How Nick Cannon, Jennifer Hudson Crafted the Oscar-Contending Songs in 'Chi-Raq'

Getty Images
Nick Cannon, Jennifer Hudson

Writing the rap track "Pray 4 My City" helped Cannon find his character, while playing a grieving mother inspired Hudson to record the film's faith-filled ballad "I Run."

This story first appeared in a special awards season issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

When Spike Lee cast Jennifer Hudson and Nick Cannon in Chi-Raq, he also benefited from their musical talents: Both stars helped to craft original songs that are vital to the film — and that on Dec. 11 advanced, along with 72 others, in the Oscars' best original song category.

Chi-Raq, about gang violence in Chicago, opens with gun death statistics sprawling across the screen as "Pray 4 My City," a trenchant hip-hop track performed and co-written by Cannon, plays.

The song evolved out of Cannon's attempt to develop a backstory for his character, aspiring rapper/gang member Chi-Raq. Each day after shooting, Cannon retreated to a Chicago recording studio with a collective of young rappers and producers from the city's South Side and worked up songs, including "Pray 4 My City."

"This was a character exercise. It was method in that every night I was Chi-Raq in the studio," Cannon says. "I played the song for Spike. I didn't know if he was going to like it. He was like, 'Give me that.' He never told me he was going to put it as the opening of the film. I didn't know until I actually saw it."

Lee didn't approach Hudson about performing a song until after filming finished. When he did, the Oscar-winning actress enlisted Kortney Pollard (aka Mali Music), a songwriter and producer she'd recorded with before. Using a template of Hudson singing Sam Cooke's classic "A Change Is Gonna Come," Pollard wrote the gospel-tinged "I Run," about faith triumphing over tragedy.

"I Run" plays over a gut-wrenching scene as Hudson's character, Irene, tries to scrub the street clean of her murdered daughter's blood. "To see [the song] being used like that made it all the more impactful, most of all because that story is very true to my life as well," says Hudson, whose mother, brother and nephew were killed by her sister's estranged husband in 2008. Hudson (on Broadway in The Color Purple) knew upon hearing the song that it was a "home run," she says. "It has the church in it. It feels like your soul, so I thought it was a perfect song for a journey like Irene had in the film."