Awards Daily’s Megan McLachlan talks to Joshuah Brian Campbell about co-writing the triumphant Oscar-nominated “Stand Up” from Harriet.
One doesn’t immediately think of music when it comes to Harriet Tubman, but Kasi Lemmon’s film Harriet weaves the importance of song into the narrative, how slaves used melodies to communicate as they escaped to freedom.
The music of the film culminates during the end credits, when the song “Stand Up” plays, written by Joshuah Brian Campbell and Harriet star Cynthia Erivo. It’s a beautiful piece that lifts you as you leave the theater, perfectly conveying the journey of the abolitionist icon through song. The tireless inflections that keep reaching for the next level mirror Tubman’s relentlessness and determination.
I had a chance to chat with Joshuah Brian Campbell via email about what it was like to work on this project and so closely to the narrative via its star. The talented performer is a Harvard graduate who in 2016 was named “one of the most impressive students at Harvard.” He’s kept the promise of that distinction with his first Oscar nomination.
Awards Daily: Congratulations on your Oscar nomination. How did the opportunity to work on “Stand Up” come about?
Joshuah Brian Campbell: Thank you! The composer of the film, Terence Blanchard, was familiar with some work of mine, namely this performance, and put me on the radar of the Harriet team, who then reached out to ask if I would want to work on something original for the film. We demoed something that they liked, and as the process went on, I was able to work with Cynthia to craft what is now “Stand Up.”
AD: The song plays during the end credits of the film, coming at such a crucial moment, since that’s what the audience leaves the theater with. Did you feel any pressure with getting that right? You nail it.
JBC: Thank you again! I would say I felt some pressure, but really my main objectives were 1.) to make something that sounded good and 2.) to make something that honored Harriet Tubman. And I think we did that. I hope we did.
AD: You 100 percent did. It’s a period film, but the song has a timeless feel to it. What did you do instrumentally and vocally to support that?
JBC: Thank you—that actually sounds like some of the notes from the early brief I got from the team about what they were looking for, so that makes me really, really happy. I think the whole sonic world of the piece is rooted deeply in traditions that are really my wheelhouse, what I was raised on—gospel, the soundscapes of the Black South, the blues. I think you can hear that in the repetition of the melody in the verse, which Cynthia interprets beautifully with the call and response in the second verse. And also in the orchestration; the earthy, twangy strings, the really organic percussive elements, etc. The first thing you hear is that main grounding idea, the hum, and the sound of field instruments—picks and hoes striking earth. That’s the stage onto which the song enters sonically, and I have to credit the amazing producing team, Will Wells and Gabe Fox-Peck, for building a whole world around that melody where it could live and breath and take its flight. I think that kind of song styling will never go out of style, to be honest.
AD: What I love most about the song is the way it keeps climbing with different tonal inflections and changing keys. Was that something you and Cynthia conceived together purposefully, to represent Harriet’s journey in some way?
JBC: Well, to speak again of repetition, I love repetition because it allows for that exact type of growth and progression. And also I’m just a big fan of melodic lines that cadence to a new place or that lead to a new center. Cynthia was very clear about wanting the song to have “lift,” and I think working that melody through the modulations coming out of the bridge, especially, helped to do that. Looking back on it, it does reflect a lot of the turns and peaks and valleys of Harriet’s journey, but I’d never quite thought of it that way before myself.
AD: Oh cool! A lot of times, songwriters have some distance with the film, but Cynthia was Harriet! Did that impact the songwriting/collaboration process?
JBC: I think that was at the heart of the process, really. I mean, it’s no small blessing how amazing of a musician and writer Cynthia is, but the fact that she had stepped into Harriet, and had that sort of intimacy with the narrative and with the woman, I think made her writing especially sharp and powerful on the song.
AD: You’re so young. And this is your first song for a feature film. What would you like to do next? What are you working on now?
JBC: I want to keep doing what I’m doing. Which is a strange and robust sort of “professional dabbling.” I just started back up with my fourth semester of seminary, where I study Hebrew and Greek and theology, etc. And that work brings a lot to bear on my musical practice. They bring a lot to bear on each other, really. I’ve known for a while that I always want to make music; music is an integral part of what I believe I’m called to do here. To make people feel things.
I currently music-direct a show called Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom, about the youngest marcher from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, Lynda Blackmon-Lowery. And this summer I plan to carve out some time to develop a project or two of my own. And I’m super open to whatever opportunity presents itself next.
Harriet is now available to rent OnDemand and on Amazon Prime.
Megan McLachlan is a freelance writer that lives in Pittsburgh, PA. Her work has appeared in Buzzfeed, Cosmopolitan, The Cut, Paste, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Thrillist, and The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @heydudemeg.