‘Marshall’ Songwriters On Writing A Resonant Call-To-Action Song

Long sharing the intention of collaborating, it took courtroom drama Marshall for Common and Diane Warren to come together in the writing of an original song. For each of them, the results were electrifying.

A classic power anthem sung by Andra Day with an original rap by Common, the Oscar-nominated “Stand Up for Something” is a soaring call to action with a simple and timely message. Speaking to a tumultuous present moment, while honoring the legacy of Thurgood Marshall—the first African-American Supreme Court Justice, whose story the film tells—the pair aimed with their socially conscious track to create something timeless, echoing the works of Aretha Franklin and the American greats, orators and poets both.

Receiving her ninth Oscar nomination as Common takes his second—following a win in 2015 for Selma’s “Glory”—Warren remains committed to music as a platform through which she can “Stand up for Something,” coaxing along change, one song at a time.

Diane, what did you have in mind as you set out to write this song?

Warren: This song is almost a throwback to “A Change Is Gonna Come” and “People Get Ready,” those stirring songs that make you want to change the world. They weren’t just protest songs; they were call-to-action songs.

With this song, I thought, “How cool would it be if someone like Common would do a great rap on it? It could take the song to a whole other level, and it would be like a mash of decades and genres, because you would never hear a rap in a song from then. But if you brought that to now and put that together, it would be amazing.”

Not even a week later—about a year ago now—we were both at Sundance, and I go, “Well, never let an opportunist waste an opportunity.” I sang him the chorus, and I’m not much of a singer, but he liked it.

Common: Diane sent it to me maybe the next day and I remember just sitting and listening to it that morning, over and over. I was like, “Man, this is a special song.” I started calling Diane because as passionate as she is, I am too when I’m feeling something, when I’m really into it. I thought she wrote such a powerful and beautiful song that was inspiring, and wasn’t bringing me down. It made me feel hopeful, and I was just like, “Man, I want to be a part of this.” You don’t always get an opportunity to find art that can reach the masses, and still has that heart and spirit to it that’s pure. With “Stand Up for Something,” I thought Diane had written one of her best songs.

How much did each of you know about Thurgood Marshall prior to taking on the project?

Warren: To be honest, I didn’t know much about him at all until I read the script and looked up more about his life, which is sad. I should’ve learned about him at school.

Common: I didn’t know this particular story that we see in the film, but I knew of Thurgood Marshall. In our black history class, he was one of the heroes that had been mentioned, along with a lot of the great black American heroes. But sometimes, you get to learn things about history and humanity just through what we do.

How did your song come together in the writing? Did the music or the lyrics come together first?

Warren: For me, it came with scratching on the script, “It all means nothing, if you don’t stand up for something.” I’m like, “Ooh, it’s so simple, but if you write that the right way, it can be so deep, because it’s really the truth.” The next day, I went to my office and listened to “A Change Is Gonna Come” a lot of times. It’s almost like a time machine…

Have you ever seen Somewhere in Time, with Christopher Reeve? Because he’s in love with this woman, he goes back in time to meet her. It’s just one of the best movies ever. So it’s almost like I wanted to transport myself. I listened over and over and I’m like, “I just want to capture this. I want to go in time to that era and that hopeful, call-to-action, exciting song.” I listened to it over and over and without ripping it off, I just started playing, doing this 3/4 kind of time, and wrote that chorus quickly. Words and music came at the same time.

I was like, “Oh sh*t, is this as good as I think it is?” It came quickly, but then the second verse killed me. I knew what I wanted to say with, “You do the best, do the best that you can do/Then you can look in the mirror/Proud of who’s looking back at you/Define the live you’re living/Not by what you take or what you’re givin’/And if you bet on love, there’s no way you’ll ever lose.” But that took forever.

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Common: That’s poetry. I understand what Diane was feeling because I can write a verse and then I’m like, “The second verse gotta be better.”

Warren: Yeah, or it’s gotta be as good, but I think the second verse in this song is better than the first. Then coming to the bridge, I wanted to capture Aretha [Franklin], so I listened to a bunch of old Aretha records. Then, Common brought his great lyrics on top of that.

Common, how would you describe your writing process?

Common: I love having the music first. I pretty much only write when I’ve got the music now because I feel like an instrument to it—it’s a vibration to the song that I want to convey. I just start saying different things out loud, seeing what feels good. Words will come, but it will sometimes just be patterns. I remember trying different patterns—like Diane said, it’s in 3/4 time, so I had to find a rhythm that felt right.

