‘Lift Me Up’ from ‘Wakanda Forever’: A gentle lullaby and a call to a friend now gone
The seed for “Lift Me Up,” the Oscar-nominated song performed by Rihanna in “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” was actually sown in the score for the first “Black Panther.” It’s there faintly when the hero appears as a young boy in a flashback while the grown T’Challa prepares to visit his father in the Ancestral Plane.
“Ryan and I loved that piece of music,” says composer Ludwig Göransson of the film’s director, Ryan Coogler. “And we were thinking about how we could develop that and use it more in the first film, but there were no other moments for it. And I get the answer on that now on the second one, why that didn’t work — obviously because of what the theme represented.”
They realized that the tune felt too young, more like a lullaby.
Time passed: Göransson won an Academy Award for his score; he and Coogler both became first-time fathers, and Chadwick Boseman — the film’s hero, T’Challa — died from cancer. The cumulative effect was that “Wakanda Forever” became a movie, at its core, about women and motherhood. Suddenly, a lullaby was perfect.
They knew this song would play at the very end of the movie, after a new child is introduced. While Göransson was in Mexico, doing research for the parts of his score that would accompany the Maya-inspired Talokan characters, he made a demo of the song with some local musicians playing guitarrón and jarana — “breathing that culture” into a track that also used African instruments, he says.
He asked Coogler to write some words for it, just as he’d done for the training montage song in “Creed.”
In a joint Zoom conversation, Coogler pulls out the black notebook he kept during production and finds the page — dated 4/24/2022 — where he first jotted down the opening lines: “Lift me up / Hold me down / Keep me close / Safe and sound.”
“I always get nervous,” Coogler admits, “because I’ve known him a long time, and he’s a really skilled musician. So whatever you ask me,” he says to Göransson, “I’ll try to take it serious, you know what I’m saying?”
The composer replies: “I knew that only Ryan would embody the message of the movie in that song. And that’s what those words are.”
“It’s better to be underestimated and then deliver,” says Angela Bassett, who makes Marvel history with her supporting actress Oscar nomination.
They took the song to Nigeria, where native singer Tems added some more verses. Tems also provided some wordless vocals in an instrumental use of the melody early in the score, under a scene where Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and her daughter Shuri (Letitia Wright) talk about T’challa’s absence. At the last minute there were some label clearance concerns, so the composer scrambled and asked Coogler’s own mother — Joselyn Coogler, who was babysitting both the Coogler and Göransson kids at that moment — to sing on it instead. (The soundtrack album version features Joselyn Coogler, while the film version is Tems.)
Coogler and Göransson always knew they wanted Rihanna to perform the song itself, but the superstar hadn’t recorded any new music in several years — and she had also just become a mother herself.
It seemed like a long shot, but when Rihanna saw a cut of the film, “she just really connected with it,” Göransson says.
“This was the first song she did as a mom,” Coogler says.
The whole movie hangs under a cloud of grief — real grief, since the director and his team had just lost their dear friend — but it’s strengthened with the spirit of a family affair. “Lift Me Up” ends the story on a poignant but hopeful note, with Rihanna’s voice crying over gentle piano and strummed folk instruments, soon surrounded by harmonies by Tems and rising on a tide of strings — which were arranged by Serena Göransson, the composer’s wife.
Coogler was thinking all about his late friend in the song. Boseman was “somebody who you take for granted,” he says. “How great he was, how much he could have your back, how supported you could feel. So if somebody like that passes away, you miss them, you’re sad, your heart’s broken and all of that. But also, if it’s somebody who you depended on, it makes it even more unfair. So that idea, asking somebody who’s no longer with you to help you — ‘Lift me up, hold me down’ — because he was that kind of guy ... it was trying to put all of that into, like, the simplest words.”
A lullaby was exactly the right carrier, Coogler says, because of the parallels between sleep and death: “In life, you fall in love with things that are mortal. And so lullabies, they go both ways. Me and Ludwig are parents now, and a lot of times a lullaby is as much for the parent as it is for the kid. And at the end of your life, if you live a full life, there comes a point where your kid’s gotta put you to bed.”
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