Photo courtesy of Disney
A Life, A Spirit, A Name: 'Pocahontas' Songwriters Reflect On The Disney Animated Classic 25 Years After Its Release
"The messages of the film have become more urgent and more necessary," GRAMMY-winning composer Stephen Schwartz tells GRAMMY.com in an exclusive interview
"It was courageous and tried to push the envelope of what one can do in an animated feature for a general audience. To this day, it remains a brave and beautiful film," says Stephen Schwartz. Over the course of his career, Stephen Schwartz has composed groundbreaking musicals such as Pippin, Wicked, and the GRAMMY-winning Godspell. But in 1996, he won his second award from the Recording Academy, this time as a lyricist, collaborating with the equally renowned composer Alan Menken on the Disney animated feature Pocahontas. Today, 25 years after the film’s initial release, Pocahontas' strengths have only grown. "We really wanted to deal with racial discrimination and environmentalism, it feels more timely to me than ever," Menken adds. "It was so powerful to reach into the trove of influences that came from early America and Native Americans to give Pocahontas such a unique and powerful color palette."
Prior to Pocahontas, Schwartz and Menken had become friends, though hadn’t yet gotten the chance to work together. Menken had a long line of film hits under his belt, including multiple Disney features; alongside lyricist Howard Ashman, Menken composed the scores to Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, and Aladdin. But after Ashman’s death midway through writing Aladdin, Disney linked Menken with other collaborators.
After pairing with Tim Rice to finish Aladdin, Disney suggested Schwartz for their next film. "You can't really fill Howard Ashman’s shoes, but they needed someone who would work well with Alan," Schwartz says. Menken, meanwhile, had long watched Schwartz's work with admiration. "He was a legendary composer, the wunderkind of Broadway back in the '70s," Menken says. "He was very much a standard for bringing pop music into Broadway." Most recently, Schwartz had written the lyrics to the Broadway show "Rags," but had composed music, written lyrics, and even directed. Schwartz was confident that his flexibility would bode well for their work. After a successful interview with Disney leadership and chatting with Menken, Schwartz signed on to the project—even before learning what the film was all about.
Once he understood that he'd agreed to write lyrics for Pocahontas rather than a fairytale-based film like The Little Mermaid—and for an animated Disney film—Schwartz got nervous. "Talking honestly about Native Americans and their encounters with white settlers would be difficult. But the worst that could happen is they'd see what I came up with and I'll get fired," he says.
Menken, meanwhile, was already a veteran of the Disney process, and knew that back-and-forth would be positive and essential. "Arrangement and song structure and lyrics change constantly throughout the writing of any movie, and one of the keys of success is never being precious about that," he says. "If you change something and it's better, that's great. And if you change something and it's not better, you just go back to what you had. There's no downside of being flexible."
Luckily, the first song the two wrote not only didn’t necessitate firing, it proved to be the film’s beating heart: "Colors of the Wind." The reaction from Disney brass was overwhelmingly positive, and the duo knew they’d found a way to convey these sensitive topics in American history—and to do so in a beautiful, honest way.
To reach that place, Menken and Schwartz immersed themselves in research on Native American culture. "I have this slogan: ‘in lieu of inspiration, do research,'" Schwartz says. For Menken, that meant learning as much as he could about traditional Native American music. "The percussive nature of the voices and drums, the beautiful wind instruments all came together," Menken adds. "From there, it was about overlaying a romanticism and a classicism that really characterizes that score."
Schwartz, meanwhile, tracked down books of history of the Algonquin tribes as well as Native American poetry. In the latter, he was fascinated by nature imagery, the way that the poems used metaphors to tell stories. The most significant source of inspiration, though, was a (potentially apocryphal) letter written by Duwamish tribe Chief Seattle to then-President Franklin Pierce. "I remember so vividly the first time I read, ‘There is no quiet place in the white man’s cities. No place to listen to the leaves of spring or the rustle of insect wings,'" Schwartz says. "If you look at the lyrics for ‘Colors of the Wind,' you can see how inspired I was by his words. I tried to capture the spirit of this philosophy and the cadence of Native American poetry." In fact, when the song won an Academy Award, Schwartz made sure to credit the award to Chief Seattle in his acceptance speech.
Seeing the final product of "Colors of the Wind" within the film, Schwartz remembers, was a revelation. The duo had written the song around the concept of an impossible metaphor: the visuals of something invisible. But Disney worked its magic. "We were writing about a deep philosophy for the character of Pocahontas and her people, which was in stark contrast to the white men that came looking for gold and saw the land as a basis for exploitation," Schwartz says. "The animators very cleverly turned it into blowing autumn leaves."
