Why The ‘Selma’ Soundtrack Deserves An Oscar

February 22, 2015 at 9:34 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Screen shot 2015-02-22 at 9.12.22 AMGuest editorial by Emmett G. Price, III

Selma is powerful, provocative, conversation starter on race relations in our nation. While pundits and critics focus on the portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson and others bemoan the lack of awards, don’t sleep on the music!

Selma offers the perfect soundtrack to not only make the screenplay come to life but to make history live again. The partnership of Music Director Morgan Rhodes and Director Ava DuVernay is not a new one (In 2012 they teamed up on DuVernay’s Sundance Award Winner, Middle of Nowhere and in 2013 they completed a short, The Door), but with Selma they made a timeless treasure.

Any attempt to chronicle the diverse lives of black folks, and others, must rely on the right music, stitched and weaved together, the right way. Within the black experience, whether historical or contemporary, music is never simply a background. Music is the foreground and it matters!

During the civil rights movement music provided the esprit de corps. Music kept thousands of individuals and families motived, encouraged and inspired to keep their “eyes on the prize.” The music of the movement set the pulse, stabilized the cadence and amplified the rhythm of masses of people into one combined force for change. DuVernay and Rhodes understood this and executed in impressive fashion.

The soundscape of Selma brilliantly balances tone and texture in order to empower the many voices of the people of the movement and not just the leaders. In this chronicle of a three-month journey, the music elevates the voices of women in a way that offers an enlightened correction to the often male-dominated depiction of the movement. We hear the voices of Sister Gertrude Morgan, Martha Bass, Sarah Vaughn and Odetta as we witness the priceless contributions of Amelia Boynton, Annie Lee Cooper, Diane Nash and of course, Coretta Scott King.

As curator, Rhodes demonstrates a sonic journey that includes folk, blues, jazz, gospel, funk, R&B, Black improvisational music, Hip Hop and new compositions by Jason Moran. Yes, Jason Moran!

The soundtrack offers not only a demonstration of the diversity of ideas, thoughts and voices within the movement but it also offers an informed notion that music is both sound and text. In moments where there were powerful verbal exchanges or pivotal speeches, there is a courageous amount of musical silence. Music is not merely the presence of sound but the negotiation of sound and silence.

It is in the music that the most comprehensive notion of resistance is heard and felt. From the opening silence, to the cacophonous explosion to the “voice of God” (phenomenally performed by Ledisi) to well calibrated excerpts of Otis Redding, The Impressions, Joyce & Johnita Collins, Fink, The Staple Singers, the Soul Stirrers, The Orions, William Attoway & Irving Burgie, McCoy Tyner and Yusef Lateef. What an amazing collection of differing voices with a wide range of approaches towards voicing the same goal of fighting for freedom.

Rhodes’ inclusion of J.B. Lenoir, Duane Eddy and Seabell Kennedy proves that she can crate dig with the best! A true testament to her sincerity, sensitivity and savvy was the inclusion of the actual field recordings of the Selma demonstrators recorded in 1965 by Carl Benkert and released on Moses Asch’s Folkways Records as Freedom Songs: Selma, Alabama (FH 5594).

Yet, the most powerful contribution is Common and John Legend’s protest anthem, “Glory.” The opus has already earned a Golden Globe and is nominated for an Academy Award. More important than accolades, though, is that the three-minute inspirational hit connects the events of Selma to the movement in Ferguson challenging all to understand that the struggle continues and must be fought until the war is over and victory is won.

Don’t sleep on the music of Selma, for it is the music that best connects generations, cultures, ethnicities, spiritual beliefs and races towards the pursuit of equality and justice for all. The music highlights the “drama” that Dr. King taught and modeled as a strategy for justice-based civil disobedience. It is in the music that we are challenged to “negotiate, demonstrate and resist!”

Emmett G. Price III, Ph.D. is a pastor and associate professor of Music at Northeastern University’s School of Music. He is the author of Hip Hop Culture and editor of several works including The Black Church and Hip Hop Culture: Toward Bridging the Generational Divide. Follow him on Twitter.

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