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Terence Blanchard On The Music Behind 'Da 5 Bloods,' Working With Spike Lee And The Lasting Impact Of Marvin Gaye

Terence Blanchard

Photo: Henry Adebonojo

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Terence Blanchard On The Music Behind 'Da 5 Bloods,' Working With Spike Lee And The Lasting Impact Of Marvin Gaye

The six-time GRAMMY-winning composer and trumpeter discusses how Marvin Gaye's iconic 1971 album, 'What's Going On,' shaped the film and his own life

GRAMMYs/Jun 28, 2020 - 01:04 am

It's no wonder film director/writer Spike Lee and six-time GRAMMY-winning composer/trumpeter Terence Blanchard are lifelong collaborators—their level of mastery together makes for exquisite storytelling.  

Blanchard first worked with the director in the late '80s when he performed on the soundtrack for Lee's 1989 breakthrough film, Do The Right Thing. The two have since worked together on more than 15 films including Jungle Fever (1991), Malcolm X (1992) and Summer of Sam (1999). Lee's 2018 film, BlacKkKlansman, which earned him an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, garnered Blanchard his first Oscar nomination for Best Original Score. 

Blanchard now returns to the scoring seat on Lee's newly released Netflix film Da 5 Bloods, yet another gut-wrenching drama from the socially conscious filmmaker.

The epic war drama tells the story of four African-American Vietnam War veterans who return to the country in search of the remains of their fallen Squad Leader and the buried treasure they left behind decades ago. 

The film's score, for which Blanchard utilized a 90-piece orchestra, features several songs from Marvin Gaye's iconic 1971 album What's Going On, which largely provides the movie's musical and thematic backbone.

"His music shapes the film in an immense way," Blanchard tells GRAMMY.com in a recent interview. "The lyrics are very powerful. I remember when Spike told me he was going to use it, it automatically just sent me down a direction, musically, where I wanted the score to have a grand feel to it. I wanted it to have more of a universal theme. I knew that Gaye's music was going to cover a certain aspect of the emotion of dealing with social injustice in this country."

GRAMMY.com spoke with Terence Blanchard about the musical vision behind Da 5 Bloods and how Marvin Gaye's quintessential album shaped the film and his own life.

With the recent Black Lives Matter protests, Da 5 Bloods seems even more timely. 

Sadly, I kinda felt the film was timely even without those events because we are still dealing with those same issues. With the [tragedies] of George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks and Breonna Taylor, it's just amplified what we have been talking about for decades.  

Spike has been known to constantly produce films that not only entertain, but make you reflect on the state of our social consciousness right now. I feel blessed that the movie is sparking debate, just like BlacKkKlansman did. But now, we have to go beyond debate and create legislation, change hearts and minds and really look for substantive change.

The opening montage of Da 5 Bloods, which illustrated the racially charged anguish of the Vietnam era in the 1960s, is heartbreaking to watch. 

It speaks to the whole nature of … people of color [having] been screaming about injustice for decades. If people were really listening in places of power, then that portion of the movie would be irrelevant, you know? But the sad truth of it is, we haven't moved the needle as much as we'd like to think that we have. The mere fact that we have a president who is willing to have a rally on Juneteenth in Tulsa, [Okla.], a place where Black Wall Street was dismantled—that says a lot about racism in this country and how people are still trying to justify those actions. So when I see a montage like that, it's heart-wrenching. 

But I know there are so many other stories to be told from our culture … Finally, it feels like people are starting to wake up to what is really going on and not constantly [falling] back into a position of defending. I think Spike has always been great at pushing that envelope, trying to make people reflect on what's been happening.

Speaking of "what's going on," let's talk about how Marvin Gaye's music served as the backbone of this film.

His music shapes the film in an immense way. The lyrics are very powerful. I remember when Spike told me he was going to use it, it automatically just sent me down a direction, musically, where I wanted the score to have a grand feel to it. I wanted it to have more of a universal theme. I knew that Gaye's music was going to cover a certain aspect of the emotion of dealing with social injustice in this country.

I wanted the score to partner with that in such a way to broaden the experience to hopefully draw more people to the film. One of the things we all know is that complacency is the enemy of change. We can't sit on the sidelines anymore. We have to become active and really do our part to effect change.

Read: Fight The Power: 11 Powerful Protest Songs Advocating For Racial Justice

What was Gaye's influence on your own life?

"What's Going On"—I remember when I first heard that, it was an impactful thing. As a kid, obviously we didn't have social media back then. That song made me feel like I wasn't by myself, that I wasn't crazy [for] feeling the things that I was feeling. 

