Three of this year’s Oscar nominated tunes were penned by Black songwriters: Celeste reaped a bid (along with Daniel Pemberton) for “Hear My Voice” from “The Trial of the Chicago”; D’Mile, recent Grammy champ H.E.R. and Tiara Thomas collaborated on “Fight for You” from “Judas and the Black Messiah”; and supporting actor nominee Leslie Odom Jr. was cited with Nashville based singer/songwriter Sam Ashworth for “Speak Now” from “One Night in Miami.”
The first Black tunesmith to contend for Best Original Song at the Oscars was Quincy Jones who was nominated in 1967 (alongside lyricist Bob Russell) for “The Eyes of Love” from the long-forgotten “Banning.” (Jones earned the first of his four score Oscar nominations that same year for “In Cold Blood.”) He and Russell reaped another bid the following year for the title tune from “For Love of Ivy.” His last nomination to date was in 1985 for “Miss Celie’s Blues” from “The Color Purple,” which he shared with Lionel Richie. That same year, Richie won Best Original Song for “Say You, Say Me” from “White Nights.” Richie had contended in 1981 for the title track from “Endless Love.”
The first Black songwriter to win the Oscar was Isaac Hayes 49 years ago (he was also nominated for the original score). It’s hard to forget his pulsating performance of “The Theme from Shaft” on the ceremony, shirtless save for gold chainmail wrapped around his chest. He played a silver piano as dancers rather suggestively performed to the classic tune from the hit starring Richard Roundtree.
Eleven years after Hayes prevailed, Irene Cara became the first Black woman to win an Oscar other than for acting as part of the team (alongside Keith Forsey and Giorgio Moroder) that crafted “Flashdance…What a Feeling” from the box office smash “Flashdance.”
The following year, Stevie Wonder picked up the Oscar for his tune “I Just Called to Say I Love You” from “The Woman in Red” over, among others, Ray Parker Jr. (“Ghostbusters”).
After Richie’s win in 1985, five further songs with Black nominees contended without success: Jonas Gwangwa (“Cry Freedom,” 1987); Lamont Dozier (“Two Hearts” from Buster,” 1998); Janet Jackson, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (“Again” from “Poetic Justice,” 1993); and James Ingram twice in a row (“The Day I Fall in Love from “Beethoven’s 2nd” in 1994 and “Look What Love Has Done” from “Junior” in 1995).
That streak ended when Frayser Boy, Juicy J and DJ Paul prevailed for “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” in 2005 for “Hustle & Flow.”
Four more also-rans followed: Siedah Garrett (“Love You I Do” from “Dreamgirls,” 2006); Jamal Joseph, Charles Mack and Tevin Thomas (“Raise It Up” from “August Rush,” 2007); Carlinhos Brown and Siedah Garrett (“Real in Rio” from “Rio,” 2011); and Pharrell Williams (“Happy” from “Despicable Me 2,” 2013).
Common and John Legend were the most recent Black recipients of this Oscar with their win in 2014 for “Glory” from “Selma.” Common contended again in 2017 for “Stand Up for Something” from “Marshall.”
Four other songs with Black nominees have contended: DaHeala and The Weekend (“Earned It” from “Fifty Shades of Grey,” 2015); Mary J. Blige, Raphael Saadiq and Taura Stinson (“Mighty River” from “Mudbound,” 2017); Kendrick Lamar, Sounwave, SZA and Anthony Tiffith (“All the Stars” from “Black Panther,” 2018) and Cynthia Erivo and Joshuah Brian Campbell (“Stand Up” from “Harriet,” 2019).
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