Ultimately, "Colors of the Wind" proved significant in defining themes and the central conflict for Pocahontas. Over the three- to four-year process, the film’s directors worked closely with Menken and Schwartz to ensure the themes and character concepts carried through. In fact, towards the end of the creation of Pocahontas, Menken and Schwartz were tasked with composing the music for Hunchback of Notre Dame. "If I had to jump over and write a song for Hunchback and then come back, it could take a couple of days to just see through those eyes again," Schwartz says.
Not only was the song important in the film's production, it proved to have a potent life outside of Pocahontas as well. The song was recorded with pop star/actor Vanessa Williams for the film's soundtrack, and the version wound up becoming a top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. After previously being passed over for a Disney role years earlier, Williams cherished the opportunity to become a part of that world. "For me, it’s much more than just a beautiful song that Steven Schwartz and Alan Menken wrote," Williams says. "It's more triumphant when married with the journey that I went through, the triumph after being rejected."
Rather than merely recording the song as it was in the film, Williams worked with producer Keith Thomas on a new take. Thomas had produced Williams’ previous hits such as "Save the Best for Last" and "Sweetest Days." Schwartz and Menken joined the duo in the studio, and suggested that Williams try out a pop and R&B-inflected take on the song, rather than leaning into musical theater. “It's such a beautiful song and I just love that she's a triumphant Native American, which is fantastic,” she explains. “You have to connect to the material and you have to create the moment. It's one of those songs that audiences always connect to.” Williams also had the opportunity to perform “Colors of the Wind” the night it won Best Song Written for a Motion Picture at the Oscars.”I had dancers and aerialists and a revolving staircase to climb up in my Versace gown,” she recalls.
More than a powerful step in her career, Williams was excited by the film's extended representation within the Disney universe. As a centerpiece of Pocahontas, the vocalist always focused down on a single verse: "For whether we are white or copper skinned/ We need to sing with all the voices of the mountains/ We need to paint with all the colors of the wind." To this day, those lines give Williams an extra charge every time she sings them. "I always indicate my arm, my copper-colored skin when I get there," she explains. "I have Native American heritage in my background. I have Native American blood in my veins."
While writing a song honoring the Native American perspective may have been a challenge, Schwartz was unsure as to how Disney would react to songs that more directly addressed white settlers’ deleterious effect on the land and the indigenous people. "I felt we had to directly address the themes of ethnic conflict in 'Savages,' which I had never seen done in animation before," Schwartz says. "And then Ratcliffe, who is I suppose is the villain, sings, ‘Mine, Mine, Mine’ which is a song about rapaciousness." Again, Disney surprised him in its unwavering support of the bold direction. "I found them enormously courageous," Schwartz says. "I kept expecting them to say we were pushing it too far, that it was too controversial, but they really never did that."
The major point of struggle in the film’s composition came in writing a pure love song for Pocahontas and John Smith. Menken and Schwartz’s composition, "If I Never Knew You," was loved by Disney, but when it slowed the pace too drastically in early screenings, the duo suggested it be removed. "It’s a beautiful song, but I anticipated that people were going to come to the table and question whether we needed it," Menken says. "But I surprised people. We sat down at our postmortem and I questioned whether it was necessary and everybody at the table sighed a deep sigh of relief because they were concerned about having to confront me about it." The music was used for the end credits in the initial release, but was actually added back into the film itself when it was re-released for its 10th anniversary.
While neither Schwartz nor Menken may be Native American, they worked to ensure they could bring to light the oppression Native Americans face as well as the beauty of the culture. "I feel strongly that we would all be a lot better off if we were more conscious of how we are treating our earth and that we have a responsibility to the humans that follow us to leave them a habitable planet,” Schwartz says. "Climate change was not something that was as in the forefront in 1992, when we first wrote 'Colors of the Wind,' and 1995 when the film was released. But today, as we see the dire consequence of our failing to take care of our planet, the messages of the film have become more urgent and more necessary."
Menken similarly remains proud of the film’s place in providing more representation for Native Americans. "Pocahontas was so pivotal given contemporary sensitivities about how we depict Native Americans," he says. "This is a musical and a Disney project, so there are elements that are really romanticized in the storytelling, but we had very pivotal Native advisors such as Russell Means. We and Disney wanted to be accurate and balanced in our depiction of the story."
Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016
Upon winning the GRAMMY for Best Rap Album for 'To Pimp a Butterfly,' Kendrick Lamar thanked those that helped him get to the stage, and the artists that blazed the trail for him.
