The ‘Black Panther’ Soundtrack Could Have Been So Much More, GOTDAMMIT

The Kendrick Lamar-curated album dropped the ball on giving a more wide-ranging look into what music the African diaspora has to offer.

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Feb 16 2018, 6:00pm

The soundtrack for Marvel’s Black Panther is one of the more fluid and cohesive collections of music for a blockbuster film in recent memory. There is true chemistry throughout its 49-minute runtime, thanks to Kendrick Lamar and his TDE label executing and curating all of the album’s music. And since the film has yet to be widely released in theaters, the soundtrack allows you to imagine the scenes it narrates with each song. Lead single “All the Stars” with K Dot and SZA feels like it’s tailor made for a climactic coming-of-age scene. SOB x RBE’s “Paramedic!” is a thumping bop that would perfectly pair with a villain pulling up to do some damage. “Redemption” by Zacari and Babes Wodumo brings vision of a celebratory moment after a victorious battle.

It’s fitting that all the stops would be pulled out for this moment. When Black Panther’s first official trailer released in June of 2017, it attracted 89 million views within 24 hours. Immediately, it was clear that the film would be received as something more than an aesthetically pleasing black superhero flick. There couldn’t have been a better time for its arrival. Black American representation on television and the big screen is going through a bit of a wide-ranging resurgence as of late—one that isn’t relegated just to cliche stories of pain and trauma. Both Insecure and Atlanta give layered looks into the uncertainty and angst that black 20-somethings feel in regards to romance, upward mobility, and mental wellbeing. Greenleaf offers a look into the power struggles and complicated experiences black families have with Baptist Christianity. Moonlight revealed what can happen to a young black boy when he can’t explore his queer identity.

Now, a fantastical depiction of an all-black, utopian East African nation has a great deal of black people riled up with excitement—with some even prematurely calling it the blackest movie of all time. But even amidst the hype, it’s crucial to analyze if the Black Panther rollout caters to black people outside of the US.

For a film that is set in a fictional East African nation, Black Panther’s soundtrack does a poor job of depicting what the African diaspora has to offer. There are 11 black American artists out of 23 total on the album, mostly comprised of West Coast natives. Only four South Africans are featured: Saudi, Sjava, Babes Wodumo, and Yugen Blakrok. The Weeknd is an Ethiopian who grew up in Toronto, and Jorja Smith is a black Brit. Compare this to Drake’s 2017 More Life, which had four black British artists (Giggs, Skepta, Jorja Smith, Sampha), South Africa’s Black Coffee, and Partynextdoor who was born to Jamaican and Trinidadian parents in the Toronto area. The difference is that Drake’s project is not tied to a phenomenon that aims to affirm borderless black identity. Under normal album-making circumstances, this project would be helping set the tone for providing a more globalized rap sound, but what Black Panther is supposed to symbolize warrants even more variety.

There’s an understanding and trust between Black Panther director Ryan Coogler and Kendrick Lamar that allowed this soundtrack to be handled by TDE. It’d be tough to argue against that line of thinking. More than any other mainstream rapper of this decade, Lamar has spent more time delving into the intricacies of what it means to be young and black in the US right now. So him heading the soundtrack for a capital-B black film is on brand. And with the likes of Travis Scott, SZA, Future, and The Weeknd as featured artists, that soundtrack would obviously perform better commercially in this country than an all-inclusive collection of music from within the African diaspora. The unfortunate part of the situation is that we’ll never know if the latter would perform well.

"The movie's not set in 1910, or the 1960s when Black Panther first came out—it's set in today,” TDE producer Sounwave told NPR about the album’s musical direction. “There's 'today' moments happening in the movie, so we want the whole soundtrack to sound like that too.” That exact reasoning could have been used to justify including more artists throughout the diaspora as well.

In terms of connecting with one another, people throughout the African diaspora are in a more advantageous place today than ever before. Apps like Instagram can show what life is like in places where other black people live, even if funds aren’t available to make it there physically. It’s an easy method of self-education, especially when formal schooling fails to show majority black nations in favorable ways and Donald Trump refers to them as shithole countries. And regardless of whatever language barriers may exist, what typically unites black people worldwide on social media platforms is the music and accompanying dances being created throughout the diaspora. The beauty of those kinds of connections, when they did happen, were some of the most exciting on Black Panther’s soundtrack. Saudi’s bars melting into Kendrick’s hook on “X” is refreshing. “Redemption” is an upbeat love song that caters to Babes Wodumo’s gqom roots. Hearing Sjava’s Zulu-laden verse transition into Mozzy’s is a pairing we wouldn’t get anywhere else. More exchanges like this have been happening through music in recent memory.

Rihanna made international headlines at this year’s Grammys because, while performing “Wild Thoughts,” she broke out into South Africa’s gwara gwara dance. The Nigerian and Ghanaian afrobeats and afro fusion waves over the past two years have given—even if small—looks into West African culture. Dominican artist Amara La Negra’s recent boost in popularity in the American industry has forced people to process the struggles of Afro-Latinx people in popular culture. These are signs of the times. Black music has always been more than what is just being made in the US and right now, much of American popular music is borrowing from black artists outside its borders. So for a more accurate depiction of today, Black Panther’s soundtrack should have reflected that reality.

There is obviously a commercial side to this argument. Movies with big budgets have to make big money in return to ensure that the people who make them are able to get better opportunities in the future. But there is room to wonder what the outcome would have been if Kendrick and the rest of TDE swapped out James Blake and a few American rappers for artists like Jamaica’s Spice, Brazil’s Karol Conká, Nigeria’s Burna Boy, Cameroon’s Jovi, or Switzerland's Zeal & Ardor, to name a few. It could have made an equally-remarkable accompanying musical piece to Black Panther. But if those chances are never taken, especially with platforms as big as Marvel in support, we may not get to see what an artistic coming-together could really do for diasporic relations.

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