Why John Legend Went From Producer to Songwriter on August Wilson Documentary ‘Giving Voice’

TheWrap magazine: “As a young Black man, it made me feel like our stories were valued,” says Legend of Wilson’s work


Last Updated: January 11, 2021 @ 6:36 PM

A version of this story about John Legend first appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

Before he ever wrote a song for the documentary “Giving Voice,” John Legend was involved as an executive producer through his company, Get Lifted. But Legend, who won an Oscar for the song “Glory” from “Selma,” has learned by now that when he comes on board the production of a film, another subject will eventually come up.

“Whenever we get involved, there’s a conversation around the music,” he said. “It isn’t always the case that I make a song for a movie that we produce, but often that’s part of my collaboration with the filmmaker.”

And in the case of “Giving Voice,” Legend knew that he wanted to have his own voice in the film about high schoolers from around the country who participate in the annual August Wilson monologue competition, which brings the finalists to Broadway. Legend, after all, was born in Springfield, Ohio, and the works of Pittsburgh native Wilson had an impact on him.

“So many of us saw our relatives and our neighbors and our community members on the stage in his plays,” he said. “To see the value in those people who were often overlooked, to find their stories worthy of this kind of treatment was something that as a young Black man growing up just a few hours from where August Wilson grew up, it made me feel seen and made me feel like our stories were valued.”

His admiration for Wilson and for the teens whose stories are told in the film made it easy for Legend to take on the task of writing an end-credits song for “Giving Voice.” “I was really inspired by the stories of the young people pursing their dreams and breathing new life into the legendary work of August Wilson, who has meant so much to so many people,” he said. “That excited me. I  thought it would be a wonderful place to use my creativity to be a part of the film.”

He also enjoys the process of writing specific film assignments, something he also did in 2020 on “Jingle Jangle,” the Netflix Christmas film on which he also served as a producer. “It’s always fun for me when I’m told, ‘Here’s the story we’re trying to tell, do you have any musical ideas for it?'” he said. “It’s different than writing for your own album or from your own voice. Literally giving a voice to the characters, to the story, to the filmmaker, is really exciting for me.”

The song’s title, “Never Break,” came quickly when Legend sat down to write with Nasri Atweh, Benjamin Hudson McIldowie and Greg Wells, and within about four hours they had a “nice demo” of the piano-based song of resilience. “I wanted it to be inspiring, like the stories of our characters,” Legend said. “They’re in a competitive situation, but they’re also just pursuing their dreams. And even if they don’t win, the act of doing it is powerful for them. It’s powerful for them to see new possibilities, powerful for them to be on that stage.

“And I ended up writing a song that could be applied to a relationship. I was definitely inspired by my own relationship with my wife, but it also could be applied to so many other endeavors where resilience is required, where there’s a commitment that no matter what challenges come our way, we’re gonna get through it. There are a lot of people that are tested in so many different ways, and I felt like this song could be an anthem for them.”

Read more from the Race Begins issue here.

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