Slavery without the sugar

2014-02-16 14:00

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John Legend curated and sang on the soundtrack for the film 12 Years a Slave. In this exclusive interview, he tells Lesley Mofokeng that slavery has been sugar-coated for too long.

MOVING MUSIC The 12 Years a Slave soundtrack

What attracted you to the film?

I was familiar with the subject and, after a private screening, I was amazed and moved by how beautiful and powerful it was.

I felt I had to be a part of it. I wanted to help in any way I could, inspired by the great performances and a great director.

So they wanted me to curate the soundtrack and music to complement the film.

Are you happy with how the story is told?

The story of slavery has been sugar-coated up to now.

This is the first major film to tell the story of how brutal and evil slavery was.

This is the first time we see, in a mainstream film, how nasty and inhuman slavery was.

You say American society has overlooked slavery for long?

A lot of people don’t want to focus on the negative and would rather not talk about it.

They just move on and say they are colour-blind.

But if you take an ahistorical view, then you won’t understand how to solve the problems because you don’t know the roots.

The same thing happens when you look at a history of oppression or limiting people with the ability to educate themselves and be free: the legacy lasts longer.

Even in America, you can’t look at the situation in our communities and not acknowledge the history of slavery and racism.

How was the curating process?

Hans Zimmer did the score. Steve McQueen [director] asked him long before I got involved.

He was gracious enough to allow us to use some of the elements for the soundtrack.

I reached out to Alicia Keys, Gary Carter Jr, Chris Cornell and Cody ChesnuTT.

I asked them to see the film and record something that was inspired by it?and everyone did a beautiful job of capturing the spirit of the film.

On a personal level, the story of Solomon Northup resonated with you?

Yes, my family was kidnapped back into slavery from Ohio.

They were freed by their master after his death, but were ­kidnapped back into slavery by some of his surviving relatives.

So in some ways, their story was similar to Northup’s.

What effect did the similarity have on you?

It made me more excited to be part of the film because I had a personal connection to the story.

I just recently learnt about my family history when I did a TV programme.

What do you hope listeners take from the music?

I want them to have a connection with the film and feel that even though it is very dark and the story pretty painful, the music that comes from it is beautiful.

What do you fancy the Oscar chances for the film?

There is a great chance. They won a Golden Globe for best drama already and that is often a good indicator of who can win at the Oscars.

Your latest album, Love in the Future, has already gone gold in South Africa.

I am aware. I get updates all the time.

South Africa is one of my most successful territories around the world and I ­always love it when I come to visit.

Everything we put out has done well in South Africa. And I am very grateful.

It’s 10 years since the release of Let’s Get Lifted. What has the journey been like?

It’s been beautiful. I love making music and travelling the world. I realise how lucky I am.

Any special celebrations?

I don’t know. I probably should do something.

Any plans to travel to South Africa?

It’s gonna happen soon. I have been talking. It’s gonna ­happen this year. We just have to settle the exact dates.

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