Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, adapted from the true story of Solomon Northrup, a free New York musician drugged, chained, and sold into Southern slavery in 1841, has already earned some of the year’s highest praise from critics and movie-goers alike.
Tasked with creating an audio companion, R&B singer John Legend — along with famed film composer Hans Zimmer (The Dark Knight, Inception), enlisted an all-star lineup of artists, including Alicia Keys, Gary Clark, Jr., Laura Mvula, Alabama Shakes and Chris Cornell to contribute powerful renditions of inspirational songs.
For Legend, the project was intensely personal — his ancestors actually suffered a similar fate: “There’s a very close connection between what happened with Solomon Northup and with some members of my family, being kidnapped as slaves from Ohio back to the South,” Legend told Entertainment Weekly. It wasn’t until 2011 that Legend found out about this revelation via Henry Louis Gates’s PBS documentary Finding Your Roots. (A record of the order still exists.)
Of his own contribution to the soundtrack, Legend says, “I wanted to do “Roll Jordan Roll.” a capella so that it was somewhat reminiscent of how slaves might have sung it back then. Everything we did for the album, I wanted it to be stripped down production-wise… I wanted it to be just my voice.”
Zimmer says he applied the same artistic vision to the score: “I think part of what was really important was to not have a heavy hand, not to sentimentalize everything,” he told EW. “Just like the cinematography, there’s a beauty about those images. And I thought if I use a very light touch to just open this door, it doesn’t tell you what to feel, it just allows you to feel something. I think most of the music is really intimate and stays in character, and I really didn’t to get in the way of the performances, because I think some of the performances stand up for themselves.”
“We need this film as a reckoning for America to understand how horrible the institution of slavery was,” says Legend. “We shouldn’t sugarcoat slavery.”
“I think that we’ve gotten really good at not speaking about things, not speaking to each other in the eye, not really acknowledging our past and so it’s sort of echoes into our present,” adds Zimmer. “One of the things I know of this movie is that it deeply scares people, and I think that’s what good movies are supposed to do. They’re supposed to provoke conversation, empathy, change and love.”
The soundtrack to 12 Years A Slave is available now on iTunes; the physical release will be out November 19. You can also listen to samples here.