By: Emily Zwolfer
At the beginning of 2015, the song “Glory,” written by John Legend and Common, won a Golden Globe for “Best Original Song,” as well as an Academy Award. The two composed the song for the movie Selma, a movie depicting the life of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. The movie does an amazing job showing the events surrounding the historic 1965 Freedom Marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama for voting rights. The powerful lyrics in the song do a beautiful job of depicting the struggle of African Americans in the Civil Rights period, yet still relating it to the problems in today’s society.
John Legend, born John Stephens, was known as a child prodigy, growing up playing piano and singing at a young age. This eventually led to his career as a singer/songwriter whom has won a total of 9 Grammys with a name that most people know. The song “Glory” is about the march in Selma, but ties what happened in Martin Luther King Jr.’s time to the racism that is still exists today. The lyric “One day/ When the glory comes” shows that the people in Selma were triumphant, as they should have been, but that there was a long way for them to go. Today there is still work to do. Legend gives an example during the song: “I come from a city where 40 percent to 50 percent of our kids drop out of high school. I did well in high school and then went to an Ivy League school, but I was the exception. We need to do more to make sure every kid has a quality education” (Bio.com). Legend is very involved in his community’s education and outside of songwriting, focuses his time on education reform. Due to his situation in school growing up, he feels it is his duty to stand up for issues like this that are still happening. A big result of that commitment was “Glory,” a song that exemplifies hope for the future, but still addresses the problems of the present.
John Legend was the vocalist/musician in “Glory” while Common spoke about the current racial ills of society through rap. He was born Lonnie Lynn Jr. and attained recognition for the sophisticated lyrics and political subtexts in his raps during his early career. As his fame grew, he adopted the stage name Common. Throughout his life, he produced many music videos and even some rap and urban themed documentaries (Bio.com). He is also an actor, and not only collaborated with Legend for “Glory,” but starred in Selma as a leading activist as well.
Legend and Common were inspired to write this song because they feel it is their job to use their fame in a significant way to bring up current issues and force the media to address them. Since they are people of power and influence, they decided to write “Glory,” which deals with the injustices of the Civil Rights period and how some of those injustices still pertain today. As Common said, “the more I get, the more I gotta do” (Popsugar Entertainment). The tone of the song can be described as “urgent and current” which is an important quality to have in a song that is about such a significant ideology (Popsugar Entertainment). Music is a universal dialogue; it allows ideas to flow through massive amounts of people and create strong feelings that inherently lead to change for the better.
Throughout the song, Legend and Common connect the events from Selma to the “now.” When talking about the musical process for “Glory,” Common stated: “I think when I heard what John was singing, I felt like this was a song that, in his chorus, was of the now even though it carried the tradition of the people back then who were fighting for freedom and standing up for human rights and civil rights” (Deadline). He mentions the shooting of Mike Brown and the unrest in Ferguson, making it clear that the situations that happened in the Civil Rights era with Martin Luther King Jr. are still prevalent. The movie became present for Legend and Common and they wanted to portray that through “Glory.” It is clear that there are still situations that are being faced, but we have to acknowledge them in order to try to heal and move forward.
The period that we are in, the Contemporary post-Civil Rights era, is still significant to African Americans because they still face racism and inequality that has sprung from the past. America has significantly improved from the days of segregation, but new problems have developed as the old ones fall away. There are stereotypes of black dead-beat fathers and mothers that don’t take care of their children. The reason that these stereotypes came to life, however, is a result of centuries of systematic oppression.
It goes back to after the Great Migration when housing for African Americans was segregated into ghettos that commanded higher rent than housing for whites did. In this way, white people in power were able to have control over African Americans that they had lost in the slavery era. Because of this, both parents had to work long hours, resulting in stereotypes of black children growing up on their own with no parental influence. Due to these housing challenges and racial oppression, these stereotypes still live on today. African Americans in the modern day are often seen as the stereotypical mother that is too busy for her children, dead-beat fathers in prison, and as a result, children that follow the same path of their parents. Ideas that were believed and perpetuated through racism sill affect African Americans of this era (Pittman).
