Songwriters Roundtable: Mary J. Blige, John Legend, Janelle Monáe, Leslie Odom Jr. and Justin Timberlake Talk Politics, Pandemic and Keeping Hope Alive
Some of the industry's biggest musicians reflect on the songs they composed for awards contenders, personal truths revealed by the pandemic, their younger selves and missing the stage: "It’s a little sad, because we really need that more than anything."
When Stacey Abrams calls, you answer. And when the former gubernatorial candidate (and current Democratic party savior) asked Janelle Monáe to come up with a song for her voting rights documentary All In: The Fight for Democracy, Monáe admits it was impossible to say no.
But the request from Abrams was not Monáe’s only motivation for creating “Turntables” for the Amazon film. “There were people in the documentary like my dad. My dad was in and out of prison growing up. And he also was addicted to drugs. But instead of, like, rehabilitating him, they threw him in prison and also took away his right to vote,” she says. “And so, you know, I had to do it for my father.”
Monáe is just one of the musicians gathered for The Hollywood Reporter‘s virtual Songwriter Roundtable who had a deeply personal connection to the films for which they created music. For John Legend, who co-wrote the stirring anthem “Never Break” for the Netflix documentary Giving Voice, about teens competing in an August Wilson monologue contest, it took him back to his own youth, when he sacrificed much for his musical dreams. For Mary J. Blige, her emotional “See What You’ve Done” for the doc Belly of the Beast was another chapter in her ministry to uplift women who struggle outside the margins; Justin Timberlake saw his rousing “Just Sing” for Trolls World Tour as a chance to teach his young son about the importance of diversity; and “Speak Now,” for One Night in Miami, which Leslie Odom Jr. co-wrote, is the bookend to his co-starring role as Sam Cooke in the film as he channeled the late performer’s legacy as a change-maker.
The conversation, which took place a few days before President Biden’s inauguration, touched on everything from the tumult of politics to the lessons of the ongoing pandemic. While the topics were often weighty, there was a joyful feeling that permeated the discussion, and the artists’ camaraderie was evident: Timberlake gushed over Monáe as a performer, Legend lightly teased Timberlake for his fashion faux pas during his teen-idol stage, and Odom made sure to give the Queen of Hip-Hop and R&B her proper due, leading everyone else to marvel at Blige’s legacy just days after she marked her 50th birthday.
Everyone was putting their hopes on 2021 to be a better year, and we’re just a little into it and it’s been a bit of chaos. So how have you all been coping?
MARY J. BLIGE 2020 has taught me the thing that I really needed is just how to be patient. And 2021 is teaching me the same thing. There’s nothing you can do about COVID, about quarantining, the whole thing. So it’s just really put me in a place where I appreciate every single thing that I have. And the things I don’t have, I’m not worried about. But mostly just waiting — waiting and stop trying to be ahead. I think that’s what so many people have done before this pandemic happened. We took for granted the time we had and we [were] just moving, moving, moving, not spending time with our families, not spending time with ourselves. And just giving myself a lot of time and just being patient and just letting life be life. That’s what it’s done for me.
JOHN LEGEND Like Mary said, this time has shown us we have to appreciate our loved ones, keep our families close, shower them with love and receive their love. I think the result of us not moving around so much was helping us realize how important that was for us. And I am optimistic for 2021. I know that we’ve gotten off to a bumpy start, but I really do believe things are going to get better, because a lot of people have worked really hard to make change happen. We’ve seen the results of that in November, in January, and that has not borne fruit yet with the change in the conditions that we need. But I think we’re setting ourselves on the right path as a country and as a society to get better, to learn from our mistakes and to grow from them. I believe that good things are around the corner.
Justin, you’ve written a song with Ant Clemons called “Better Days.” Tell me a little bit about your feeling and your hope in that song.
JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE That song was written really recently. As a matter of fact, I recorded my final vocal on Election Day just because I was so nervous about what was happening and how it was going to go. I’ve been asked recently, “What’s your theme for 2021 — what’s your word?” And for me, “redemption” is the first word that comes to mind, and that encapsulates a lot. To Mary’s point, it takes patience. And to John’s point, if you make a really big mess, it takes a little longer to clean up, you know?
LESLIE ODOM JR. You know, hitting a rock bottom, you always have the possibility, the chance for redemption. If you admit that it’s a rock bottom, if you learn the lessons, if you are honest about what it took to get you there — that is the chance that we have right now. There are many people who saw the insurrection coming. Many of us have been waving our arms — many of the people on our little Zoom call right now: “What about this hatred and the darkness that this man seems to be stirring up?” That the leader of the free world seems to be inciting? People have been saying that since the chants of “Lock her up” at rallies. The Bible says, “And they will know the truth and the truth will make them free.” And my experience after 2020, and even in 2021, there’s some truth that we, as a country, still haven’t been admitting to ourselves. My relationships, my conversations, have gone deeper now than they ever have before. So there’s still a possibility that the truth will ultimately make us free.
