With Songs From Black Films Dominating Awards Race, H.E.R., Janelle Monae, Leslie Odom Jr. and Others Discuss Why the Change Has Come

The best original song race at the Oscars and Globes has seen songs from "Judas and the Black Messiah," "One Night in Miami," "All In" and other films with racial justice themes dominating the conversation.

Music for Screens Leslie Odom Jr
One Night in Miami: Patti Perret/Amazon; Monáe: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP;

Original songs by Black artists with specifically Black themes have only occasionally found their way into contention for the Oscar and Golden Globes races over the past decade. “Glory” by Common and John Legend, from “Selma,” won seven years ago. Three years ago, Mary J. Blige’s “Mighty River” from “Mudbound” was up for the prize. But if these were considered outliers, the 2021 voting has reversed that narrative. With so many songs from Black films in the race, it’s a change that Sam Cooke (one of the subjects of “One Night in Miami”) might be proud of.

Among the songs with at least a subliminal sense of social consciousness, and in most cases a deep and explicit one, vying for the song prize at this stage of the voting for the Globes, Oscars or both: “Speak Now” from “One Night in Miami,” sung and co-written by one of the film’s stars, Leslie Odom Jr.; “Turntables” from “All In: The Fight for Democracy,” sung and co-written by Janelle Monae; “See What You’ve Done” from “Belly of the Beast,” sung and co-written by Mary J. Blige; “Never Break” from “Giving Voice,” sung and co-written by John Legend; “Fight for You” from “Judas and the Black Messiah,” sung and co-written by H.E.R.; “Hear My Voice” from “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” sung and co-written by Celeste; and “Tigress & Tweed” from “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” sung and co-written by the lead actor, Andra Day.

What’s goin’ on? Exactly.

It may be a coincidence that all the films represented are coming out in the wake of the George Floyd protests and the further rise of the Black Lives Matter movement last year, since most had wrapped production before the pandemic. But in most cases the songs for these movies, which often tend to be the last step in bring a production to completion, were being written while those events were at the forefront of the national consciousness.

“When we were writing our song, we were just a few weeks after George Floyd got lynched publicly,” says Odom. “Things were on fire at the time we were writing that song. We were just a few months after Ahmaud Arbery. As a Black father, raising these babies and then watching this young man on the side of the road in America, pulled over for proof of his manhood and his humanity, and at 25 years old, he answered them with his life… That murder had shaken me to my core, man.”

While that filtered into the ultimate tone of his song for “One Night in Miami,” Odom says he co-wrote four songs for director Regina King to choose from. One of the choices he offered her was even, improbably, an upbeat one. Although that might have seemed at odds with the contemplative tone of the ending of the movie, he felt there could have been a way to justify going out with more of a banger. “I think there was so much joy present on that night (portrayed in the film), too. It’s a celebration; it’s a party,” Odom says. “And even though things go left in the film, it still is a celebration of brotherhood, friendship and humanity.”

But at the end, with his original song so closely following Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” at the close of the film, it made sense to go with something that felt like a sequel to that social anthem. “The first question we asked ourselves was, has that change come? And if it has, for whom? I think it’s cynical and not true to say that we’re in the exact same spot that we were when Sam wrote that song and he imagined a future. But I don’t think he would say, ‘You’re all done — congratulations, you did it.’ ‘Get back to work’ I think is what he’d be saying.”

That “One Night in Miami” song has something very much in common with the “United States vs. Billie Holiday” end theme: It’s essentially a decades-later answer song to one of the great 20th century protest songs by a Black singer — in the latter case, to Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” “Say a prayer for me / Strange fruit, come down off that tree,” Day sings at the beginning of the new tune, which appears in a ‘50s rendition during the course of the movie and in a contemporary one played out in full over the credits.