Marvin's music, along with James Brown's "Say It Loud – I'm Black and I'm Proud," were things that started to shape my thinking in terms of being proud of who I am, what I could accomplish in my life and hopefully what I could give back to the world.

If you chronicle what has happened in the music industry, Gaye was a heterosexual male who was socially conscious—a strong male figure in the '70s who was a R&B singer. He broke through to other areas of the music world; back then, we used to call it "crossover." 

It's hard to find singers that have crossed over like that today. He wasn't afraid to talk about certain things or deal with issues. When you look at Sam Cooke, who was a balladeer, he sang a lot of beautiful songs. It wasn't until he sang “A Change Is Gonna Come" did people really start to understand that he was socially conscious.

With Marvin Gaye, we knew that; we got a sense of that. It felt he was out there speaking for us and to us at the same time.

Spike Lee (L) and Terence Blanchard (R) at a scoring session for Da 5 Bloods | Photo: Matt Sayles | © 2020 Netlfix Inc.  All rights Reserved.

Working with Spike for the past 30 years, what has he taught you?

He's taught me a lot about how to follow your heart. One of the things I have always loved about Spike is that he is a film historian. He loves film and knows it backwards and forwards. He doesn't allow that knowledge of history to totally shape what it is that he does. He still has his own vision about what's possible and what could be done. 

That is something that has always inspired me because I am the same way, being a jazz musician. You want to know your history, in terms of the music, but you don't want to be bound by it. You still want to use it as a springboard to move further and further into the future.

How do you use music to speak for you?

It's an interesting thing. I know it speaks for me, but I think a lot of it is me healing myself. With the types of films that Spike has done and my relationship with him, we have done topics that have been dear to my heart as well. In the process of dealing with that, you are trying to find some resolution. Hopefully, you are creating something that most people can relate to. 

I tend to think there are more people going through exactly what I am going through. Witnessing the depth of George Floyd on national television breaks my heart, angers me and enrages me in such a way that I know there are a lot of other Americans out there that are going through the same thing. Being an artist, you cannot turn away from those feelings, those issues, that passion. You have to utilize that and allow it to help create the music. Not the intellect; that's how we study and know how to make things work. It's that combination of passion and brains that allow you to come up with the ideas for these projects.

Read: The Impressions' "People Get Ready" At 55: How Curtis Mayfield Created A Musical Balm For Black America

What do you love more, performing your jazz music or composing?

I love performing, there's no doubt! But right now, due to the [coronavirus] pandemic, I love composing! I am a little nervous about being out in public; I have had friends and mentors succumb to COVID-19. It's just all too much at one time. It made me understand how real this issue is and how seriously we have to take it. It's unfortunate that the virus has been used for political gain. It potentially has put lives in danger. 

Terence Blanchard at a scoring session for Da 5 Bloods | Photo: Matt Sayles | © 2020 Netlfix Inc.  All rights Reserved.

It seems like you have a love for and commitment to socially conscious projects. 

One of the things that has always drawn me to certain artists in the jazz world is their ability to chronicle what has been going on in their environment. Look at John Coltrane's [civil rights elegy] "Alabama" for the four little girls—[Editor's Note: In 1963, Ku Klux Klan members killed four young Black girls in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Ala.]—and Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite ... I have always tried to be an artist that is always socially conscious. This is something that is a part of who I am. I feel like if I have a small, little platform, I should use it to try to raise people's consciousness.  

In an interview with Variety, you talked about the racism you had encountered as a Black composer. Do you see this changing?

Of course it's changing. Like anything else, people always say the wheels of change grind slowly … We need more women and people of color to have opportunities to play. We all know they are out there. It's not a vacuum of talent; there's talent all over the place. Opportunities need to happen for a lot of folks.  

What's next on your bucket list?

You know, it's that striving to write the perfect melody and the perfect piece of music, whatever that is. That's always been my passion: trying to strike the perfect tone between the intellect and the heart that will best represent any given moment of time in honor of our environmental experience—something that speaks truth to power.

You also scored the music for HBO's new crime noir TV series, "Perry Mason." What was your vision for that project?

My vision was to create something fresh that would be inviting for new viewers, but still harken to the period. Creating music for that genre is to allow the story to inform you. In any film, there will be gaps in the storytelling process, which is the reason why you have a score. The score can help push those emotional moments that help tell the story.