Janelle, what have your conversations been like with people about what’s going on in this world?
JANELLE MONÁE For me, being present has been a huge focus. And I started the year off, no phone, no texting, no social media. The best thing I did was find somebody who could run my accounts because it’s so important. (Laughs.) When I’m present, I’m at my most creative. When I’m present, I can give the most sound advice to myself and others. A lot of the folks, my team, have been like: “What do we want to focus on this year? How can we share the mic more?” As I think about a quote that Stacey Abrams says, “I’m not optimistic nor pessimistic, I’m determined.” As I think about the work that marginalized groups have done, especially the Black women in this country, I feel very thankful, I feel hopeful, and like now everybody needs to do their part. Not allyship, but real partnership.
Janelle, you wrote “Turntables” for All In. You have said that you were hesitant at first to do the music for this because it might be triggering for you. What got you to the point where you were like, “OK, I’m in?”
MONÁE I think like most of us on this call, and most Americans, [we’re] dealing with COVID and having to reckon with a new life. I wasn’t traveling as much as I wanted to, gigs got canceled, everything just felt like an attack on my mental health. Music has always been, when I’m writing, such a part of my normalcy. It just feels normal for me to be in the studio, for me to be learning how to play an instrument or engineering myself, all of that, but nothing about 2020 felt normal to me. So it was really hard for me to just go into a studio and try to create when I did not feel like I knew the world that I lived in. I didn’t want to talk about [it], because a lot of creating for me is rooted in honesty and where I am. And I just was not in a good space. So when I got the call from Stacey and the directors Liz [Garbus] and Lisa [Cortés], they said, “Can you watch the documentary — we really want you to write something for the title for the end of it. Watch it, it’s dealing with voter suppression.” When they said that, I was like, “OK now, I’m somebody who when Stacey Abrams calls, you answer. You say yes.” So I kind of said yes before I watched it. (Laughs.)
But I will tell you, after I watched All In: The Fight for Democracy, there was no way I couldn’t find the strength to get in the studio.
You all must get asked to do so much. What makes you choose a project? Does it have to be something that really speaks to you, John?
LEGEND I was so inspired by the young people in our film. Giving Voice is about these young people from all over the country. Many of them come from challenging circumstances, tough neighborhoods. They all have committed themselves to being actors. They competed in this August Wilson [Monologue] Competition, they made it all the way to the finals in the competition that was on Broadway. And they were getting a chance to have their voices heard and live out their dreams.
I saw myself in those young people. Since they were kids, they knew they were supposed to be doing what they’re doing. Each of us up here probably felt that when we were kids, that we were supposed to be doing what we’re doing right now. I was truly inspired by those young people having the perseverance, the tenacity, the resilience, the passion, the love, that got them through those tough circumstances — and that I believe will get them through so many other situations in life.
You talked a little bit about seeing yourself in those kids. Can you go back to when you were that age and the things that you were doing to get to this point today?
LEGEND Oh yeah. I mean, I was one of those kids who really had the fire inside of me. I had music inside of me, I had my passion, my beliefs, and I wanted the world to hear what I had to say. And when you’re their age — 14, 15, 16, 17 years old — you don’t exactly know how to get your thoughts out. You don’t know how to get your songs out. You don’t know exactly what it will take for you to be heard in the way you want to be heard, but you have something to say. That’s how I felt when I was their age.
Do you all ever look back to what kind of things you were doing back then? Like the music you were writing? We know how far you’ve come. Justin?
TIMBERLAKE I guess, now that I’m getting up there in age, I’ve done some panels with young songwriters, young producers, young singers, actors who, like John pointed out, have that fire at a young age. I was able to recently be at Berklee [College] of Music and do a panel. I confess that there was maybe a period in the ’90s where I could skip over some of the outfits that were public, but the internet will never …
LEGEND Denim on denim on denim on denim that will never be forgotten!
TIMBERLAKE Thanks, John. Uh, no, the internet won’t allow me to forget them. So it’s all good. But for me, I always felt like the work that I did when nobody was watching was the most important work. I come from a creed and a generation that the hardest job you have is to make it look like it all just came so easily to you, you know? And if you do have that fire, then you are going to skip those functions, skip the hangouts — you are going to skip some of it. You become a real adult when you find out that every decision you make comes with opportunity, but it also has to come with a sacrifice. I think it does speak to determination — that quote from Miss Abrams — I find her to be a theme of this, too. You were speaking on “Better Days,” and ironically, we made sure that we got that song mixed and mastered and out so we could debut it at the Georgia runoff, because that was such an important part of this year. I just want to say what an honor it was to even be a small part of that awareness.
