“Write Your Own Songs”
This Sunday, two recent graduates will be going for the gold at the ninety-second Academy Awards ceremony. Gabe Fox-Peck ’19 and Joshuah Campbell ’16 collaborated on the creation of “Stand Up,” written for Harriet—last year’s biopic about abolitionist Harriet Tubman—and now a nominee for Best Original Song. Campbell composed the melody and co-wrote the lyrics with the film’s star, Cynthia Erivo, who can be heard performing the song during the credits of Harriet. Fox-Peck produced the song along with Will Wells, whose production credits include Hamilton, Logic, and Wu-Tang Clan.
Campbell’s composition was inspired by the “lost soundscapes from enslavement,” he explains. He cites the work of his mentor, Imani Uzuri (a fellow at Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African & African American Research): her project “Wild Cotton” relies on the same “sonic metaphor,” as Campbell calls it, that he used in “Stand Up” to represent historical slave narratives through contemporary sounds. Fox-Peck’s translation of these sounds emerges in the form of steady kicks, drumbeats, and claps, as well as aural evocation of a chain-gang.
Campbell was first approached by Universal Studios last May, after producers saw a viral video of his original song “Sing Out, March On,” composed in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and performed to honor speaker John Lewis at the 2018 Harvard Commencement. When the studio asked him to create a demo reel for the song, he immediately reached out to Fox-Peck for help. “What are you doing?” Campbell recalls asking Fox-Peck, casually. “I’ve been asked to demo something.” Only after he traveled up from New York to record an initial version of the song in Fox-Peck’s Cambridge apartment did he reveal that the demo would be considered for inclusion on the forthcoming star-studded film based on Tubman’s life.
“That’s crazy!” Fox-Peck remembers saying. With Campbell composing the melody and singing, and Fox-Peck performing on several instruments, recording, and editing the track, the demo was completed in about a day. A third Harvard artist, Aric B. Flemming Jr., M.Div. ’19, joined to sing harmonies with Campbell.
It wasn’t the first time Campbell and Fox-Peck had created music together: they bonded during the Freshman Arts Program, where Campbell was Fox-Peck’s leader. They later worked on Campbell’s thesis recital—an exploration of the musical lives of black American jazz musicians and other artists living in Paris in the twentieth century—for which he rearranged the artists’ works, adding lyrics and new harmonic content. Campbell became involved in Fox-Peck’s projects, too, contributing a song to the inaugural album of Young Bull, his friend’s band.
In July, Fox-Peck was on a family vacation in Iceland when he got the call from Campbell that their song would indeed make the final cut for Harriet. He rushed to New York, where he began collaborating with Wells, and by early August the two producers were running sessions for the final recording of the song. Along with studio musicians who played the percussion and baseline, Wells and Fox-Peck played and recorded the majority of instruments heard on the track.
Fox-Peck says he and Campbell have always shared a special understanding of each other’s music, thanks to their Southern upbringings: he is from Durham, North Carolina, and Campbell is from Cheraw, South Carolina. “We’re both from the Carolinas, and both fish out of water [at Harvard] in some ways,” he explains. “It made our collaboration feel even stronger, hundreds of miles from where we grew up, but still a shared place. The first time I played for Joshuah, he turned to me and said, ‘You sound like you’re from North Carolina.’ That meant a lot.”
Campbell grew up listening to his brother’s vinyls of classic gospel music, which he eventually began singing himself. “As I got older, I groomed myself listening to the vocal jazz greats, like Ella Fitzgerald, Betty Carter, and Andy Bey.” He later became interested in R&B music, listening to artists like Rachelle Ferrell and Lalah Hathaway.
One state away, Fox-Peck was raised on the sounds of the ’70s, listening to his parents’ favorite artists like Al Green and Stevie Wonder. “I grew up playing piano; I tried classical, but hated it and never practiced.” Happily, a teacher recognized his talent and introduced him to jazz piano, teaching him to “learn to listen and improv.” Fox-Peck taught himself how to layer tracks on his mother’s computer, which ultimately led him to music production.
Both musicians cite Harvard’s rich arts scene as a major influence on their trajectories. When Fox-Peck arrived on campus, he was enrolled the dual-degree program at Harvard and the New England Conservatory (NEC). “Harvard was supposed to be the academic side, and NEC the musical and collaborative one, but it ended up totally different,” he recalls. Fulfilled by the artists he met at Harvard, he left the conservatory. Harvard offered him the “ability to make music somewhere that wasn’t a pressure-cooker. Everyone at Harvard was doing their own thing, and these beautiful and natural collaborations came out of that.”
“Harvard teaches you how to hustle for stuff,” Campbell adds. “I didn’t know I was going to be a serious performer until I was in the crux of it all.” He entered Harvard playing the saxophone, but ultimately set the instrument aside to focus on singing and songwriting.
Both artists also credit Vijay Iyer, Rosenblatt professor of the arts, with promoting a culture in the music department where students felt comfortable exploring not just classical but also contemporary and experimental music. “You are valid and can compose, and this department will be shaped by your identities, not just [by] the study of white male classic composers,” Campbell recalls feeling after working with Iyer, who joined the faculty in 2014.
Today, Campbell is studying at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Between graduate school and writing Oscar-nominated songs, he also music directs and arranges music, and is currently working on a musical called Turning Fifteen on the Road to Freedom, which follows the story of the youngest marcher from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. Fox-Peck is working on Young Bull’s third album, as well as a solo extended-play track under the name Solomon Fox. His work on “Stand Up” has also inspired him to continue exploring composition and scoring for films.
As for their future work together, Fox-Peck recalls the words of Campbell’s mother: “You guys need to stop waiting around for someone to ask you to write songs! Write your own songs.”