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From West Africa to the West Coast: the incredible story of how Black Panther’s OST came together

Black Panther

Black Panther was groundbreaking not only in embodying a modern pan-African utopia, but for bringing about, as pronounced by a Marvel press release, the “first time in Marvel Cinematic Universe history that Marvel Studios will integrate multiple original recordings created specifically for the film.”

Arguably as trailblazing as the movie itself, the two-part soundtrack consists of a score by Ludwig Göransson that’s heavily informed by traditional African music, alongside a tie-in album of original songs produced/curated by Kendrick Lamar almost exclusively featuring black artists. Here’s the incredible story of how the two soundtracks came to be.

Black Panther

The Black Panther original soundtrack is a stunning feat of overachievement, with collaborations spanning continents and a dedication to exploring what it means to be African. Here’s the incredible story of how it came together.

The Album

A Billboard chart-topper, Black Panther: The Album was an ambitious undertaking led by hip-hop’s modern monolith, Kendrick Lamar, in partnership with Top Dawg Entertainment’s in-house star producer Mark “Sounwave” Spears.

While the latter had a hand in 11 of the album’s tracks, Lamar wound up co-writing and co-producing all 14. The end product was above and beyond the expectations of Marvel and director Ryan Coogler, who had previously called upon Lamar’s talents for “just a few songs”.

Not that Coogler was complaining, being a long-time groupie of Lamar’s who had fantasised about their collaboration years beforehand. “I’ve been a massive Kendrick fan ever since I first heard him, since his mixtapes, and I’ve been trying to track him down,” Coogler told NPR. “Eventually I caught up with him a couple years ago — first with Anthony ‘Top Dawg’ Tiffith, who runs his label, and then later on sat down with him and Kendrick and just spoke about much his music affected me. He talked about my movies that he had seen, and we said if the opportunity comes, we’d love to work with each other on something.”

Lamar’s enthusiasm for the project can no doubt be attributed to his own relationship with his African roots, in light of his first ever visit to South Africa in 2014. Said trip came after his breakout with good kid, m.A.A.d city, which catapulted him from the troubled streets of Compton to international acclaim and influence. And upon travelling to Durban, Johannesburg, and Capetown, he felt his own identity crystallising, an experience that deeply inspired his follow-up record (To Pimp A Butterfly). As he summarised to The Recording Academy: “I felt like I belonged in Africa. I saw all the things that I wasn’t taught. Probably one of the hardest things to do is put [together] a concept on how beautiful a place can be, and tell a person this while they’re still in the ghettos of Compton. I wanted to put that experience in the music.”

The same sentiment is no doubt true for Black Panther: The Album, for which Lamar methodically recruited the talents of a wealth of pan-African singers and rappers from around the cosmos. And while the record boasts Lamar and Sounwave’s consciously modern production, it’s not without traditional influences, in the form of African percussion and use of Zulu language in key moments.

The Method To The Madness

Hardly one to take it easy, Lamar began work on the soundtrack right in the midst of touring the U.S. for his own solo album (DAMN). According to Sounwave, he and Lamar put together at least 50 percent of the soundtrack during that brief period on the road, from August to September 2017. “When we got back from the tour in September, that’s when we were able to execute our ideas and reach out to people we respect and whatnot … kind of just put the stamp on it,” Sounwave told NPR. “So, I want to say those two months was the most vital on that tour, in terms of creative process.”

The creative process was probably so fruitful thanks to the particular chemistry between Lamar and Sounwave, dating back to the latter’s discovery of a 16-year-old Lamar in L.A. as Top Dawg president Terence “Punch” Henderson described to Rolling Stone: “When you talk about Kendrick, you have to talk about Sounwave. Kendrick will half-state an idea in his head and Soundwave will finish the thought for him. He’s the glue to it all because even if he’s not making his own beat, he’s adding onto what Kendrick needs.”

Besides the creative powerhouse duo, other collaborations on Black Panther: The Album came about largely through fellow Top Dawg label-mates – namely SZA, Schoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, and Jay Rock – and Lamar’s personal list of favourites.

Recording of all guest artists happened across the globe from September 2017 to January 2018. Meanwhile, Lamar/Sounwave and their team operated from L.A., putting all of the elements together piece by piece.

