With their stirring anthem from “Selma,” John Legend and Common have been making all the major awards-season stops. The duo picked up a Golden Globe trophy from Prince, they closed the Grammys (with the help of Beyonce) last weekend, and they’ll perform “Glory” at the Oscars, where they are considered the frontrunner to win the Academy Award in the best song category.
The two musicians collaborated on the emotional ballad just a few months ago, in October 2014. Common had completed his performance as activist James Bevel in “Selma,” which tells the story of the 1965 Civil Rights marches, when director Ava DuVernay made the suggestion that he also write a single for the soundtrack.
Common (in Los Angeles) called up Legend (who was touring in London), and the two brainstormed some ideas. Common sent over his lyrics, and Legend spent just an hour writing the melody. After DuVernay listened to their duet — which they recorded separately in their different locations — she loved it and instantly added the song to the film’s closing credits.
Legend and Common spoke to Variety by phone about the inspiration for “Glory” and why the song has become a call for action at recent marches across the country.
Were you guys awake on Oscars nomination morning?
John Legend: I was on the East Coast, so it wasn’t too early for me. I was watching television, so I thought I was going to see our category. But I watched the wrong feed, and they only showed the second half of the nominations, so I had to find out from my phone, because people were texting me congratulations.
Common: I wasn’t as calm as I thought I’d be. I was on the West Coast, and I woke up 20 minutes before. I decided not to turn on the TV. I thought, if calls start coming through, it’s good news. Ave was the first to call me and say, “You’re an Oscar nominee.”
Were you disappointed she wasn’t nominated for best director?
Common: I was definitely disappointed. I was disappointed that David Oyelowo didn’t get nominated for best actor [for playing Martin Luther King Jr.]. But I understand it’s a voting process, and our movie is about voting rights. I can’t knock the system.
Oprah appears in the film and she also produced it. Is she a fan of the song?
Legend: I heard from Ava how much she loved it.
Common: She told me at one point that she couldn’t get the song out of her head. Now when she sees me and John, she’ll sing “Glory” sometimes. It’s a great feeling to be able to touch Oprah Winfrey, and to reach kids from all walks of life.
Legend: One of the biggest inspirations for me is seeing people actually use the song in protests in New York on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and knowing so many young people look at the song as an anthem for them to march to.
Who came up with the lyric about Ferguson?
Legend: That was Common. I’m proud of him for doing that.
Common: I have to say that was one of the important things about “Selma” and what we wanted to accomplish with “Glory,” to awaken and remind people. The movement that happened 50 years ago was created so we could move forward.
The story of “Selma” has some obvious modern-day parallels.
Legend: When I see young people that have been protesting, I think they have been inspired by Dr. King’s legacy. The impetus for the protest in the last six months has been the killings of young unarmed black men and women who were executed in the street. But it’s about more than just the killings. It’s about centuries of oppression in this country. We’ve seen a lot of progress, and we’ve seen a lot of pain.
Common: Right now, the movement is about standing up for citizens of America. We have leaders out there. We have the heart and desire to create a better society for all people.
This song came together quickly.
Common: I spent two or three days thinking it out. It was really one of those moments when the thoughts just come to you, and you really are truly inspired and you don’t let your ego get in the way.
Legend: I spent an hour on it. My part is a few lines. Once [Common] told me about “Glory,” I sang what the chorus sounds like in my phone. When I went to the studio, I just fleshed out that idea. It’s not a lot of lyrics for me, but for Common to write 32 bars of verses is a lot.
How did Ava react when she heard it?
Common: After I laid my vocals down, I called her and played it for her on the phone. She was right in the middle of the edit, and she immediately put it in the film. I went over 20 minutes later with my daughter, and I saw it in the film. I was moved. That was my first time seeing any part of the film. I got to see that and hear “Glory” at the end.
Are you surprised the song brings listeners to tears?
Legend: No, this was meant to inspire people.