Few, besides music and film nerds, knew the name Ludwig Göransson until last Sunday, when the Swedish producer began trending after the Grammys.
Göransson took home three awards, his first. He won both Record of the Year and Song of the Year for producing Childish Gambino's disruptive hit "This Is America" (the first rap Song of the Year) and Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media for creating the Black Panther soundtrack along with Kendrick Lamar. With Donald Glover and Lamar absent from the ceremony, along with most of hip-hop's upper echelon, Göransson spent more time on-stage than most A-listers. With his long, Woodstock-esque brown hair and huge smile, he cut a memorable and endearing figure.
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In addition to our collective realization on Sunday that this unlikely figure was integral to two of the cultural moments that defined 2018, Göransson was knighted as a kind of hip-hop folk hero after he was the only person to speak on-stage about 21 Savage's absence at the ceremony due to his detention by ICE. While accepting Record of the Year for "This Is America," which 21 Savage contributed a freestyle to, Göransson thanked him: "We want to thank all the rappers who were featured on this track: 21 Savage, who should be here tonight."
The producer had no intention of stepping into the role of activist or hero with his simple comment, but he was quickly recognized for highlighting the Grammys' silence about 21 Savage, seen by many as evidence of the gap between the Academy's progressive rhetoric, and the reality of who is truly included and valued by the music establishment. Göransson — particularly moved by the rapper's plight because of his own experiences with the U.S. Immigration system — simply felt wanted to give credit to his collaborator.
As his Grammy moment showed, for Göransson, it's always been all about the music. He didn't immigrate from Sweden in his early twenties with the goal of infiltrating the hip-hop world. "My dream was to move over here and collaborate with brilliant artists," he says, when asked how a white, Swedish immigrant ended up with a resumé full of luminary projects which explicitly explore Black experiences, and to of America's most renowned Black creatives — Donald Glover and Black Panther director Ryan Coogler — as his closest collaborators.
Göransson came looking for inspiration, and Coogler and Glover were who he found. He met Coogler at the University of Southern California shortly after he arrived in America, and got his first break scoring Glover's Community shortly after. He'd go on to score Coogler's Fruitvale Station (a biographical account of Oscar Grant's murder at the hands of two police officers at an Oakland BART station), Creed I and Creed II, before working on Black Panther score with Kendrick Lamar. Göransson produced all three Childish Gambino albums, receiving a Grammy nomination for 2016's Awaken My Love!.
His unorthodox methods, and obsession with music's visual storytelling power have made Göransson a secret weapon of artists like Glover and Coogler, intent on breaking film and music's molds. He traveled extensively in West Africa, studying and touring with African musicians like Senagal's Baaba Maal, to help answer the question of what the uncolonized, Afro-futurist techno-paradise of Wakanda would sound like. Fruitvale Station's score is laced with sounds of Oakland's public transit system that Göransson gathered from BART stations and trains. For Creed, Göransson harvested his beats from fighters pounding speedbags at a local boxing gym. Before he glued together gospel and trap to bring to life "This Is America's" chilling scenes, his and Glover's jam sessions inspired Awaken My Love!'s funky, majestic universe. Next, he'll live every movie music creator's dream and give his take on Star Wars for Jon Favreau's forthcoming space opera TV series The Mandalorian.
Leading up to the Oscars where he's nominated for Best Original Music Score, PAPER sat down with Göransson to talk industry politics, bridging gaps of experience, and how creating the Black Panther soundtrack changed his life.
You're coming off three Grammy wins and heading into the Oscars with a nomination. How are you feeling?
It feels surreal. It feels like a dream state. It was my first Grammy win, and being able to celebrate both of my wins with two of my closest collaborators, Donald Glover and Ryan Coogler is crazy. It's insane.
What was it like to be the one actually accepting the award on-stage award? Behind-the-scenes folks like you rarely get so much airtime or public profile.
It's something that I haven't done before and I'm sure I seemed very nervous, I was so nervous. I thought about what I wanted to say about Donald, and say about "This Is America," and I just wanted to get that message out.
