The Amendment states all people born or naturalized in the U.S. are American citizens. Although that’s supposed to guarantee all citizens are treated equally, that’s not the case with the ongoing social and racial injustices against Black and brown American citizens.
Music is one of the most prominent forms of expression and artists often use it to make a statement against the injustices that affect Black and brown communities. The soundtrack for Amend: The Fight for America is no different.
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Will Smith wanted a sound that reflected the times with artists whose music pushes the needle to bring the documentary full-circle. With that idea in mind, Smith called upon Kevin Writer as the music supervisor for the documentary’s soundtrack.
To capture the documentary in music form, Writer worked closely with Smith’s team to assemble 62 licensed songs from Nina Simone, Pharrell, Jaden Smith and more into a playlist. He’d worked with Fred Hammond, Mariah Carey, L.A. Reid and more in the past, but those moments were nothing like the time Writer put into the Amend: The Fight for America soundtrack.
“Growing up as an African American and just having a truly African American experience, that Amendment to the constitution was part of Reconstruction, and it was the lynchpin for the Civil Rights Movement, and so many other things, groups, LGBTQ immigrants,” Writer told HipHopDX. “These things are close to my heart, so having the opportunity to contribute to something like this was just an opportunity of a lifetime, in my opinion, and then seeing how passionate Will was about it just inspired me.”
For the lead song on the soundtrack, Smith and Writer wanted to create an anthem for those who have struggled with the various promises America gives its citizens. To do that, Writer knew there was no other lyricist to bring this vision to life more than the Grammy Award-nominated rapper D Smoke, whose music touches on racial and social issues. Along with the addition of Dreamville producer Deputy and rising R&B singer Mikhala Jené, the song “We Are The Promise” became a reality.
“When you look at what the documentary is about, the interesting thing is, my favorite part is that in the documentary, the 14th Amendment promises so much, but then it’s what’s used in court to defend people when that promise isn’t made,” D Smoke explained. “It’s really about the battle to hold cities, states, our country accountable to what it promised, and hence the song ‘We Are The Promise’.”
Backed by a drum-heavy, piano-laden beat, Jené’s hypnotizing vocals lay the foundation for D Smoke to spit his true-to-life rhymes about persevering in a society not built for his people.
“Ooh, I feel amazing, ooh, what can I say?/But my mama’s mama dreamed of a day that resembled this moment/Found our way to the pyramids just by following omens/Living life like I’m still a kid, I’m a king in my throne/Which passed down to me, if I’m honest/’Cause we are, we are,” D Smoke rapped before Jené’s vibrant hook closed out the track.
DX spoke more with D Smoke ad Kevin Writer about creating “We Are The Promise,” representing those who can’t speak up for themselves, how the 2020 George Floyd and Breonna Taylor protests inspired the song and more.
HipHopDX: With everything America has gone through in relation to the racial and social injustices that affect it, do you guys think the country is following the 14th Amendment in the way they should?
Kevin Writer: I think the reason the country is special, the reason the U.S. is special is because of these ideals. I think where we fall short as a country, it’s very clear. But I think [former] President Barack Obama said something that sticks with me, and I think sticks with all of us, which is that the arch of history does lean towards justice. It takes a long time, but I think that it does lean towards justice. To directly answer your question, I don’t think that we’re living up to the ideals, but the fact that they’re there makes this country special and worth fighting for, I think.
D Smoke: Absolutely not. That’s what the documentary is about. It’s as much about the failures and struggles to get to a place where it holds true to that Amendment. In the preamble to The Constitution that’s, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, and among them are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” It starts off with, “All men,” but that’s at a time where we’re still considered three-fifths human. It’s the plight of every American or the brave ones to hold the state accountable to living up to that promise. No, I know better than to think that.
HipHopDX: Last spring, we saw all the protests for the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. What role did those protests play in the making of “We Are The Promise?”
D Smoke: It’s a call to action. We’re out marching and saying, “This cop killed a Black man in front of the world.” We watched it and we saw it happen but it’s not only a call to action externally. It’s a call to action internally. For me, it’s the work. So many people do a lot of the marching, fists in the air, cardboard signs, but it’s like, “Let’s spend some time inside and deal with the people who are hurting inside our communities.” We have this tendency as a people to leave when we can’t afford to, which isn’t bad as long as there’re some resources going back in. That’s the part of it that when I hear, “We Are The promise,” at a time like this.
On one hand, we’re doing extremely well, and it’s beautiful to watch. It’s beautiful to see the whole world rally with us. Those marches weren’t just Black people. It’s people of all colors, all creeds. But we want to make sure that at the very same time, we are the promise to ourselves. Not just asking externally, but doing the work and being a presence, a positive presence internally. We don’t need a law to change to show up and volunteer an afterschool program. Nothing is stopping us. I see it from those perspectives, and that’s just my personal background, because coming from education and stuff, I know there’s so many solutions that don’t take us asking for change from people who have proven not to have our best interest at heart.