The Community of Conspirators

The cast list for the soundtrack lives every bit up to the pan-African vision of its associated cinematic spectacle. And while the Americans make their presence known, the soundtrack notably features South African musicians Babes Wodumo (Redemption), Sjava (Seasons), Yugen Blakrok (Opps), and Saudi (X). The latter, who stars alongside rappers Schoolboy Q and 2 Chainz, put it best in Times Live: “I was told that I wouldn’t appeal to an international audience but here I am.”

On the topic of long-distance relationships, England’s rising R&B star Jorja Smith was called into the studio at the special request of Lamar who had, unbeknownst to her, been spying her talents from across the pond. The making of I Am subsequently occurred in all of four hours, with Smith being left to her own devices and improvising over a beat created by Lamar. “Then I get to the studio, he left the room, but he was like, ‘You can just mess around’,” Smith recalled to Apple Music.

SOB X RBE’s contribution to the soundtrack happened in much the same vein. The West Coast group were pleasantly stunned when Lamar’s manager, Dave Free, slid into their DMs and invited them to record a song for a fan named Kendrick Lamar. After confirming the truth of this with their own manager, the four went into the studio to write the verses of Paramedic with Lamar, who proved to be the collaborator of their dreams. As member Slimmy B described to The Fader: “It was real genuine. It was like we had been in the studio before-type-shit.”

Meanwhile, Lamar’s good friend Khalid Robinson was called on for his services via text message on his way out of a Norway tour with Lorde. The Ways, performed by Khalid and fellow American Swae Lee, resonated particularly with the former on account of his inspiring U.S. Army band musician mother. “For me, this song is an acknowledgement and appreciation of how many strong women across the board – women of color, especially – are the backbone of everything,” he expressed to Rolling Stone. “The women in the film are the ones with the power. They’re strong-willed, and they’re fearless, and they’re caring. I’m so blessed to have my own personal superhero mom who inspired me and taught me everything that brought me to where I am right now.”

Other prior collaborators included Houston’s Travis Scott and producer Cardo, who first laid down the beat of Big Shot in October and revelled in the ensuing back-and-forth of ideas. “Being around Kendrick, he’s like an evil genius,” Cardo pronounced to Digital Trends. “I don’t want to say evil genius, but that n**** just knows what he wants to do. He comes in the studio and knows exactly where he wants to go. He doesn’t even need an atlas map. We might go off road for a section, but we’re going in the same direction.”

The league of Lamar’s previous collaborators and mutual fans is wrapped up with The Weeknd, who cryptically advertised his involvement on Black Panther: The Album on Instagram prior to its release, and enjoyed the soundtrack’s second Billboard Top 10 entry with Pray For Me.

The Story Behind Ludwig Göransson’s Score

Black Panther’s orchestral Score marks the third time composer Ludwig Göransson has scored for Coogler. It’s a twosome that’s been going strong for eight years, dating back to their student days at USC and Coogler’s first short films. So it was only natural for Coogler to turn to Göransson for Black Panther – regardless of his Nordic whiteness. “It’s not lost on me that I’m a Swedish guy from one of the coldest countries in the world,” Göransson himself remarked to the Hollywood Reporter.

Precisely due to the oddness of this fit, and with Coogler’s encouragement, Göransson went the extra mile with preparation and research. After getting Coogler’s first draft of the script, Göransson headed straight to Africa; what he gained was a new understanding of music and, in his own words, a “life-changing experience.” As he told Broadcast Music, Inc.:

“It was an experience on all levels, personally. How I learned different ways of looking at my life, different ways of taking my time and performing music. Because music in Africa is a language. Everything that they play – all the music is written for a specific reason or a specific celebration or a specific ceremony. So just being able to be around that, the African musicians – musicians in Africa are called griots. That’s something you carry with your family name.”

The expedition began in Senegal, where Göransson managed to record local musicians doing their thing in service of the score-to-be. This couldn’t have been done without singer/guitarist Baaba Maal, whose vocals star in Wakanda, and who allowed Göransson to tag along with him on tour for three weeks.

After Senegal, Göransson drifted down to South Africa, immersing himself in Grahamstown’s International Library of African Music. Said library is notable for housing some 20,000 vinyl records of African tribal music, dated from the 1920s to the ‘60s, including approximately 500 instruments that no longer exist thanks to colonisation.

