artists’ duty to reflect the times they live in,’ and so with this song we wanted to pay tribute to the important roles that all the people play in Selma, but we also wanted to reflect the time that we live in.”
Common gives great credit to Legend’s chorus for inspiring his rap verses.
“I think when I heard what John was singing, I felt like this was a song that, in his chorus, was of the now even though it carried the tradition of the people back then who were fighting for freedom and standing up for human rights and civil rights,” Common said. “It had that spirit, but it also felt now. And I thought that Selma itself was really relevant because even though I hadn’t seen the film before we wrote the song, I still knew that I was reading about things, about voting rights that were being reversed recently and I was like, wow, this movie is becoming even more present. And with situations like when I saw what happened with Mike Brown and Eric Garner, it was like I knew what we had filmed and I felt this is of the now. It’s necessary to speak about it and show that, yes, we’ve come a long way but we have a long way to go. So with these situations we are still facing right now, we have to acknowledge them and do what we can to heal them and move forward.”
The song, a combination of Common’s rap verses and Legend’s powerful gospel-flavored chorus, will be performed by the pair on the Oscar show, just as they did for the Grammys last week.
It won both a Golden Globe and Critics Choice Movie Award for Best Song and could become the third rap-infused song to win at the Oscars after Three 6 Mafia’s It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp from Hustle & Flow, and Eminem’s Lose Yourself from 8 Mile.
Paramount even turned Common’s poetic “I Am” Golden Globe acceptance speech into something of an Internet meme, creating the image at right.
As for performing on the Oscars, it will probably be hard to top the emotional rendition they performed on the actual Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, when cast and filmmakers joined with thousands of others in re-creating the march last month in honor of its 50th anniversary.
“It was definitely one of our greatest moments for both of us,” Common said. “I think it was a monumental time in our careers to be able to have that opportunity.”
Legend agreed that it was indeed a special day.
“I really felt connected to history,” Legend said. “We were able to meet some of the people who marched 50 years ago. It was very powerful to be there.”
Should they win, we won’t hear either of their names called when the envelope is opened. Instead it will be John Stephens and Lonnie Lynn, their real names.
“That’s how I always list my songwriting credits to make sure the check goes to the right place,” laughed Legend, er, Stephens. So when they were writing the song (communicating with each other over the Internet by the way ), did they have visions of an Oscar nomination already floating in their head? Not right at the beginning.
“Not at the moment we were writing, but I think once we gave it to Ava (DuVernay, the director) and Paramount, everybody was really excited, and they were like, ‘Man, you might get an Oscar nomination for this,'” said Legend. “And you never want to bank on that because I’ve had people tell me that before, but I never got one of them.”
“Yeah, so you never know,” added Common, “but at the end of the day, I know we’ve created it from a pure place of just wanting to be a part of it and be an extension of what Selma is, and connecting with the film and connecting people to the movement and what’s going on presently. But once we started going for this, we were definitely hoping (for a nomination), and it was great to get the call and find out that we were Oscar nominees.”