Donald Glover didn't attend the ceremony. Do you think he was making a statement?
I don't think he was trying to make any statement. The last time I saw him was in the studio. I think he's just in album mode, and working extremely hard on the music. I don't think he was trying to make any type of statement.
I ask because you work with some of the biggest folks in hip-hop. There was a lot of scrutiny this year about the relationship between the music industry establishment, and the hip-hop community. Along with Glover, many (nominated) top hip-hop artists didn't attend. What did you make of those absences?
I was trying to think about it myself. "What does this mean?" I don't really know what to make out of it.
"This is America" won four Grammys, it was the first rap song to ever win Song of the Year. Given this ambivalence or antagonism between hip-hop and the Grammys, did you give much thought to if this might've been a strategic choice, in order to seem woke or progressive?
Well I was shocked that it was the first. I didn't find out until I was doing press afterwards that it was the first rap song to win Song of the Year and Record of the Year, which I thought was so crazy. It is wild, if you listen to the radio these past 10, 20 years, if you listen to what's dominating our culture and dominating our radio and the way we dress and the way we... it's all, it's all rap and hip-hop music. I was just very surprised that we were the first rap song to win Record of the Year.
Tell me about the moment that you addressed 21 Savage's absence on-stage.
I actually missed half of the Grammys because I was doing press, after the first win of the night. I just assumed that everyone was talking about it and bringing him up, because he dominated the songs that we heard on the radio this past year, and was a part of so many songs nominated. Since 21 Savage is on the song ["This Is America"], it was just strange to think he was not in the room. He should be there.
So for you, it wasn't a matter of: "Well someone's got to say something." You weren't really thinking about what it would mean.
Yeah. I definitely wanted to say what I said, you know. He's on the song, he's so much a part of our culture and he's not in the room.
Why do you think others in general, and especially in the hip-hop community, didn't say anything?
I have no idea.
There were rumors that the Grammys told nominees not to speak about 21 Savage or they'd get their mics cut. Did you hear about anything like that?
I didn't hear about that, no.
A lot of people were really grateful that you said something. Does it feel strange to be sort of framed as a hero, when you were just saying what you felt?
I don't feel like I'm a hero. I'm an immigrant. I've been in the process of applying for a visa, applying for a green card. I know the feeling. Before I had my green card, it's always scary if you don't know if you're allowed to stay in the country or not.
"I don't feel like I'm a hero. I'm an immigrant. I've been in the process of applying for a visa, applying for a green card."
You're from Sweden, you're an immigrant — but your career has been defined by Black American collaborators, especially in the hip-hop world, and especially by projects that address Black experiences. As a white, Swedish artist, I'm curious how you approach bridging that gap, when you're creating music about, and with people who have experiences radically different than your own?
You know, it's interesting. I moved to America when I was 22. I moved here with a dream to collaborate with American artists. I grew up in Sweden and I loved American music, I loved American films. My dream was to move here and collaborate with brilliant artists. One of my first friends that I met at school was Ryan Coogler. We met at a party and he started to talk to me about Swedish music artists, we talked about Lykke Li and Little Dragon. I was like, "How do you know them?" This was 2007. I started talking to him about film, and a couple months later he asked me if I wanted to score his first short film. His short film was called, Locks. It was a portrayal of Oakland. Immediately after talking to Ryan and seeing his work, I understood that this guy is special: he has ambition, he's going places. I had the exact same feeling when I met Donald, and he sent me his first song which I worked on with him. It was called "So Fly." I heard it and I was like... I don't know, I just got immediately inspired. We connected. There's something about us being able to connect through our art. Ryan trusted me with putting music to his vision. Even though we're from completely different parts of the world, I think that the art connects us.
So you just got to America, these were the most brilliant artists you came across.
Yeah, Ryan and Donald were my first collaborators, the first people I worked with when I moved here. I had no idea that 10 years, we'd be at the Grammys. But we're not doing anything different than what we did 10 years ago.
