Raphael Saadiq Scores âBlack Nativityâ [INTERVIEW]

If you were secretly hoping for a Toni Tony Tone reunion, go ahead and let that go. It won’t happen. It’s never going to happen. Never. But if you’re hoping for some more good music coming from the group’s former frontman Raphael Saadiq, then hang tight. He’s working on something special.

It’s a bit of a second act for the ’90s R&B crooner who soundtracked the high school years of today’s thirtysomethings, but he’s pulling a RZA and stepping behind the scenes to score movies. His first go at it is Black Nativity, out this Wednesday. And lo and behold, it didn’t scare him off! Saadiq’s already working the next Spike Lee joint, Da Blood of Jesus, and there could be something brewing with Wu-Tang clansman himself, RZA.

EBONY: Considering how well songs you’ve written for film (Boyz n the Hood, Higher Learning) have done, it’s crazy to think this is the first film you’ve scored. What took you so long?

Raphael Saadiq: It came to me through Kasi Lemmons, the director. She’s a great director. I like her art style and her cinematography and what she’s about, and I felt like it was a perfect film for me to step into with a director. I love her films—Eve’s Bayou, Talk to Me—so this was perfect for me.

EBONY: We’ve never heard Angela Bassett or Forest Whitaker sing on camera before. What was that like, bringing that out of them?

RS: I’m a huge fan of everybody in the film, so it was cool to watch Angela walk in and go, “When I took this gig, I said I could sing, ’cause I sang in something one time, but I’m an actor so I thought I could do it. But now…” So she had to put herself up to the challenge.

To watch Forest sing and to produce Forest—I actually produced him and watched him sing that song, and it came out so good when he sang “Be Grateful”—was amazing. I grew up in Oakland, around the block from Walter Hawkins’ church, so we picked that song to be in the movie. And to listen and watch him sing it that good, it was huge for us. I was like, “wow, this is Forest Whitaker singing ‘Be Grateful’!’”

EBONY: Is this a crowning moment for you, to score a film?

RS: It’s definitely a pinnacle. It was overwhelming, so I didn’t want to think about it while it was happening. It was my first film, so I just really wanted to do [well]. It wasn’t like it was a gospel film; it was more of a musical. I wanted to show the muscle and the art side of me. It’s like playing basketball. I’m a big basketball fan, and if you play basketball, you should be able to shoot from anywhere on the court. So I just feel like musically, whatever I’m called to do I should be able to deliver. I just wanted to deliver.

EBONY: Finish this sentence for me: “It’s not Christmas until I hear…”

RS: It’s not Christmas until I hear Donny Hathaway sing “This Christmas”! I think it’s that [hums the melody]… and then just when Donny says, [singing] “Hang on mistletoe, I’m gonna get to know you better this Christmas…” You just feel like, if it’s an overcast day it’s still beautiful. Christmas is supposed to be a little gray, but here in California we have those sunny Christmases. But that song just makes you think about the right weather, the right people in the house, the right setting. It’s that type of song. I think you could be a different type of religion, you could be a Jehovah’s Witness and you hear Donny Hathaway, you have to sneak and listen to that song.

EBONY: You wrote a couple of original pieces for this film. Were you inspired by Hathaway?

RS: I had a great team of people around me. I pulled from Harlem, Langston Hughes and Kasi’s experience, and Laura Carpenter, a lady who I composed a lot of stuff with too. And we all chimed in and brought different bells and whistles to it, but my inspiration was just to give Black film a different look. Sometimes I think Black film gets looked at, musically, a little cheesy sometimes, you know?

My first solo record actually is called “Just Me and You,” it’s in Boyz n the Hood. It was my first solo single, and I never actually had a script. John Singleton just told me what the scene was. And in his next movie Higher Learning, he never gave me a script. He just told me that the girl’s name was Deja and I wrote “Ask of You.” So I’ve been in maybe four or five of John Singleton’s early movies without writing songs for scenes, but I never had the script. So