People didn’t have chance to really take in that moment because we found out that both seats were captured by Democrats in the morning — and then a few hours later, it was all madness. You can forget.
TIMBERLAKE Yeah, definitely, I feel like I keep bringing it up to people because I want to remind people there was something good to happen that day. (Laughs.)
MONÁE I’m a proud Georgia voter. I voted. I mailed my mail-in ballot to my mama because I trust no one. So, I’m still celebrating. Georgia, I’m so proud of you. I’m so proud to have been a part of the movement that really, really changed the course of history.
LEGEND I think we have to remember that American history has shown us that there are always these swings and there are always these moments of possibility and optimism and joy and accomplishment. And then there’s also sometimes going to be a backlash. We saw that with Obama — Trump was the backlash. This huge milestone for American culture — to see a person who came from the bottom caste of American racial society — for a person like that to win the presidency in any country would be just a monumental accomplishment. It was a monumental accomplishment, but it brought a backlash. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for these big wins, but we should be aware that there will always be forces that want to take us back to a different time. We have to continue to be vigilant against those forces.
ODOM I’d be so interested to hear Mary answer that question you asked Justin about. Do you ever feel your mantle? Like, do you carry that thing around with you?
BLIGE Well, during quarantine, the first , I learned a lot more about Mary J. Blige. I never, ever really had the confidence to go back and listen to any of my songs. But for some reason I felt like I needed to do that. And what I found out is that when I was younger, I was older. You know, because a lot of things that I say in the “My Life” song and then the “Work That” song that Kamala [Harris] keeps using. When Kamala came out with it recently, I said, “Let me go back and listen to the Growing Pains album.”
ODOM (Laughs.) Growing Pains is … it’s pain.
BLIGE Well, I didn’t realize how, uh, inspiring the album was. Because I was doing it. I was in hell. I was in all types of hell and then when it came out, I was in more hell, so I couldn’t really enjoy that success. So finally, I got a chance to listen to the album from top to bottom, and “Work That” and [the lyrics are] like, “There’s so many girls. I hear you’ve been running from the beautiful queen that you could be becoming.” It’s every little girl out there in the hood, every woman right now running from who she truly is, the beauty in her. Me doing the same thing. So [these are] things I needed to hear to help me get my inner work done. Inner working, like my spiritual work, you know — not stinking thinking. Not thinking negative about life, about myself. Because people like me, we grew up in environments that were bad and where women suffered and where everybody suffered — but really, a lot of women suffered.
So I’ve come a long way. I just started going back and listening to What’s the 411, to My Life, to Share My World and even the No More Drama album. There’s so much information in there that when I was writing those songs … I was confused and I was drinking every day, I was on drugs every day. And I listen to them now, I am like, “How does that confused, crazy little girl write the ‘My Life’ song? How does she write ‘Work That’?” What I discovered, which has given me the chills, is that we are always trying to learn — we’re always who we are, but we don’t know we’re us when we’re young.
So yeah, I wear it now because I suffered enough, and the suffering is great. I rejoice in that suffering because now I can carry it like a mantle. Without cockiness or arrogance, but with knowing who I am. And it came back to me during the quarantine. I needed that healing. I’m laughing because it does sound crazy to me, someone who was so insecure and could never even listen to the sound of my talking voice, let alone my singing voice, let alone look at the shape of my cheeks and my nose and be appreciative of it. I’m still learning to love Mary, but I love her more than I ever did in my life. Like this is real, real stuff. Yeah.
MONÁE So happy you asked Queen Mary this, because I just want you to know that me and my mama were talking, and she was like, “You remember when you used to go and do those talent showcases at Big 11 Lake in Kansas City?” — my hometown. “Do you remember when those people threw bricks at our cars after you kept winning every week?” I would win because I would sing “My Life” every time. That whole album, your tone, what you had to say, resonated with me as somebody who was in middle school, and it was healing to me. I was singing it like I had already lived a long life. So I know that I wouldn’t be the artist that I am today, honestly, hands down, without your voice.
BLIGE It’s a huge responsibility for people to come up to you and say, “Your song saved my life.” I can’t take credit for that. I immediately say, “Please, that was God using me to do that. I am not responsible for that because I sang the song. I was the vessel, but it’s too much, it’s too big of a responsibility. It’s too big for me to carry.” So I love you. Thank you.