I started thinking about what I would want to say to the world…When you read Dr. King’s speeches, which I sometimes do, they’re so simple but so powerful. The words resonate. These are the things that great writers and orators can do with simple, profound words. So I was looking for that. Because Diane had already guided the way, I was like, “Okay, let me just talk about what I think. ‘Love for humanity can be how we stand up.’ Let me reference a little bit of Marshall, just the court stuff…” So I played with court words a little bit, like “Let’s all rise like the day began.” I like to drive in my car and just rap it out loud. That’s my favorite way of writing.

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Why was Andra Day your choice for the song’s vocalist?

Warren: I heard her and was just blown away by her voice. As a songwriter, what I love are great singers. That’s what excites me, hearing somebody new that just gets in your soul when you hear their tone and their emotion. She’s one of the best singers, I think, in popular music right now. I thought she’d be so great because she has that classic [sound]. She could’ve been in the ’60s. She could’ve gone in the studio with Jerry Wexler back in the day and made those kinds of records.

Common: Funnily enough, Andra and I met at Sundance, when she was doing a Nina Simone tribute and I was too. One thing I really appreciated about Andra, getting to see her in the studio, is that she’s a young artist, but she can transcend generations.

Like, my mother was asking me, “Can you get Andra to come sing?”—at my grandmother’s 90th birthday.

What I really appreciated about having Andra is kind of what the song is. It feels like it’s a classic song. When I heard it, I felt like, “Diane, I’ve heard this before. This is good.”

Warren: I know. Me too. It feels like it’s always just lived there. Even when I wrote that chorus, it was like, “Wait, this chorus has always been there.”

Andra Day’s cameo in Marshall

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It seems as though, for each of you, music has been a platform to stand up for your convictions. What compels each of you to make socially conscious art?

Common: A lot of the art that has stuck with me and shaped my life has been music that has a social consciousness to it, whether it’s Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder or John Coltrane or Bob Dylan—Kendrick Lamar, or Public Enemy. To be able to take what Gil Scott[-Heron] has given us and say, “We’re going to use this to do good in the world, to put out a positive energy…”

Warren: Especially right now, when we need it the most…

Common: To be able to do that is the best of being an artist. You’re like, “This song has purpose. It’s bigger than us.” I think when the song feels like it’s of the times, it can charge the times. It just reminds us that we can use our platforms to change things and really spark individuals to be like, “Man, I can stand up”— and standing up can simply mean standing up for yourself in a situation.

Warren: That’s why the #MeToo movement is embracing it right now.

Common: It’s not just standing for yourself, but eventually also standing up for those who are seeing injustices going on. Where you see abuse, or where you see that equality doesn’t exist, you take something from within yourself and are willing to sacrifice and give. Some songs, you play and they remind you of what your purpose is. They just say, “Hey man, wake up.” I think this song hopefully has that energy to it. I believe it does.

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Warren: So many people are embracing it. They sang it at the ACLU, and people stood up for like ten minutes. Whether it’s the NAACP, ACLU or CNN Heroes, it’s just amazing that they’ve adopted the song.

Common: It’s great to be the soundtrack to some action—and we strive to be active ourselves, to go out and do things. But we recognize that that starts with just being a good person, a kind person, a compassionate human being. That’s where it starts.

Warren: That’s standing up.

With movements like #OscarsSoWhite and #Metoo in recent years, do you sense genuine cultural change transpiring?

Common: I definitely feel a shift in the culture, especially when it comes to men and women and the abuse of power—and not only in this industry. It’s awakening other industries and everyday people, in their professions. It’s no longer going to be under the rug, you abusing power and sexually abusing women. It shouldn’t have been accepted from the beginning, but unfortunately in this world, some of the culture was built before we all were born. I’m proud that we can be in the generation that’s here to correct it.

I have to say, I think even with the #OscarsSoWhite, I’ve seen the Academy make changes. I’ve seen the Academy really say, “Hey, we’re going to make an effort to have more people of color and more women included…”

Warren: But it’s way more than that because that’s just the members of the Academy. What about the industry?

Common: That’s where we need more work done. The world is moving in that direction, and I brought up the Academy because I feel like they’re making progress. But you can’t just talk the talk. You’ve got to walk the walk.

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