These stereotypes would not exist without the white people of power exerting laws that limit African Americans and drain them economically. From the Civil Rights era to now, many laws for the advancement of black people have been ignored, or are still limiting and in no way equal. Even though some acts were passed in favor of African Americans, they were not always followed, and Martin Luther King Jr. (among others) fought for these acts to be enforced. When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, it prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, age, ethnicity, or national origin, yet segregation still existed (Patricia Hill Collins). Even though this act was passed, Martin Luther King Jr. led the march on Selma because voting rights for African Americans were still being prejudiced. The Fair Housing Law of 1968 prohibited discrimination against people seeking housing on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin as well (Patricia Hill Collins). This meant that for the first time, racial language was removed from federal housing policy, resulting in people of color moving into previously all white neighborhoods. Unfortunately, this led to realtors preying on the racial fears of whites to get them to sell their homes quickly, which would then get resold to non-whites for heavily inflated prices, known as “blockbusting” (Pittman). The Fair Housing Act actually resulted in real estate becoming more depressed and perpetuating new patterns of residential racial segregation. This segregation persisted in urban areas, and was so severe in metropolitan areas, that it was often called “hypersegregation” by 1999 (Patricia Hill Collins). These acts preyed on racial discrimination and though they looked nice and hopeful on the outside, it resulted in more backlash for African Americans. This affects today’s population; many urban cities in America are still racially segregated to this day.
It is clear that racial oppression has not gone away over time. It has slightly improved, but we are still far from complete justice or equality. In the past year, actions such as the Ferguson unrest and the Baltimore riots have brought about awareness of police violence against citizens and allowed the Black Lives Matter movement to evolve into a powerful voice in the national conversation. It is unfair that deaths and riots had to occur in order to get people to realize the problems happening within our race-driven society; it is wrong that death and destruction of property seem to be the only ways to draw attention to the modern day racism that runs the country. These movements do, however, invoke intense feelings from people, which is the point. Just as Martin Luther King Jr. and so many others led protests, sit-ins, and boycotts (may they be violent or nonviolent), today’s movements do the same. The idea of standing up for freedom is an importance that has been around for ages, that has sprung from the movements of the past. John Legend and Common invoke strong feelings from “Glory” which is the point of its production. It was written for Selma, which came out in 2014, which deals with the racial inequalities of the Civil Rights era, but “Glory” relates it to the modern tome frame. It is important to reflect upon the victories that got African Americans to where they are now, but also vital to realize that there is still work to do before justice is achieved.
I personally am drawn to this song because this past February, I went to an event called Teen Lobby Day. We went to Olympia to talk to representatives in our district to lobby for certain bills and share the opinion of the youth. When we all gathered, the leaders played the song “Glory” to honor those in Ferguson and show our support to those being persecuted. I learned a lot that day, a lot about modern day racism, and a lot about how it still shapes the country with hatred. I think that this song does a great job of pointing out how America needs to change, while still being hopeful that glory will come.
Collins, Patricia Hill. “The Past Is Ever Present: Recognizing the New Racism.” Black Sexual Politics. New York: Routledge, 2005. 75-85. Print.
“Common Biography.” Bio.com. A&E Networks Television, n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.
“John Legend Biography.” Bio.com. A&E Networks Television, n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.
The New York Times Company. “Movies & TV: Common.” The New York Times. All Media Guide, 2010. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.
“Oscar Watch: Common, John Legend On ‘Glory’ – “We Wanted To Reflect The Time We Live In'” Deadline. N.p., 15 Feb. 2015. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.
Pittman, LaShawnDa (2015). The Great Migration [PowerPoint slides]
Pittman, LaShawnDa (2015). Lipsitz- Housing and Education [PowerPoint slides]
Popsugar Entertainment. “John Legend and Common Talk “Glory” From Selma in the Oscars Press Room.” YouTube. YouTube, n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.
Rosen, Christopher. “‘Glory’ Is The Inspiring, Oscar-Nominated Anthem We Need Now.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.