Updated Friday Oct. 13, 2023 to include info about Kendrick Lamar's most recent GRAMMY wins, as of the 2023 GRAMMYs.
A GRAMMY veteran these days, Kendrick Lamar has won 17 GRAMMYs and has received 47 GRAMMY nominations overall. A sizable chunk of his trophies came from the 58th annual GRAMMY Awards in 2016, when he walked away with five — including his first-ever win in the Best Rap Album category.
This installment of GRAMMY Rewind turns back the clock to 2016, revisiting Lamar's acceptance speech upon winning Best Rap Album for To Pimp A Butterfly. Though Lamar was alone on stage, he made it clear that he wouldn't be at the top of his game without the help of a broad support system.
"First off, all glory to God, that's for sure," he said, kicking off a speech that went on to thank his parents, who he described as his "those who gave me the responsibility of knowing, of accepting the good with the bad."
He also extended his love and gratitude to his fiancée, Whitney Alford, and shouted out his Top Dawg Entertainment labelmates. Lamar specifically praised Top Dawg's CEO, Anthony Tiffith, for finding and developing raw talent that might not otherwise get the chance to pursue their musical dreams.
"We'd never forget that: Taking these kids out of the projects, out of Compton, and putting them right here on this stage, to be the best that they can be," Lamar — a Compton native himself — continued, leading into an impassioned conclusion spotlighting some of the cornerstone rap albums that came before To Pimp a Butterfly.
To Pimp a Butterfly singles "Alright" and "These Walls" earned Lamar three more GRAMMYs that night, the former winning Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song and the latter taking Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (the song features Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat). He also won Best Music Video for the remix of Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood."
Watch Lamar's full acceptance speech above, and check back at GRAMMY.com every Friday for more GRAMMY Rewind episodes.
Photo: Graeme Hunter
5 Key Music Moments From "Succession": From The Viral Theme Song To Kendall's Cringey Rapping
As "Succession" comes to a close tonight with the fourth and final season, GRAMMY.com is taking a look back at the Emmy-winning HBO series' top music moments.
After four seasons of betrayal, power plays, and intense sibling rivalries, the prestige HBO drama "Succession" will finally make good on its premise when the Waystar board (potentially) crowns the next CEO of the company.
Throughout the show's run, music has played a pivotal role in the story of the Roy family's fight to take over their patriarch's media empire — whether through building tension, foreshadowing or meta-commentary. The rich storytelling, pitch-perfect performances, masterful cinematography, and direction are bound together by emotional, gripping and, at times, haunting music from the show's composer Nicholas Britell, who received his first-ever GRAMMY nomination for Best Score Soundtrack For Visual Media (Includes Film And Television) for his score for season three of "Succession" at the 2023 GRAMMYs.
Britell's unique musical voice helps amplify the narrative, as seen in moments like Shiv's betrayal by Tom at the end of season three. To score the revelatory moment, the composer deployed the show's first-ever use of choral arrangements.
Just before the choir begins, there's a brief pause — a moment that elevates the tension, helping viewers to feel the full weight of Tom's betrayal. It's this type of precision that "Succession" fans have come to admire and expect from the critically acclaimed series.
As Shivy Shiv and the Roy boys prepare to wage their final battle in the war to gain control of Waystar Royco, GRAMMY.com revisits five of the show's standout musical moments.
The “Succession” Theme Song Goes Viral
The main title theme is easily the most popular piece of music from the show thanks to its creative blend of classical and hip-hop. The theme is compelling but slightly unnerving — and that's by design. Dissonant chords played on an out-of-tune piano, stabby strings and a chugging drumbeat combine to create an emotional response that befits the intensity of the prestige drama.
"The score for 'Succession' has a similar duality that I think the show has, which is this combination of elements of absurdity and also a deep gravitas under the surface," Britell told Vanity Fair in 2019.
After kick-starting the opening credits of the award-winning drama's pilot episode, the title theme became an instant hit among viewers. The infectious tune spawned several memes and parodies, including twerking Kermit, a Joker parody, a Mario Paint rendition, and a hilarious remix from writer Demi Adejuyigbe, which asks two pertinent questions: "Who will Daddy kiss?" and "Does he love his kids?"
Kendall's Hip-Hop Hype Music
Many of the show's key music moments revolve around Logan's No. 1 boy, Kendall (Jeremy Strong), who kicks off the pilot episode in the backseat of a Mercedes Benz rapping — and shadow boxing — to "An Open Letter to NYC" by the Beastie Boys to psych himself up for a big meeting.
