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Track Review

Rapper Common and R&B maestro John Legend have teamed up to deliver this Oscar-winning tribute to Civil Rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. on the soundtrack to the movie Selma. It's a song that pays thematic homage not only to the historical era the film focuses on, but to the rich legacy of black gospel music and the spirituals of the slave era that proceeded it.

African-American spirituals often enunciated a longing for deliverance from bondage—both physically and spiritually. Those songs gave voice to an oppressed people's yearning for freedom, fusing that deep hunger with the condolence of faith until such a day that the hoped-for emancipation might come.

And that's exactly where John Legend begins: "One day, when the glory comes," he promises, "It will be ours, it will be ours/One day, when the war is won/We will be sure, we will be sure/Oh glory!"

Against the swelling backdrop of a choir repeatedly harmonizing "Glory!" comes Common's first verse of rap. It references the ongoing, contemporary racial struggle in America, juxtaposing it against the injustices Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and others battled during the Civil Rights era in the 1960s. "One son died, his spirit revisitin' us/Truant livin' livin' in us, resistance in us/That's why Rosa sat on the bus/That's why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up/ ... King pointed to the mountaintop and we ran up." In the second verse he adds, "Selma is now for every man, woman and child/ ... They marched with the torch, we gon' run with it now."

Common also alludes to Jesus, Scripture and Christianity. "Hands to heavens, no man, no weapon/Formed against, yes glory is destined/ ... Sins that go against our skin become blessings," he sings in the first verse. And then, "Even Jesus got His crown in front of a crowd," before perhaps comparing Jesus' public execution to King's own assassination ("Enemy is lethal, a King became regal"). The second verse concludes with, "The comin' of the Lord, my eyes have seen the glory."

Both Common and John Legend describe the ongoing civil rights struggle as an unfinished battle. Legend sings, "Now the war is not over, victory isn't won/And we'll fight on to the finish, then when it's all done/We'll cry glory, oh glory." Common raps, "No one can win the war individually/It takes the wisdom of the elders and the young people's energy/Welcome to the story we call victory." He also describes black people being shot at during a protest and suggests that sometimes the media choose to look away instead of chronicling that violence ("We go down, we woman and man up/They say 'Stay down,' and we stand up/Shots, we on the ground, the camera panned up").

When Common and John Legend performed "Glory" at the 2015 Academy Awards, backed by a massive gospel choir, their passion reduced many in the audience to tears. Indeed, this duo's powerful musical message offers a thought-provoking and intentionally convicting complement to the story of Martin Luther King Jr. depicted in the Academy Award-nominated biopic Selma.

The lyrics speak for themselves, politically and socially. And it's no surprise that the video features performance scenes intercut with images from the movie. We watch as Dr. King marches, as he's arrested, as groups of protesters clash with police—all against the backdrop of that one repeated word, the hope and the promise of "Glory!"

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December 11, 2014

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Adam R. Holz

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