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

Rotimi

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

The Nigerian-American singer and actor sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about what inspired his latest album, 'Walk With Me'

GRAMMYs/Jul 8, 2019 - 10:04 pm

In 2015, Rotimi stepped into the New Orleans Superdome for the first time to experience the magic of ESSENCE Fest. Four years later, in 2019, the "Love Riddim" singer returned to the celebration as a performer, something he said was spoken into existence.

"Last year me and my manager had a conversation and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be on the [ESSENCE] mainstage this year. 365 days later, we did it," Rotimi told the Recording Academy at the 25th annual ESSENCE Fest.

Rotimi, also an actor on Starz' "Power," has evolved since his last album, 2017's Jeep Music, Vol.1. The singer said he really hit home with its follow-up, the recently released Walk With Me, a project he worked hard for, putting in hours in the studio after filming on set.

"Walk With Me is the first time I actually felt like I was giving myself as an artist, and personally I feel like with everything else I have going on I wanted to show people that this is really what I do," he said. "I wanted people to understand who Rotimi is, who Rotimi was before, who I want to be and just understand my growth and the journey and my passion for what I do."

Part of why the album felt like such a representation of him is because it embodies beats of his African roots, something he said was very present growing up Nigerian-American. 

"I grew up with a lot of Fela Kuti and I grew up with Bob Marley," he said of his musical roots. "But I also grew up with Carl Thomas and Genuine and Usher, so there was a genuine mixture of who I am and what I've grown up to listen to. The actual Walk With Me project was a mixture of influences of Akon and Craig David."

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Find Out Who's Nominated For Best Rap Album | 2020 GRAMMY Awards

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Find Out Who's Nominated For Best Rap Album | 2020 GRAMMY Awards

Dreamville, Meek Mill, 21 Savage, Tyler, The Creator, and YBN Cordae all earn nominations in the category

GRAMMYs/Nov 20, 2019 - 06:28 pm

The 2020 GRAMMYs are just around the corner, and now the nominations are in for the coveted honor of Best Rap Album. While we'll have to wait until the 62nd GRAMMY Awards air on CBS on Jan. 26 to find out who will win, let's take a look at which albums have been nominated for Best Rap Album.

Revenge of the Dreamers III – Dreamville                                                                        

 
This star-studded compilation album from 11-time GRAMMY nominee J. Cole and his Dreamville Records imprint features appearances from some of the leading and fastest-rising artists in hip-hop today, including label artists EARTHGANG, J.I.D, and Ari Lennox, plus rappers T.I, DaBaby, and Young Nudy, among many others. Recorded in Atlanta across a 10-day recording session, Revenge of the Dreamers III is an ambitious project that saw more than 300 artists and producers contribute to the album, resulting in 142 recorded tracks. Of those recordings, 18 songs made the final album, which ultimately featured contributions from 34 artists and 27 producers.

Dreamers III, the third installment in the label’s Revenge of the Dreamers compilation series, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart and achieved gold status this past July. In addition to a Best Rap Album nod, Dreamers III is also nominated for Best Rap Performance next year for album track “Down Bad,” featuring J.I.D, Bas, J. Cole, EARTHGANG, and Young Nudy.

Championships – Meek Mill

In many ways, Championships represents a literal and metaphorical homecoming for Meek Mill. Released in November 2018, Championships is the Philadelphia rapper’s first artist album following a two-year prison sentence he served after violating his parole in 2017. Championships, naturally, sees Meek tackling social justice issues stemming from his prison experience, including criminal justice reform. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, his second chart-topper following 2015’s Dreams Worth More Than Money, and reached platinum status in June 2019. Meek Mill's 2020 Best Rap Album nod marks his first-ever GRAMMY nomination.

i am > i was – 21 Savage

Breakout rapper and four-time GRAMMY nominee 21 Savage dropped i am > i was, his second solo artist album, at the end of 2018. The guest-heavy album, which features contributions from Post Malone, Childish Gambino, J. Cole, and many others, has since charted around the world, topped the Billboard 200 – a first for the artist – in the beginning of 2019, and achieved gold status in the U.S. As well, nine songs out of the album’s 15 original tracks landed on the Hot 100 chart, including multi-platinum lead single “A Lot,” which is also nominated for Best Rap Song next year. 21 Savage’s 2020 Best Rap Album nomination, which follows Record of the Year and Best Rap/Sung Performance nods for his 2017 Post Malone collaboration, "Rockstar,” marks his first solo recognition in the top rap category.