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HipHopDX: What does a project like Amend: The Fight For America mean to you as a creator who’s representing so many unheard voices?
Kevin Writer: I was fortunate enough to be invited to set and I was able to see the conviction with which these folks told their stories, from Mahershala Ali to Diane Lane, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Will Smith, I mean, so many amazingly talented people who have personal stories and care about the 14th Amendment. This wasn’t a project that had a blockbuster budget. This was a project where Will personally asked people to come, to tell their stories, to be a part of it and to donate their time in a lot of cases. That, for me, was one of the most humbling and telling experiences that I had ever been a part of and was able to witness. It was in that, that the stories, the vision for the songs, and even the song selection came about. Being inspired by those creatives.
D Smoke: Oh man, It means everything. A lot of people have entire careers without having the opportunity to collaborate around something that pushes the right conversations forward. It just makes me proud of whatever work I’ve done to attract those types of opportunities. The fact that Kevin said, “We thought of you,” I was like, “You must be doing something right.” I don’t know what it was, but if people think of me when projects like this come around, then I’m headed in the right direction. That’s what makes it meaningful. We do need to escape sometimes, but to be able to do so while tapping into things and grow on people, that’s what really matters.
HipHopDX: How did you guys come together for “We Are The Promise?”
Kevin Writer: For me, it really started with Will. To his credit, he was passionate about making a song that represented us. He was passionate about working with young people and working with the next generation. “We Are The Promise” actually came from him in a production meeting where he kept saying, “The promise. The promise of the 14th Amendment is what matters.” He presented an opportunity to say, “What can we come up with that represents that messaging?”
Deputy from Dreamville and Mikhala Jené raised their hands, and they just stepped up to the plate with no questions asked, because they had a conviction about it and they believed in that message. For D Smoke there was no other artist and I’ve been in Los Angeles for 12 years, there was no other artist that I could think of that came to mind.
D Smoke: On my side, it was developed to a certain point. By the time it got to me, it was mostly done, so I’m already approaching it with care, because there’s already so much brilliance that’s put into it. I listened to it a good, probably four or five times, before I even put a verse to it. What’s interesting is all things considered, like I told you, I included things about my family and the vision that my grandmother had for her future generations in the family, but I also referenced a line about, “Made our way to the pyramid just by following omens.”
That’s a reference to The Alchemist, one of Will Smith’s favorite books he referenced in an interview, and I ended up reading it. The documentary makes no mistake or apology about the responsibility on people to fight for that promise. We are the promise, but it’s through our actions that we actually get to see that.
HipHopDX: Kevin for you, what were the things you had to do differently on this project that you didn’t have to be mindful of with your past work?
Kevin Writer: As we were working on it, the protests were happening, so we were protesting and then going to the studio and working. We were protesting and going to production meetings while this was going on, so that’s a visceral experience because it was happening in real-time. At that time, President Donald Trump was still in the White House, so there were all types of feelings, man. To be honest, to Will’s credit, something that he said that really stuck with me in one of our production meetings was, “As much as all of this is going on, we always have to understand who our allies are.” It is hard to reconcile those feelings, but I think it’s important in the fight for justice and for equality to remember that our allies do truly come in all colors, all sexes, and all shapes and sizes.
HipHopDX: What did you do differently D Smoke?
D Smoke: My work up until this point, because I’m still in the shallow end of how much music I’ve released, up until this point I’ve pretty much focused on telling my personal story and that of my family, whereas this one is intentionally dealing with one, a piece of legislation. We can’t call it legislation, so to speak, but the law, the lay of the land, and society in a broader sense. I’ve made commentary here and there in those songs, but this is beyond my personal story.
This affects so many people. That was what was different. It was taking a little bit of what my family experiences and applying it to how that translates into our society, the world around me, versus really honing in on my experience. That was the difference in how I approached this one, but of course, the similarity is approaching everything creatively with honesty.
HipHopDX: The word “promise” takes an important role in this song. After doing a song like this, the word “promise” becomes an even bigger word. In that sense, what has that word become to you now that this record is done?
D Smoke: Promise, to me, is a responsibility, you know what I’m saying? Promise proceeds the action. There’s no promise without action. If I tell my girl like, “Ima be there for you,” that means every step of the way. It’s like if I need you, then I’m making sacrifices to live up to that promise. “We Are The Realization” would be a whole other song than “We Are The Promise,” you know what I’m saying? If you promise me something, I’m holding you to it. It’s some action behind a promise, so it’s really a challenge. It’s a call to action more than anything.
Kevin Writer: I agree with that. I think Smoke is right, man. One of the things I think we aim for was to not throw a pity party with this song. “We Are The Promise” is empowering. As Smoke said, it’s action in that. There’s an expectation in that. That’s the feeling that I have about that word, and as much as the promise of the 14th Amendment is an ideal that the country tries to live up to, we’ve got to go out there and make it happen.
Listen to D Smoke’s recently released Grammy Award-nominated album Black Habits on HipHopDX’s weekly New Music Fridays.