With Black Panther, one of the things that's most interesting to me is the research you did. I'm curious if you could talk about why that was so important to you for working for this film?One of the things that I love to do on my projects, is to create a sound world that's specific for that film. For Fruitvale Station, I went up to BART train stations and recorded the train and used those sounds to make into musical pads. For Creed, I went to a boxing gym and recorded a boxer jumping and breathing and hitting the speed ball. I used those sounds to make into beats and rhythms that I used in the score. For Black Panther, it was a lot more in-depth. As soon as I read Ryan's script, I told him that I needed to go to Africa, to give him the sound and the music that he needed for the film. I wanted to go there to immerse myself in the culture and learn and study African music, because we wanted the soul of the score to be rooted in traditional African music.
Was it different creating a sound for a fictional world as opposed to something as real as Oakland, a fantasy film?
Both yes and no. The important part was to really have African music represented. To be able to do that, I went to Senegal and connected with this incredible Senagalese artist, Baaba Maal. He offered for me and my wife to come join him on tour. I didn't really have anything prepared more than that. We booked our tickets and a car and without really any expectation of what would happen.The experience that came out of our travels there changed my life. Being able to record these musicians and gain an understanding of what music means to this culture, and how music is a part of African culture. I worked with all these incredible traditional African musicians, but I wanted to incorporate modern hip-hop production, to give it an Afro-futuristic sound. Wakanda is country that was never colonized, so it was important for me to find traditional African music that didn't have a lot of traces of colonization. But then Wakanda also is the most technologically advanced place in the world, so I asked, "how do you use those instruments with modern hip-hop production to kind of make it into something new, modern"?
So one of your biggest questions was "What would uncolonized African music sound like?" What were a few the answers you found to that question?
That's why we decided to go to West Africa. In Senegal, for example, the musicians that I met are called griots, which means storyteller. They play instruments and music that have been passed on in their families for generations and generations. It's a bloodline of storytelling, through families. They're playing rhythms that were created thousands of years ago, and every rhythms mean something. You play this rhythm when there's a funeral, you play that rhythm when there's a wedding. You play this rhythm when a younger man is challenging an older man, there's a rhythm, there's a traditional rhythm you play. It was important for us to use these ancient rhythms that were created for those specific moments. In the movie when there's a challenge, the sabar drums are playing. Everyone who saw this movie for the first time in West Africa, as soon as they heard that rhythm, even before the challenge started, they knew exactly what was going to happen.
Do you prefer storytelling with films or records?
I can't really choose. Both Ryan and Donald are so visual in how they work. Ryan is a writer, but also a director. Donald is a musician and artist, but if you look at "This is America," it's an extremely visual song. The video is part of the music.
"Ryan trusted me with putting music to his vision. Even though we're from completely different parts of the world, I think that the art connects us."
Is there a dream collaborator that you haven't worked with yet, or a dream project you'd love to score?
I love working on any type of genre, which is why I love scoring films. Depending on what film it is, you can work with a jazz ensemble or a big orchestra or African music or rock music, and I just love being able to be around all of those worlds. I love writing for the orchestra, I love producing hip-hop and as long as I get to do all that different stuff and move around in all kinds of different genres, I'll be happy.
What's up next for you?
Right now I'm working on a show called The Mandalorian, a new Star Wars TV show created by Jon Favreau. I don't know how much I can speak about it, but it's incredible. I've never seen anything like that before.I mean Star Wars, for any composer, is like the holy grail of film music. John Williams wrote some of the best music for film and I'm so excited. It's a new format for Star Wars, it's a live action, episodic, TV show. Jon Favreau is an incredible artist as well. I can't wait to start it.
As you mentioned, Star Wars has such an iconic sound. Are you going to shake things up or go classic?
I don't know what I can say, but it's a total new format for the Star Wars universe. I think that'll open up some new ideas and new ways of creating music for this franchise.
Photography: Austin Hargrave