Interview with Jermaine Stegall

“Coming 2 America” composer Jermaine Stegall

In the annals of best-loved comedies with a star at his likeable peak, it’s hard to match 1988’s “Coming to America.” While raunchy enough to merit an R, the second teaming of John Landis and Eddie Murphy by way of magical African kingdom and roughhouse Queens was a vibrant throwback to the romantic screwball magic of Hollywood, as given a new ethnically joyful spin in its scoring by funk-pop icon Rodgers. Now everything fans loved about this modern-day classic is new again (if rated PG13 this time) as Prince Akeem’s illegitimate, American-born son retraces dad’s steps in his own pauper to prince way with his decidedly streetwise family in attendance. But one major difference is just how much more of a character the score is in this journey, music given its own distinctively fun vibe to announce that Jermaine Stegall is really in the Hollywood house by way of Zamunda. 

Hailing from the Blues Brothers-centric land of Joliet, Illinois, Stegall began his own ascent up the studio hierarchy as he collaborated with such composers as Marco Beltrami, Christopher Lennertz and Danny Elfman, progressing through shorts to score an animated “30 Days of Night” series and a documentary salute to the “Psycho” saga. Stegall’s first features ranged from thrillers to drama with “Escapee,” “Rogue River” and “Jamesy Boy” while taking a stab at a “Night of the Living Dead” spin off and a high school comedy plague of “Mono.” But while Stegall did ear-catching work on smaller films, nothing quite compares to his well-deserved big break with “Coming 2 America” and the score he pulled off under beyond-adverse conditions. 

As directed by musically minded Craig Brewer (“Hustle and Flow,” “Dolemite is My Name”) on a truly epic, yet humanely intimate scale that reprises the original’s hits to arguably even funnier effect, “Coming 2 America’s” seems like even more of a song and dance film that’s waiting to happen beyond its giant African numbers and iconic guest appearances that bridge two continents. Minus super heroics but with as much noble appeal, it’s the next step after Wakanda in terms of eye and ear-filling African fairy tale films. Stegall’s score matches its energy with pure multi-cultural musical joy from start to finish.

Melodically resounding with African voices, winds and percussion, Stegall jets to Queens with funk, Motown romance and emotional heart to seamlessly weave between any number of big production numbers and an ingeniously made-up Greek chorus. Not only does Stegall deliver excitement that T’Challa would find worthy (in this case dodging lions instead of rhinos), but he swings effortlessly with comedic demands of hitting jokes and styles in a way that would please the antics of Adam Sandler. It’s a glorious example of ethnic “east” meeting symphonic west as well in just how well the orchestral sound unites the score, all with the kind of regal and intimate charm that’s made Prince Akeem’s legend endure in a way that will now please old and new fans. That Stegall pulled this score off at its scale in itself is worthy of the kind of major scoring crown long since sought, and now proudly held.  

Jermaine in his saxophone band in 1988 (the year of “Coming to America’s” release)

Tell us about your musical start and what made you want to get into composing?

Around 1987 I started playing saxophone which led to my interest in jazz. I’ve always been an avid moviegoer, even as a kid and often remembered the music that went to those films. Growing up in the 80s, most of the film scores that I tend to remember now from my childhood had lots of themes and I didn’t realize until late in high school that I’ve actually started collecting them and remembering scenes that they were written for. I ended up going to undergrad specifically for saxophone performance degree, but my interest in composition kept me writing the entire time. I did end up going to get a master’s in composition and later studied in USC’s film scoring program whichbrought me to Los Angeles around 2003.

You first worked with composers like Marco Beltrami on “I, Robot” and “Flight of the Phoenix.” How did you progress to writing additional music and then getting your own scores?

I have easily been a fan of Marco Beltrami since the first “Scream” movie came out and it became a 5-6-year obsession to meet him and ultimately work for him in any capacity I could. My aspiration was always to hang around the “right people” and continue learning about ways of writing additional music for studio films. Getting my own scores was obviously a different subject, because I tended to pursue directors that did not have regular relationships with composers. As I honed in on my craft, first time directors became my focus. 

Tell us about some of your favorite early scores, and how they helped develop you as a composer?

In the early 80s my family went to the drive-in theater in Joliet, Illinois on a regular basis. To be honest there were points where we would go to the theaters to see movies upwards of twice to three times in a week if there were movies we were really excited to see. Some favorites that I saw in theaters on their first run, movies like “Indiana Jones,” “Conan the Barbarian,” “E.T.,” “The Goonies,” “Time Bandits” and “Explorers.” Most of the Star Wars movies were either discovered by watching “movies of the week” or all of the videos that we rented constantly on “dollar days” at our local video store. 

