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BLACK NATIVITY

The Songs
At the heart of the BLACK NATIVITY experience is music - which is a crucial storytelling device as well. Lemmons wanted to hark back to the spirituals that inspired Langston Hughes a half century ago, but also to draw from the contemporary currents that flowed out from the spiritual traditions into today's R&B, soul and hip-hop. Though this marks her first time ever directing a musical, she was ready to take the format and run with it in her own ways.

"I've wanted to do a musical for a long time," Lemmons notes. "I've always loved working with lyrics and music and story."

Still, she was aware that to move musical moments from her imagination to kinetic reality would take a devoted and talented team - which led her to bring aboard executive music director Raphael Saadiq. One of today's most prolific soul artists, Saadiq has released a number of critically acclaimed, Grammy-nominated solo albums. At the same time, he's become a celebrated producer and collaborator working with such artists as D'Angelo, John Legend, Joss Stone, The Roots, A Tribe Called Quest, Stevie Wonder, the Bee Gees, The Isley Brothers, Mary J. Blige, TLC, Whitney Houston, Snoop Dogg, Earth, Wind and Fire and many more.

Lemmons knew of no one else who could stitch together all the musical influences she wanted in the film. "I wanted a timeless quality. And to me, Raphael brings an element to music that is simultaneously very contemporary and timeless," she summarizes.

Saadiq was moved by Lemmons' interpretation of Langston Hughes. "The story she created is about togetherness - about bringing families together. Sometimes families have trials and tribulations but then sometimes you can come together, especially through songs and music," he explains. "The script was like a poem to me, a Langston Hughes poem."

Everyone was thrilled to have Saadiq on board. "The songs bring a whole other character to the movie," says Horberg. "Watching Raphael create these songs bar by bar and note by note, building from the ground up - and watching the collaboration between him as a musical artist and Kasi as a storyteller -- was amazing. And then we had the most incredible talent to bring the songs to life in their own ways."

"From the original songs to the spirituals, Raphael has given each his own take," says Rattray. "The music is very true to the essence of Langston Hughes' play because it covers the whole range from traditional to contemporary."

Mary J. Blige comments, "I have worked with Raphael several times. Just thinking about what he does musically makes my stomach feel funny and gives me chills. He was the soul of what we did in this film. He made us laugh. He had us cracking up during the pre-recording and made it fun for us."

Lemmons and Saadiq's creative collaboration started with period of intensive research and inspiration gathering. "We went to YouTube and listened to old spirituals, classic songs, and songs that were in the public domain that we wanted to do differently. The idea was to hold up tradition but still give it a new edge, and that was our challenge for the whole film," explains Saadiq.

Each song in the film hits upon what the Cobbs family is going through: "Test of Faith" speaks to holding fast in tough times; "Christmas in Baltimore" is about living poor in the city, "Motherless Child" hones in on the loneliness of being apart from your family, and "Coldest Town" is about surviving in a big city. Then there are the spirituals -- including "Be Grateful," "Fix Me Jesus," "He Loves Me Still," "Rise Up Shepherd and Follow" - each lovingly re-arranged for the film.

One of the classics Lemmons wanted to revisit is "Silent Night," the beloved Christmas carol first written in 1818 and declared a cultural heritage treasure by UNESCO in 2011 -- which becomes "Hush Child (Get You Through This Silent Night)." Lemmons had written the song into the script for the moment when Langston encounters two homeless kids caroling in front of his grandfather's house. That night he dreams his own version of "Silent Night," letting loose some of his most deeply buried personal anxieties. "In his dream, the song becomes about 'help me get through the silent night. God please help me get through this silent night,'" explains Lemmons.

Saadiq also collaborated with his frequent writing partner Taura Stinson on several original songs for the film. It exhilarated Lemmons to see how closely they were able to match what she was going for in the screenplay. "The first song they wrote, 'Test of Faith,' I had already written sample lyrics for, but what they wrote was so beautiful. I had an idea of what I wanted it to be, but they had gotten into in my head and interpreted what I was thinking in an incredible way," says Lemmons. It was Stinson who suggested what became one of Saadiq's favorite songs in the movies: the Walter Hawkins gospel tune "Be Grateful," which sweeps through the Cobbs family as they are unexpectedly brought back together. "Taura brought it up to Kasi and Kasi loved it. And then when Jennifer Hudson sang it...wow! She just comes in and kills a song. To me, 'Be Grateful' is one of the greatest gospel songs ever, so we wanted it to stay at a certain level, and Jennifer did that."

Recalls Lemmons: "During my research I went to Abyssinian Baptist Church and a woman in the choir does 'Be Grateful' as a solo and left me crying. I forgot about it but later, when we were looking for kickass song, Taura said, 'What about 'Be Grateful?' We were all very excited about it." 12 Lemmons and Saadiq also tailored the music to their cast. "Langston as played by Jacob had to have a different edge from the Reverend, played by Forest. Everybody has a different voice, a different urgency," says Saadiq.

Those different shadings became even clearer as the cast came in to record their performances. "What our cast did with the music that was laid down is just unbelievable," offers Lemmons.

Hudson says the music brought something special out of her. "I love this entire soundtrack. My favorite is 'He Loves Me Still.' It's exactly what the moment calls for; I can hear it as a hymn in church where the congregation sings together. 'Fix Me Jesus' takes us back to the base of gospel but re-interpreted by Raphael. The updated version of 'Silent Night' has the element of rap in it. It has beats to it, but somehow it's still 'Silent Night,' which takes it to a whole other level. 'Test of Faith' makes me feel Naima's every emotion through that song. Everything the scene needed was there in the song."

Forest Whitaker notes that Saadiq's arrangements helped him to find the strength of his voice as well. "Raphael is really talented and so it was great to get a chance to work with him. I had a nervous feeling because I haven't sung publicly in decades. But he really gave me comfort because he's so relaxed and supportive, and really understands everything about music."

For Angela Bassett, singing was both the most challenging and the most rewarding part of her BLACK NATIVITY experience. "Singing requires, for me, another sort of confidence because that's not what I lead with, but I loved the challenge," she says. "Kasi asked me in that first meeting, 'Do you sing?' And of course the actor's response is 'Yes, I do.' I would say the same if she asked me 'Do you fly a plane?' 'Yes, I do.' I was a little nervous about it, but the way they handled it, I'm very excited about it as well. One of my songs is with the incomparable Jennifer Hudson, so I tell my friends 'Oh, I have a duet with Jennifer.' I'm so proud of that."

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