“Glory” and Other Songs Inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.

Last Sunday, John Legend and Common’s collaborative work “Glory,” the soulful gospel-rap blend from the Martin Luther King Jr. biopic Selma, won the Golden Globe for “Best Original Song.” Yesterday, it also picked up an Academy Award nomination in the same category—and coincidentally, it happened to be the day that would have been King’s 86th birthday.

Legend and Common are among many artists whose music has been inspired by King’s activism, such as Stevie Wonder, Queen and U2. Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” was created in support of making King’s birthday a federal holiday, and Queen’s “One Vision” invokes the sentiments expressed in King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. In “Pride (In the Name of Love),” U2 pays tribute to King without glossing over the tragic circumstances of his death:

Early morning, April four
Shot rings out in the Memphis sky
Free at last, they took your life
They could not take your pride

MartinLutherKingJr.While “Glory”’s lyrics reference the historical struggle for civil rights, listeners can also feel the heavy influence from King’s documented love of gospel music. Legend’s choruses channel the soulfulness of King’s good friend Mahalia Jackson, “The Queen of Gospel,” who notably sang at the 1963 March on Washington and also at King’s funeral, at his request:

One day, when the glory comes
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, glory
Oh glory, glory

Conversely, Common’s rap is unmistakably modern, tying Selma to present day events. More hopeful than Public Enemy in their controversial 1991 track “By the Time I Get to Arizona,” he echoes King in his calls for nonviolence and community in order to create change moving forward. With the deliberate fusion of ‘60s-inspired gospel and distinctive 21st century sound, “Glory” is a modern retelling of past events that still resonate today—much like Selma itself.

On February 22, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will reveal whether “Glory” (and Selma, which is also nominated for “Best Picture”) will win the Oscar. Regardless, the song deserves celebration for its poignant stance on the power of music and King’s legacy. Perhaps Common says it best himself in “Glory”:

We sing, our music is the cuts that we bleed through
Somewhere in the dream
We had an epiphany
Now we right the wrongs in history
No one can win the war individually
It take the wisdom of the elders and young people’s energy
Welcome to the story we call victory
The coming of the Lord, my eyes have seen the glory

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