“She spent three years playing Billie,” says Day’s co-writer and producer, Raphael Saadiq. “She felt some responsibility to connect and dive into ‘Strange Fruit’ and try to make that next step going forward.” That was fine by Saadiq, who says, “My whole life has been to write about some type of struggle at some point.” He is happy to see the wave of films these songs are coming from, as stories of injustice besides the ultimate injustice the movies have sometimes focused on. “These are the stories that should be told,” Saadiq says, “because there’s a lot more stories to be told other than slave movies.”

What mood to send audiences out with after a story of injustice often comes up for conversation. Says H.E.R., about finding the right tone to wrap up “Judas and the Black Messiah, “We had a few conversations about what they were looking for. And I was like, ‘Should it be a ballad? What do we want to convey?’ And they really told me that they wanted a more hopeful tone, and so I had that in the back of my mind” in coming up with “Fight for You.” “The struggle continues, and we need to give people hope because it’s easy to look at the movie and say, ‘Man, nothing has changed.’ And while that is true, there are people who are continuing the work that Fred Hampton did.”

It’s not just a fight-the-power anthem — although, in closing a story about the Black Panthers, that’s definitely part of it — but “we were absolutely thinking of the love story, too. It had to represent all of those stories in the film … fighting for a movement or fighting for someone you love.” Finding antecedents to draw on wasn’t hard for H.E.R., who doesn’t shy away from drawing upon classic R&B from the time of the film’s late ‘60s setting or the early ‘70s period that followed: “I felt like I had to make a song that was like a Marvin Gaye song, or a Nina Simone or a Sly and the Family Stone song.”

Nasri, a writer-producer who helped Legend write “Never Break,” says their song was, in fact, written before the pandemic or the George Floyd killing. “There wasn’t any catastrophe going on at the time. I think we were, in a way, foreshadowing the future with this song.” It’s served many purposes outside the film it’s in: Legend sang it as a social consciousness anthem for the Democratic convention, and as a love song for his wife, Chrissie Teigen, after she experienced a miscarriage. And Nasri, who is of Middle Eastern descent, absolutely believes it’s a racial justice anthem, though not explicitly so in its language.

“It’s so interesting how the song has played in at least three different avenues,” Nasri says. “One was to support the man who is now our president, and it was also performed to support John’s wife, and to support characters and dialogue in a movie. It’s so gratifying as a writer to have all those wins with just one song. And it was the George Floyd situation, and feeling Black Americans were fed up and not having their lives valued, that made John want to get the song out sooner last year, and not just in conjunction with the movie.” Nasri believes the song was “created because the universe knows why it’s putting that through us. It was created for that moment.”

In writing her song “Turntables” for “All In,” a documentary about Stacey Abrams and the history of voter suppression in the South, Monae came up with a number she was worried was too incendiary to be used )— although she says would have refused to change a word of it if Abrams and the producers had balked at anything.

“I didn’t want to censor my feelings,” says Monae. “I’m not a politician, I’m an artist. And my responsibility is to an unfiltered truth whenever I’m writing music and lyrics. And I think with someone like Stacey, who I love and respect and admire, I know that there are a lot of eyes on her and what she’s a part of. And  when you’re a politician, you have to move differently.” But in the end everyone was good with the song’s fiery tone. ”We all held hands around a truth that we all believe in and support, so there was nothing to change about it.” (Not even the F-bomb that gets dropped in the second verse.)

Adds Monae, “I think that, for me, as a Black person living in America, in the words of Nina Simone, my responsibility as an artist is to reflect the times. And I wish these were not the times we lived in. I wish that I didn’t have to write a song fighting against voter suppression and drawing attention to the injustices of marginalized people. And I wish that the other artists didn’t have to do that. But we live this experience. This is not something we get to turn off and turn off. This is life for us, and for our families and friends, this has been life for our ancestors.”

Common is pleased to see this wave of Black songs following in the footsteps of his Oscar winner from a few years back. “Black music hasn’t been at the front of the minds of a lot of people who are voters for award shows, to be honest,” he says. “And now, due to where we are in our country and the world… I’m not one of those people upset that it’s late. Whenever we get it, when you get there, we’re there.”