MONÁE I think the same way. That’s why I said, “This is not a me, this is a we.” Because I didn’t have it in me, you know, to do “Turntables.” But when you look at Stacey Abrams, when you look at the fight that this country has to protect marginalized voices, you’ve got to say, “This is for the team. It’s for us.” And you allow God, you allow your stuff to be a vessel. So I totally understand that.
First of all, I want to thank Leslie for asking that great question. I also want to piggyback quickly on his question: What was the song that uplifted you, Mary?
BLIGE It was “My Life.” The verse, the very last part of the song. The last words are, “Take your time one day at a time, it’s all on you. What you going to do?” During the pandemic, my whole trial was patience. And so to go back and listen to that was like, I have goose bumps now. It was like God’s saying, “Listen to your own words, Mary, love yourself more. Give yourself more.”
The pandemic has done different things to different people. For some people, it’s a very creative time, but it’s also a very difficult time. And sometimes it’s in between. How have you guys managed to keep your inspiration and even make music during such a time?
ODOM I think what the queen just said is so important because this stuff passes through you. I believe inspiration comes from the divine. It comes from somewhere else. That’s why I always think that the easiest parts of any project — I speak for myself — are the beginning and the end, because the beginning, I’m only starting something because I was inspired to begin. So I’m excited. The hardest part is always the middle — you’re going to run into your challenges, you’re going to get your roadblocks. You’re going to have your doubts — all that happens in the middle, and then you’ve come to the end and you’re either so happy to move on to something else because it was so awful to work on, or you achieved your vision, it came to fruition. I just go back to the truth. If artists would just commit to telling the truth, being honest with ourselves in any given moment, we all have the chance for a miracle like that — for us to meet ourselves down the road, and have young Mary minister to Mary who she is today, that’s just a powerful [thing]. So I’m trying to feel that, in hopes that someday I will look back and the Leslie of yesterday is inspiring a Leslie of today.
One of the really interesting things about One Night in Miami is Malcolm X challenging Sam Cooke to speak to the politics of the day and for the Black community, but Cooke feels he is uplifting the Black community with his soulful, nonpolitical songs that are making him and other Black people rich. What are the kinds of struggles that you go through as creatives to speak to the times, or to also speak to human emotion?
LEGEND I think with Black artists, people expect us to sing about what’s going on politically and socially, particularly when we see our brothers and sisters being killed by the police, when we just feel the struggle that our families and our communities are going through. People expect us to speak on it in our songs. And the fact is we sometimes do, but some of the time we want to sing about sex. Sometimes we want to sing about feeling good.
MONÁE Feeling great.
LEGEND Sometimes we want to sing about all the other range of human emotions that we feel, and we know all Black people feel. And so I feel like we feel that responsibility, but we also want to be full artists, full human beings that sing about the range of human experience and emotion.
MONÁE I couldn’t agree more. I think, you know, being Black is not a monolith. We are into all different sorts of music. We’re talking about development, and the time you spend with yourself and what you do for yourself is so important. When I came into the music industry or decided, “OK, I’m going to be a recording artist,” I had time in Atlanta, Georgia, to develop myself. I had maybe, you know, 200 or 300 fans in Atlanta. Nobody was booking me outside of Atlanta.
I was talking about science fiction. I was drawing parallels between androids and Black folks and the LGBT community and what it meant to be the other. Speaking about what it means to be the other and to be othered in society and turning it into art and community for people to say, “I feel like that, too — let’s come together.”
That has been my life’s work, my life’s calling. It wasn’t always that; I was in musical theater school. I studied acting and went to school in New York, thought I wanted to do Broadway, but then I heard David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. I started to get involved in the music, but then the thing that you come up against is people in the industry saying, “Well, you’re Black, you know, you’re also a girl.” I live outside the binary, but I’ll always stand with women and Black women forever, but they would say, “You have to look this way. Black girls ain’t talking about science fiction. We don’t understand that. Give us something more basic.” There was always this fight to push me or dilute the message and the image and everything. So I’m just super thankful. I think it’s important, if there are artists listening, to have a good team around you. To have folks who are willing to take risks with you, to take a different route, not always make it about being famous overnight, but really spending that time to help you develop.
One thing about this pandemic and speaking to something Mary said is that I’ve had time to deal with me and to trust my inner voice. The biggest takeaway is that my inner voice has to be the loudest one in the room. I can be my biggest hater, or I can be my biggest motivator.
LEGEND Well said.