What did Eddie Murphy movies mean to you as a kid, particularly “Coming to America?”

Eddie Murphy was one of the biggest icons of my childhood and of course then and now, seen as one of the most genius comedians of all-time. The original “Coming to America” was a movie that I vividly remember staying up all night watching constantly and watching whenever I spent the night at my friend’s house. Movies like that, “Back to the Future” and playing the first-generation Nintendo were a part of our constant pop-culture that we were feeding ourselves in the late 80s. Memorizing dialogue and acting out scenes at school all went hand-in-hand.

What other comedy scores from back in the day struck you, and why?

John Hughes, Ivan Reitman, and John Landis were directors of comedy and John Landis specifically worked a lot with Elmer Bernstein which brought a lot of thematic material. Reitman as well as Landis regularly worked with Elmer Bernstein who was great at writing well-crafted music for broad comedies. Elmer’s music constantly lent itself to working away from the picture which was something that I thought was a really interesting approach. Craig Brewer definitely embraced the idea of using themes, which I thought was also a nice tie-in in terms of aesthetic and creating something more along the lines of movies whose music would be  timeless, rather than dated.

How did “Coming 2 America” come your way? And what was the responsibility like to carry on the musical spirit of such a beloved film?

I was talking with Paramount about film scoring and my ambitions, and the timing just happened to be perfect with the fact that they needed music to shoot the film to. I composed several demo pieces based on the script and it worked really well with what they needed to shoot, and next thing you know I was hired. I did feel a sort of responsibility towards being true to myself, as well as carrying on the musical spirit of the original film. I think that was something that actually helped the process. I was constantly thinking in terms of tone and not as much specific notes. Every now and then we did use material from the title track song written for the original movie which I thought was also another nice tie-in.

Director Craig Brewer and star Eddie Murphy

Could you talk about working with Craig Brewer?

Working with Craig was great. He was very supportive, and honestly an endless supply of creative ideas. He was always open to suggestion and loved trying things. I think our back-and-forth with experimenting with different musical scenarios allowed us to really fine-tune the overall tone of this film. Unfortunately due to the pandemic, most of our deep musical conversations happened by phone while he was in Memphis, Tennessee and I was scoring away in Los Angeles. We also ended up coming up with a lot of musical scenarios literally on set, and some of which ended up changing the script.

Would you say that the score of “Coming 2 America” is more front and center in helping to drive the film?

Absolutely! Craig was always excited when the music was very aware of what he called the “Coming to America-ness of it all”, and with that I think he meant referencing the original tone and spirit of the first film. I think there is a lot more score in this film than in the first film, and that being said, there is a much broader acknowledgment of previous material that the music supports as well. 

COMING 2 AMERICA Photo Courtesy of Amazon Studios

What does a Hollywood “African” score mean to you? And what would you say were the game changers and your favorites in that field?

I’ve never heard the term “Hollywood African” score. However, I do understand that there is a major cultural element to composers that are black not having a major track record at writing scores for giant franchise movies. I didn’t need to, nor did I think it was in any way necessary to actually travel to Africa to record authentic African instruments, rhythms, or musicians that were versed in African styles. I was very curious and the conversation about music related to black culture would definitely come up in terms of score, but I always try to approach it as a black man who has grown up in the U.S. with elements born into my DNA of how to be authentic to my own musical experiences as well as music derived from Africa that I enjoy. Honestly, in terms of game changers, Nile Rodgers was definitely a consideration in terms of influence with respect to thematic material, and authenticity to the instruments that we used, but I didn’t put any pressure on myself to reference “game changing” music scores with respect to black culture.

Zamunda in its way is as much of a fairy tale kingdom as Wakanda. How did you want to get across the musical idea of Africa and its traditions as translated into a proud fantasy land, especially given the visual spectacle that would befit a musical?

I tried not to think of the idea of “Wakanda” much at all in terms of music but the idea of Zamunda being a fairytale kingdom, definitely lent itself to colorful writing in terms of ensembles that I used throughout the film. It starts off with a very large orchestral sweeping majestic sound that helps the audience understand that we are going to a very magical place, but once we are with the characters by and large the score stays intimate, unless there is a need to enhance action or moments that give chase. The moments of romance in the film also end up mainly being orchestral, supplemented by romantic electric guitar, but remain intimate in terms of approach. Muted strings, colorful harmonies, tension and release were all a part of that musical palette as well.

Eddie Murphy in COMING 2 AMERICA Photo Courtesy of Amazon Studios

King Akeem is one of Eddie Murphy’s most upbeat characters. What do you think his good nature gives to the score?