Having achieved all this research, Göransson went about putting together a score built on bonafide authentic African influences, originally writing about four hours’ worth of music. (Since Coogler isn’t in the practice of using a “temporary score”, Göransson simply worked with the director’s cut…) Recording then took place from October to December 2017, in none other than London’s Abbey Road.

The Unification of Two Universes

For recording sessions, Göransson used a 92-piece classical orchestra and 40-head choir; building around the recordings of Senegalese musicians he’d captured earlier. The challenge lay in incorporating those traditional African influences into the orchestral body of work expected for a cinematic soundtrack, without betraying the former or showing the seams. As Göransson summed up to Pitchfork: “The most difficult part is that as soon as you put production and orchestra on top of African music, it doesn’t sound African anymore.”

But Coogler had faith that Göransson could make it work, explaining to Variety: “The music had to be anthemic, in the cinematic language that we recognize for these event movies. Ludwig is so well versed in orchestral composition, he could find a way to merge the two, and know when to go with one or the other.”

Göransson did indeed make it work, by taking an unusual approach to the classical elements – “I had to think about the orchestra in a different way,” he explained to BMI. “The different instruments in an orchestra – I thought about that more in a rhythmical kind of way and how would the strings fuse if I wrote the string part for a Sabar drum. Being able to infuse the orchestra into African music, instead of putting African music into an orchestra.”

Göransson also had the opportunity to get into the studio with Lamar and Sounwave for crossover moments between the score and Black Panther: The Album, including Opps, the soundtrack to the film’s electrifying car chase sequence.

The Making of Motifs

A standout on the score is, of course, Wakanda, in which Baaba Maal sings in the Fula language. Maal, in fact, improvised those vocals in all of 30 minutes on Göransson’s last day in Senegal, after a Facetime session with Coogler. “I really didn’t know how I was going to use the Baaba Maal recording until much later when I got the first rough cut of the movie,” Göransson told Billboard. “When I saw the big sweeping shots of Wakanda, I immediately knew that Baaba’s voice would be the most powerful way to introduce that hidden kingdom.”

For the eponymous Black Panther himself, Göransson asked drummer Massamba Diop to play protagonist T’Challa’s name on the talking drum, a historic piece of percussion pitched by the squeezing of one’s arm. “So it’s like a voice—you’re literally talking with a drum,” Göransson explained to Pitchfork. “And that sound became the sound of the king.”

Meanwhile, the theme for troublemaker Erik Killmonger was based on the work of Fula flute player Amadou Ba, who utilised methods such as shouting into the flute to realize a certain sort of tone. “It sounded sad but also aggressive, energetic and impulsive,” Göransson described to Variety. “It really resonated with the character.” Göransson also felt that Killmonger’s theme should make use of modern production, and thus wove in trap beats with industry standard drum machines (namely, the famed Roland TR-808).

Devastatingly enough, Killmonger’s theme also includes the little touch of a sonic snippet from the reunion of T’Challa with his deceased father on Ancestral Plane. As Göransson synopsised to the Hollywood Reporter: “It’s all related in a way, just as they are related by blood.”

For the showdown between T’Challa and Killmonger, Göransson was keen to showcase sounds that are really used in African culture for such incidents; for that, he utilised percussion player Magatte Sow, who played a variety of rhythms one would play if a young upstart were to challenge their elder.

The women of the film were not to be shown up, though. For T’Challa’s genius younger sister, a theme was written around the fittingly whimsical sounds of the balafon, played by xylophonist Ibrahima Ndir Yoff and recorded in the Senegalese village of Toubab Dialaw.

As for the 40-strong choir, that was employed to the fullest for the theme dedicated to the Dora Milaje warriors, with the vocalists singing in the South African Xhosa language; their melodies are built around the previously recorded vocalising of Senegalese women – a cataclysm of female voices only right for the story’s uber-competent army of women.

Upon a superficial listen, Black Panther: The Album and the Black Panther: Original Score may be two different beasts, but they hang together with certain common threads: overachievement, collaborations spanning continents, an emphasis on percussion, and a dedication to upholding Coogler’s mission “to explore what it means to be African,” informed by professedly life-changing trips to Africa itself. May this be the future of the Hollywood soundtrack industry as we know it.

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August 24, 2018