The Woman King, the story of the real-life female Agojie warriors of 19th century West Africa, may put you in touch with your own inner warrior. And if a fiercely ripped Viola Davis massacring slavers weren’t enough, there’s a powerful original song that plays over the end credits to inspire you: “Keep Rising (The Woman King),” written by Jessy Wilson, Jeremy Lutito, and Angélique Kidjo. The anthem was originally created by Wilson, one of publisher Warner Chappell Music’s songwriters, who reworked it so Kidjo could sing in her native Beninese language Fon. Rise up out of your seat and listen exclusively here:
Wilson and The Woman King director Gina Prince-Bythewood spoke to The A.V. Club about the particular origins of this song, Additionally, they revealed the secret to a great original theme song, picking some of their favorites from other films. Following its premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, The Woman King will arrive in theaters to kick asses everywhere September 16.
The A.V. Club: So Jessy, what were the origins of “Keep Rising?”
Jessy Wilson: It was so crazy. [When COVID-19 became a pandemic] at first I was forced, just like everyone else, to take a break and sort of figure things out … There were a few writing sessions that I did and one of them was with Jeremy Lutito, who is the producer of this song. And I remember going to his place, late 2020, wearing a mask. And at the time, Warner Chappell—because there wasn’t a lot going on, but the world of advertising and film was still pretty much going—were really pushing us to write songs for sync. And to be completely honest, it hasn’t been my focus.
But I went into the studio this day and everything was happening: we’re in this pandemic, we’re in quarantine to a certain extent, and the world is beginning to see—on a large scale through social media and through the stillness—how black people are being treated in America and all around the world. And when I went to this session, that was really on my heart. And Jeremy had a snippet of a piano part for this song. And [“Keep Rising”] just felt like the only thing that I should write about this particular day, this sort of rally cry to anyone who was listening—to stand up and rise up against injustices, rise up against evils, rise up against anything in our lives that’s trying to keep us from living. Just to live freely, you know, because life is already hard. We don’t need extra things weighing on us because of the color of our skin.
AVC: How did that get attached to The Woman King and reworked into its end-credits song?
JW: So we wrote it, worked on it, gave it to Warner Chappell, and went about our business. And then only about three weeks ago I was in Nashville and I just so happened to be writing with Jeremy again. And we’re talking about the song and I say something like, “Yeah, I’m so surprised that no one has really gravitated toward this song, I think it’s so powerful.” And he said, “Yeah, but did you hear about this Sony picture that’s interested in it?” Now, mind you, I am a huge Viola Davis fan, like, oh, my God. I remember when I first saw the trailer for this film—I go to the movies all the time, popcorn is my favorite snack—so I saw this trailer months ago and was so excited about it. And he starts to describe this Sony picture, like, “There’s this movie about these women warriors in Africa,” and I’m like, “Wait, are you talking about The Woman King?!” Someone at Warner Chappell actually pitched the song to Sony and Gina and the whole team over there.
Gina Prince-Bythewood: This is the first film I’ve done where I knew I wasn’t going to have songs. The Woman King takes place in the 1800s; as much as I love Beyoncé, it didn’t quite make sense to have her throughout this film. But I love end-credit songs because it’s how you leave the audience. How are they going to walk out? What are they going to feel? It’s tricky because you want to keep them within what they’re feeling, but also give them that last push out the door. This film is a period piece, so I needed a song that wouldn’t take you totally out of it. And the first time I heard Jessy’s song, it felt like it was speaking to the film, but it felt like a beautiful bridge to the present. And that’s exactly what I wanted. You’ve just spent this time in this world, and I want to leave you inspired and go out there and feel like you can fight. That’s what the song does.
And an end-credit song for me foremost has to feel like a song. Do I like it as a song? Would I listen to this in my car? Because I love music. Music is so important and I just like immediately heard it and I was bumpin’. So I got to talk to her about just adjusting a few lyrics, to really stay true to the film. And then I wanted to bring Angélique into it, her voice again, the voice of Benin. I wanted that cultural connection between our [American] culture and the [African] culture that we were representing. You know Angélique’s work, it’s so energetic and so big and so bold. It felt like this would be a really cool collaboration. And they clicked immediately, which was beautiful. That’s what you want, for artists to be inspired by each other, to make great music.
AVC: What to you is the best ever example of a song used in film? Your favorite marriage of song and image?
JW: Spike Lee is probably my biggest inspiration in the way that he has always tied music with the stories that he’s told. If you think about any Spike Lee film, you can always point to the music and how the music really paralleled it, like a sibling to the story. And my favorite [example of] that ever is in Malcolm X when Denzel Washington as Malcolm X is driving to make his last speech. And Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” is playing. The way it’s just music, there’s no speaking, it’s just a look in Denzel’s eyes and then Sam telling the story. It will bring it to your knees. That marriage between music and cinema? I feel like that’s the peak of that experience, moments like that.
GPB: It’s interesting because “A Change Is Gonna Come” has been used a number of times, but Spike used it perfectly, the perfect marriage. For me, I don’t care that it’s cliché: Titanic, Celine Dion, the song at the end. You’ve just gone through this incredible journey and then what are you going to feel? And the song washes over you, lifts you up. And I’m going to crib from one of my own films, and that is Meshell [Ndegeocello], her song “Fool Of Me” that I put in Love And Basketball. It felt like it was written for the film, I literally just put it in, my editor did not make one adjustment to it. When you find that perfect song that doesn’t take over a scene, but lifts it, enhances it, it’s a beautiful feeling.