I definitely ended up coming up with a theme that reflects King Akeem’s good nature and his desire to be a great father and leader of his culture and kingdom. You end up hearing his theme when he talks to his son in the pastures, you also hear it during a conversation that he has with Lisa’s father Cleo (played by John Amos).

Conversely, was it fun to play the multitude of “disguised” characters for Eddie and Arsenio who aren’t that sweet?

In the first film, I don’t remember a lot of music in the barbershop scenes where Eddie and Arsenio’s characters are disguised. It was actually very fulfilling to write music for locations that felt iconic and had no musical connection originally to them. There is also a completely new character named Baba who I was allowed to run with musically and come up with something fresh. Baba is an old shaman who constantly offer up prophecies and revelations about Akeem’s life and lineage.

COMING 2 AMERICA Photo Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Given an abundance of characters, were there any you wanted to give specific themes to?

For me, the heart of the entire movie is Lavelle’s relationship with Mirembe. I wanted something that was romantic and could sound fleshed out. On their first meeting, it is always effective to give a hint at a small part of the theme that will play in full later when they’re either being fully romantic in their courting or having a disagreement about the future of the relationship. General Izzi has a theme, there is also a melodic line you hear in the main title that is constantly woven thought the score. Although we see the elephant “Babar” all grown up in this film only once, I decided to make the first piece of music I composed for the film, which is his theme.

“Coming 2 America” relies on a lot of shorter cues, as many comedies can that encompass a gigantic range of styles that often turn on a dime. What was that challenge like to keep the music cohesive while still hitting the humor? And how broad did you want to make it?

I think the challenge was figuring out which instruments worked in the world of our “Coming 2 America” without sounding out of place or too over the top. I wanted to make it broad enough for any audience it was appropriate for, and help underscore the cultural references, but also something that didn’t dive too deeply into sounding dated.  You’re definitely right about lots of short cues that need to turn on a dime, but the goal is definitely to keep the ensembles consistent and not have too many different sounding things that weren’t as coherent as the story needed them to be.

Jermaine Fowler and Lesley Jones in COMING 2 AMERICA Photo Courtesy of Amazon Studios

One of the score’s highlights is when Lavelle tries to cutoff the whiskers from a lion. Could you talk about that scene?

Actually yes, that was a very big script moment that sounded like a giant undertaking to shoot as they described what they hoped to achieve. This was a very important scene to help solidify the weight of the cultural barrier Lavelle must cross. I wanted to make sure to have a tribal feel when he’s being chased, vocal chants, ethnic flair, and plenty of tension when his life is in danger. When he cuts the whiskers, the music needed to be very deliberate and evoke a feeling of having accomplished a major task that seemed impossible. We celebrate with him for a moment, and then have a tribal moment of exhilaration!! We hear a choir sing words which include “Ekaabo si ile wa” which means “…welcome to the motherland” after he holds the whiskers up. The language is Yoruba which is spoken in West Africa.

There are a lot of great segues from songs into your score here. How did you want them to work, in particular when it came to putting The System’s original title track “Coming to America” into your score?

We had plenty of musical moments where the songs had interludes stemming from the score. Particularly the song “Get Off” by Prince, which is introduced by a drum cadence that is very similar to the groove and tempo that the song ends up in. There’s drum cadence that introduces General Izzi’s daughter Bopoto and her entourage. There were also some choral transitions into the “Midnight Train” song moment.

Arsenio Hall and Eddie Murphy star in COMING 2 AMERICA Photo Courtesy of Amazon Studios

How did you want a Queens attitude to come through in the music? 

Honestly, the Queens attitude music just needed to ground us in a sound associated with New York and its energy. In the scene where Akeem travels to New York to meet his son, he’s extremely excited and anticipatory and it is one of the only cues that sounds as groovy and funky as this one ended up being. 

Tell us about how “Coming 2 America” also draws on other styles of music from jazz to 50’s doo wop, soul and funk rhythms. In that way, would you describe this as a “melting pot” of black music as such?

Yes, I think you could describe it as kind of a melting pot of Black music. First of all, I’m black, so experiences that I’ve had that aren’t reflected in the music “stereotypically” have always tended to be the moments I wanted to make sure to nail. Being kind of a “swiss army knife” of my influences with gospel, jazz, and love of percussion was a ton of fun to build off of.

Eddie Murphy and Shari Headley star in COMING 2 AMERICA Photo Courtesy of Amazon Studios

In the midst of how often hilarious the film is, could you talk about putting more heartfelt dramatic and romantic emotion into the score in a way that would work with the comedy’s tone?

The heart of the film really is our new lead Lavelle (played by Jermaine Fowler) having a very similar journey to Akeem’s from the first movie. At the heart of it, was Lavelle finding and experiencing love for himself as opposed to how he expected to. He dodges the ease of the arranged marriage scenario and we needed a strong musical theme for his love interest.