MONÁE And choose wisely. When thinking about creating, and thinking about music, I’ve been in the most creative space that I’ve ever been in. Not just even in music, but just ideas that, because I was running around so much — we were on planes, we were moving, too many people in our ear, so much going on in politics. It was a sensory overload. I hadn’t had time to develop them. So developing and planting seeds has been a thing for me, really starting to develop those things that you wanted to do, but didn’t have the time to do, or the mental bandwidth to do, because you were called in so many different directions.
One of the things that you all have in common is you have great stage presence. What has it been like not to be able to connect with your fans in the way that you are used to?
LEGEND Oh, I miss it. I definitely miss it. I love writing, I love creating new music, but there’s something about that connectivity that you have when you get out there onstage. Not every artist loves it, not every artist loves to perform live. Some artists are more at home in the studio. But me personally, I truly, truly love connecting with the audience and hearing them, feeling them, seeing the smiles on their faces, seeing them dance to the music, seeing them sing along, hearing them sing along. There’s something very special and unique about live concerts. No matter how many virtual things folks have tried to do, including myself, it is just not the same. (Laughs.)
MONÁE It’s a different vibe. It makes you get creative, though. I definitely have gotten creative. But I agree, John, it’s nothing like touching the people, crowd-surfing for me. I miss that. I miss going down, just getting dirty and seeing people dress crazy and the outfits and different things like that. And all of y’all are phenomenal performers, too. I’m looking forward to seeing y’all.
BLIGE It’s a little sad. I did something for all the health care workers at Radio City Music Hall, a tribute to them. And I had to sit on that stage. That was my place. I sold that place out for years. And to be up on that stage and not be performing, I was about to cry. It’s a little sad, because we really need that more than anything. As far as virtual performance, I don’t want to do it because I need hand-to-hand — real energy flowing back and forth. Yeah, absolutely. I miss it.
Can you see yourself grabbing people’s hands again, at the meet-and-greets, or do you think it’s going to be forever changed?
ODOM The world can be what we imagine it to be. We have to hold [on to] an image of that. We have to hold [on to] an image of a way for it to be even better than it was. For it to be everything that it was and then some more, and then some — we have to imagine it.
To end on a lighter note, what’s your favorite soundtrack or soundtrack song?
BLIGE Love Jones.
LEGEND One of my favorite soundtracks Mary is on: The Waiting to Exhale soundtrack was incredible. [Mary’s] “Not Gon’ Cry.”
TIMBERLAKE “Not Gon’ Cry” is amazing.
BLIGE Thank you.
LEGEND Love that whole Love Jones soundtrack as well — “Sweetest Thing” [by Lauryn Hill] was probably my [favorite] …
TIMBERLAKE I feel like the first one that popped into my mind was written by Dolly [Parton] but Whitney [Houston]’s version of “I Will Always Love You” from The Bodyguard. I just remember you could not go anywhere without hearing that song. That song transcended the movie, the moment. And a soundtrack that has “Run to You” on it. You take “I Will Always Love You” off of that and [keep] “Run to You,” you’re still like, “Whoa.” You know, “Queen of the Night” [is also on] that soundtrack.
ODOM “I Have Nothing” [is also on the soundtrack] — I mean, yeah.
TIMBERLAKE The only other one that in a weird way is like a complete left turn for me is the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. It was pretty incredible.
LEGEND Great, great.
One more: What can you not wait to get back to after the pandemic? And what do you hope changes?
TIMBERLAKE What Janelle said was so important to remember, that we are in the midst of a revolution. That togetherness and not just allyship, but partnership, is integral to this time, and the conversations that I’ve been able to be a part of — that I’ve never been able to be a part of [before] in my life. As the only person on this panel who is not a person of color, you know, to be able to experience truth in a different way. Even for myself who’s well traveled, you know, I consider that to be the biggest blessing that I’ve had over the last year. And to be able to relay that to people, I want to be an ally. And I don’t just want to be an ally, I want to be a partner. How do I do that? To be able to hopefully continue to lead by example, through mistakes and triumphs. To always have a humble heart and intention. (Laughs.) I’ve heard the saying, “Intention could be the road to hell,” we’ve all heard that one, right? But intention does count for something. And, to mirror what Leslie said, the belief and the faith that we can get, and to tie in what Janelle said about partnership, and to tie in what Mary said about patience and self-love and understanding. It’s been awesome to sit back and listen to so many great perspectives. I want to say, I’m such a fan of all of you, and I feel even more so after this year. It means the world to me to be in this moment. I’m so inspired by all of you. We all got to get in a room and write a song together.
I do think we are all going to get back to live shows. I really do think we are going to get back to live shows — and I think Janelle will get to crowd-surf and I’ll be there holding her up.
MONÁE I’d love that. (Laughs.)
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.