This backseat rap moment came full circle in the middle of the final season, when Kendall is vibing out to Jay-Z's "Takedown" as his chauffeur drops him off at Waystar Royco HQ for his first day as co-CEO. This time around, there's no rapping along to Hov — this Ken is calm, focused and ready to protect his birthright from GoJo's Lukas Matsson.
But Ken is no stranger to a grim moment or theme. Season 3's "Chiantishire" ends with an intoxicated Kendall lying prone on a floating raft, his face seemingly submerged in the pool as Britell's chilling "Impromptu No. 1 for Strings" signals impending doom — leaving many viewers to presume the worst. The composer earned an Emmy nod for his work on the episode.
"L to the OG"
In season two's "Dundee," Kendall made the cringe-worthy decision to mark his father's 50th work anniversary by serenading the head of Waystar with his very own tribute song: "L to the OG."
After removing his suit coat to reveal a custom Logan Roy baseball jersey, the Notorious KEN thanked his boy Squiggle for "cookin' up the beat" then launched into his Logan-praising bars as his siblings, colleagues and associates watched in disbelief. Fans immediately fell in love with the song and rallied for HBO to release an official version — and they obliged.
While Britell created the beat for the song — which was not a part of the original script — he lauds Strong's contributions and performance for taking it to the next level.
"What was amazing was how Jeremy took this and made it his own. It's one thing to act, but it's another to pull off a true rap performance," he told Variety. "That's a whole other skill set. Jeremy wrote the melody that you hear when Kendall is singing that sung line, 'L to the OG,' it was him who came up with that part of it."
Connor's Karaoke Moment
When his ever-reluctant bride-to-be gets cold feet the day before their wedding, Connor convinces the Roy sibs to hit a karaoke joint after their work talk sours his impromptu bachelor party at a local bar. While there, Connor discovers that Willa has gone off-grid then reveals that he's invited their father to the bachelor bash so they can all clear the air — to the disdain of his plotting siblings.
Connor's vibe-killing rendition of Leonard Cohen's ultra-sad "Famous Blue Raincoat" — a song about a twisted love triangle — gets interrupted by Logan's entrance. And the Roys' final family meeting with their patriarch commences, only to be cut short after Logan fails to seal the deal, and then hurls one last searing insult at his brood: "I love you, but you are not serious people."
The Rise of Dark Kendall
In the penultimate episode of season four, Kendall finally completed his prophesied Anakin Skywalker-esque transition to the dark side in order to stake his claim to the recently vacated Waystar throne. As the church service concluded, Kendall — with the collar of his $9,000 cashmere overcoat flipped for maximum villainy — immediately resumed his quest to become the chosen Roy.
"There's been a profound transformation from the way I walked into that church to the way I leave that church," Strong said on the second-to-last episode of the official "Succession" podcast.
To mark the moment where Ken fully embraces his dark side, Britell crafted the CE-Bro his own villainous theme. The nefarious score was deployed after Ken sells one of his dad's Waystar allies, Hugo, on joining his team, as he schemes to tank the deal with Matsson — paving the way for his solo CEO era.
Photo: Courtesy of Maeta
ReImagined: Watch Maeta Perform A Ravishing Rendition Of Vanessa Williams' "Save The Best For Last"
Rising R&B talent Maeta totally inhabits Vanessa Williams' lyrical universe in this performance of "Save the Best for Last."
Back in 1992, Vanessa Williams dominated the Billboard Hot 100 with "Save The Best For Last," a work of emotive beauty and elegant simplicity from the previous year's album The Comfort Zone.
Therein, Williams deals in cosmological reversals: "Sometimes the snow comes down in June/ Sometimes the sun goes 'round the moon." Then, she connects this imagery to capricious love: "I see the passion in your eyes/ Sometimes it's all a big surprise."
More than three decades later, rising R&B star Maeta brings Williams' words and melody into the now with a heart-tugging performance of "Save the Best for Last" in this edition of ReImagined.
Back in its day, "Save the Best for Last" was nominated for two GRAMMYs — for Record Of The Year and Best Pop Vocal, Performance — and The Comfort Zone's title track and "Runnin' Back to You" netted nominations as well.
Now, Maeta has carved out her own notch in this GRAMMY-centric legacy with this ravishing rendition. Check out the performance above, and keep checking GRAMMY.com for more inspiring episodes of ReImagined.
Photo: Rachel Kupfer
A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.
It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.
Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.
Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.
In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.
Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.
There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.
Say She She
Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.
While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."
Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.
Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.
Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.
Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.
L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.
During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.
Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.
Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.