IGOR – Tyler, The Creator

The eccentric Tyler, The Creator kicked off a massive 2019 with his mid-year album, IGOR. Released this past May, IGOR, Tyler’s fifth solo artist album, is his most commercially successful project to date. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, marking his first time topping the coveted chart, while its lead single, "Earfquake,” peaked at No. 13, his highest entry on the Hot 100. Produced in full by Tyler and featuring guest spots from fellow rap and R&B stars Kanye West, Lil Uzi Vert, Solange, and Playboi Carti, among many others, IGOR follows the rapper’s 2017 album, Flower Boy, which received the Best Rap Album nod that same year.

The Lost Boy – YBN Cordae

Emerging rapper YBN Cordae, a member of the breakout YBN rap collective, released his debut album, The Lost Boy, to widespread critical acclaim this past July. The 15-track release is stacked with major collaborations with hip-hop heavyweights, including Anderson .Paak, Pusha T, Meek Mill, and others, plus production work from J. Cole and vocals from Quincy Jones. After peaking at No. 13 on the Billboard 200, The Lost Boy now notches two 2020 GRAMMY nominations: Best Rap Album and Best Rap Song for album track “Bad Idea,” featuring Chance the Rapper.

Brittany Howard, Brandi Carlile, Leon Bridges, 2 Chainz & More Join Small Business Live Benefit Livestream

Brittany Howard

Photo: C Brandon/Redferns/Getty Images

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Brittany Howard, Brandi Carlile, Leon Bridges, 2 Chainz & More Join Small Business Live Benefit Livestream

Proceeds from the event will be go toward loans to small businesses founded by people of color, with additional support to women-owned and immigrant-owned businesses, via Accion Opportunity Fund

GRAMMYs/Jun 16, 2020 - 04:13 am

This Saturday, June 20, artists including Brittany Howard, Brandi Carlile, Leon Bridges, 2 Chainz and more will come together for Small Business Live, a livestream fundraiser event for small businesses facing challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Proceeds from the livestream will go to Accion Opportunity Fund to support small businesses founded by people of color, with additional support to women-owned and immigrant-owned businesses.

“Entrepreneurs of color are denied credit more often and charged higher rates for money they borrow to fund their businesses. We need to accelerate support to underserved businesses in order to reach our full potential,” Accion Opportunity Fund CEO Luz Urrutia said. “We have to decide what we want our Main Streets to look like when this is over, and we must act decisively to keep small businesses alive and ready to rebuild. This is a fun way to do something really important. Everyone’s support will make a huge difference to small business owners, their families and employees who have been devastated by this pandemic, the recession, and centuries of racism, xenophobia and oppression.”

Tune in for Small Business Live Saturday, June 20 from 4:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. EDT on smallbiz.live. The site also provides a full schedule of programs and links to watch the livestream on all major digital platforms. To learn more about Accion Opportunity Fund, visit the organization's website.

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DJ Khaled, Nipsey Hussle And John Legend Win Best Rap/Sung Performance For "Higher" | 2020 GRAMMYs

DJ Khaled, Samantha Smith and John Legend

Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

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DJ Khaled, Nipsey Hussle And John Legend Win Best Rap/Sung Performance For "Higher" | 2020 GRAMMYs

DJ Khaled, Nipsey Hussle and John Legend take home Best Rap/Sung Performance at the 62nd GRAMMY Awards

GRAMMYs/Jan 27, 2020 - 09:05 am

DJ Khaled, featuring Nipsey Hussle and John Legend, has won Best Rap/Sung Performance for "Higher" at the 62nd GRAMMY Awards. The single was featured on DJ Khaled's 2019 album Father of Asahd and featured Hussle's vocals and Legend on the piano. DJ Khaled predicted the track would win a GRAMMY.

"I even told him, 'We're going to win a GRAMMY.' Because that's how I feel about my album," DJ Khaled told Billboard. "I really feel like not only is this my biggest, this is very special."

After the release of the song and music video -- which was filmed before Hussle's death in March -- DJ Khaled announced all proceeds from "Higher" will go to Hussle's children.

DJ Khaled and co. beat out fellow category nominees Lil Baby & Gunna ("Drip Too Hard"), Lil Nas X ("Panini"), Mustard featuring Roddy Ricch ("Ballin") and Young Thug featuring J. Cole & Travis Scott ("The London"). Hussle earned a second posthumous award at the 62nd GRAMMYs for Best Rap Performance for "Racks In The Middle." 

Along with Legend and DJ Khaled, Meek Mill, Kirk Franklin, Roddy Ricch and YG paid tribute to Hussle during the telecast, which concluded with "Higher."

Check out the complete 62nd GRAMMY Awards nominees and winners list here.