Teyana Taylor and Wesley Snipes in COMING 2 AMERICA Photo Courtesy of Amazon Studios

There’s particularly dexterous musical intercutting at the climax as Akeem races to his son’s wedding and his daughters fight General Izzi back in Zamunda. How difficult was it to switch between the two?

Not that difficult really. The script actually telegraphed the need for music to bring these two story points together and the end of the film. For at least one section of it, I composed a music demo, for them to use on set while shooting for the “bucket drummers”. I’ve seen this is a part of Craig’s process because he loves, cares, and understands music so well. He creates scenarios where music is integral to the shooting of a scene is allowed the opportunity to be set up for the structural win. We talked about it on set, and for the times I wasn’t able to be on set for anything shot in that sequence, I was provided dailies to look at.

What were the challenges of scoring “Coming 2 America” during the pandemic?

There weren’t any actually….just kidding! The pandemic definitely raised flags that mainly revolved around safety. The main thing I had to re- conceive had to do with the idea of choir. We simply couldn’t have a large group of people singing in a room. We had 2 choir sessions in 2019 for a few of our “In-Camera” music moments, but then when we were deep in scoring and recording specific cues throughout the whole film, we had to rely on vocalists recording themselves at home. This was all reflected in our use of woodwinds, bass, drums, guitar, live percussion, and harp. For our orchestral groups, we needed to break up the string section and record them completely separate from the brass players on a different day. In addition to this, we needed to consider time and budget for each player recorded in our strings session, as well as our brass session, to each have a Covid test.

How did you want to combine the African instruments and chorus with the orchestra? 

Initially, I definitely wanted to use even more voices that we could of course record together as a “choir”, but the pandemic changed that approach fully. I also had hopes of doing expensive percussion recordings with unlimited African instruments and experimenting for hours on end with manipulation of African sounds and instruments to create unique combinations for the film. In the end, there was some of that, but the process didn’t need to be overly complicated. I’m really happy with the results we got, because I was able to really just focus on being myself and basing my scoring choices off of my own musical experiences that includes plenty of inspiration stemming from Africa.

Given how “Coming 2 America” ultimately came out on Amazon, what do you think it says about how big Hollywood films will be released and the future of event movies and their scores in general?

It’s a good question. I love the experience of going to the movie theatre, and as an optimist, am nothing but hopeful that that communal experience can return fully. I also feel a stronger desire than ever to regularly enjoy new content to compensate for the pandemic and discover new stories with my family. I think the theatrical experience can and will re-emerge even if it takes a while. I think we as humans need and yearn for that communal experience, but I’m so happy that there is a platform on which we can get the actual film out sooner than later. I don’t think in any way shape or form that we were going to be able to replace the theatrical experience with our home viewing experience completely, but I am so excited about the temporary substitute especially for those that have great sound in their homes.

Do you think Hollywood has now entered a new era of composing representation, especially when it comes to giving relatively new composers like you a shot?

Honestly, I would LOVE to say that Hollywood is trending in hiring composers in an effort to improverepresentation, but I think we’re a ways off from that. It’s definitely a conversation that will come up more now with interest and respect to cultural awareness. I know that was part of the conversation that was had for “Coming 2 America” when looking for its composer, and rightfully so. In terms of entering an “era”, there are a handful of composers who happen to be black or brown that are consistently getting tons of work that has nothing to do with the color of their skin. And it is an exciting time because in an industry that has typically been dominated by white males, there have been new opportunities given to composers who haven’t looked like the “norm” within the history of the medium.

Where do you see the saga of Akeem continuing, especially with his music?

It’s so hard to tell what the future could hold for the musical saga of Akeem. I didn’t see the original film ever getting a sequel, but in terms of saga, I glad we weren’t doing a re-make. This allowed us to build on the legacy of the original film and create a true sequel instead of a rehash.  If anything, I think continuing to build on the original legacy is the only thing that could be appropriate, if it ever becomes a conversation, but I haven’t heard anything about continuing.

What’s ahead for you, and how do you think “Coming 2 America” will play into your career?

Next up is a supernatural thriller I just started for Universal which is sure to be a major departure from the iconic and hilarious material I’ve been staring at for the past year. I think the score to “Coming 2 America” will play well into explaining most of my musical influences.  The story presented so many scenarios and the musical experiences I’ve had throughout my life really allowed interpretations to flow pretty naturally in terms of serving story needs and giving authentic nods to the culture where needed. Really, I am so grateful to have had this opportunity and am looking forward to what is coming next. 

Watch “Coming 2 America” on Amazon Prime HERE

Visit Jermaine Stegall’s website HERE