Jermaine Stegall Shares Challenges and Opportunities in Scoring ‘Coming 2 America’

Musician and composer Jermaine Stegall has spent a lot of time in music departments and working with some of the best-known composers in modern film history.

His work includes film and television, spanning genres and styles. For Stegall, working on Coming 2 America happened suddenly and quickly. And it became an unexpected creative journey that weaves together the nostalgic beats of the 80s classic with the new sounds of a modern-day Zamunda. I recently spoke with Jermaine Stegall about his work on Craig Brewer’s sequel, and the creative opportunities to be found in working during a pandemic.

Paul Bates is “Oha” in COMING 2 AMERICA — Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Karen Peterson/We Live Entertainment: Can you tell us how you first got involved with this long, long-awaited sequel, Coming 2 America?

Jermaine Stegall: Can you believe it? I was talking with Randy Spendlove, who’s the head of music at Paramount, just casually reconnecting really. And he casually mentioned that they were about to start the sequel to Coming to America. And it sounded like, oh, that would be a great opportunity. And that’s so fun. And, and for some reason, he was just like, “You know what, maybe this could be a thing!” And I was like, “That sounds interesting.”

But the exciting part and the thing that put the fire to the situation was that they were about to actually shoot several weeks from our conversation, and they needed music to shoot to for some on camera music moments, and they needed it right away. So I was being pitched some ideas of things that they needed, musically speaking, and then could I address those issues quickly? Because there was a direct need to get the film made, really help get the process going. And honestly, once the things I was doing were working, it was off to the races, let’s make a movie! {laughs} We just started going for it.

I met with Craig and one of the first things he asked me was, “What does Coming to America mean to you?” And I think, musically speaking, in terms of the demo process, and in terms of scoring the movie from beginning to end, every note that I wrote for the movie really has to do with the legacy of the first movie, and what it makes us feel and the fact that it became this thing that everyone knows about and is exciting. It ended up being a lot bigger, I think, than people expected. It’s completely a part of the culture, pop culture, forever. And so the idea is that musically speaking, how can I speak to that? That really every cue in the movie is about speaking to the thing about the original movie that makes you smile. Sonically speaking, that’s really what we’re trying to do.

KP: The original film really is one of the greatest comedies of all time.

JS: I think so!

KP: Did you feel some pressure when you’re being tasked with with recreating some of that emotion and that feeling that made it so great?

JS: You know what is funny is I never really felt pressure in the sense of how do I tie in the magnitude of the first movie’s impact? It was really about how did the first movie make me feel? It reminds you of people because anyone that’s a fan of that movie has probably watched that movie with someone they know, and I think that’s the thing about movies is their power, in terms of the timelessness of them. It’s about experiencing these movies with people, which is partly why it’s a little sad that we can’t watch this in a theater with strangers. You’re encouraged to experience this movie with people. So really, yeah. I mean, the idea was to give a nod and salute to how how happy that movie has made people over time.

KP: You mentioned you had just a few weeks because they needed some music for what they were filming. Can you talk about where you started?

JS: The first thing we did was have a choir session at Capitol Records for one of the opening sequences where there was going to be a choir on screen. I had been hired by that point. They had me fly back and forth to set to supervise the matching up of these on camera performances with the music that I wrote. And then, after our first trip to Zamunda, I ended up having another choir session.

Choir was going to be a big part of how I approached this thing in terms of even having some texts translated into some languages, like Yoruba, which would be a West African language. Zamunda is a fictional place but would be in West Africa. It was our idea to have some Swahili translated to use either syllables or lines that might be Easter eggs for people that actually understand the language to hear some of those things sung. Between that there’s some percussion recordings that needed to happen early on, because of some on-camera music needs.

It was super exciting, being able to work with Fatima Robinson, the dance choreographer, pretty extensively for some dance moments that we had on camera. And those are the the early elements that we had to write first to actually shoot the movie, let alone scoring. Once we got into scoring, I started watching rough assemblies in the movie around January 2020. There was a moment where Craig actually presented the idea of coming up with some themes for characters, and I was like, “Ooo, we’re making the same movie, this is gonna be fun! We’re gonna tell our audience to have fun! That’s great.” That’s really what it’s all about with this movie, I think. It’s just meant to make people smile. And musically speaking, it was about coming up with things that just made you feel warm and good.

KP: We spend a lot more time in Zamunda in this film than we did in the first one. Can you talk about figuring out the right sound for Zamunda?

JS: Honestly, that was something that when we were on set, one of the producers, Kevin Misher, was saying, “We need to be thinking about what is the sound of Zamunda? Because there needs to be one because we’re there.” And this movie has a lot of score in it that is… the approach is a little bit more broad than the first movie, and welcoming to different ideas and many different scenarios, and scenarios that kind of pay homage to the first movie.

So with COVID, having to record at home, one of the things that I did was, of course, our woodwinds it was requirement that they recorded at home, in terms of our orchestral sound. But when it came to the idea of continuing using choir, number one, I had to use a smaller group of vocalists. So the sound became more intimate, and it became more about chanting and inflections and different things that I could sprinkle throughout the score, different moments and different cues.

I had this whole Google Doc of who was going to record live, whether the guitar, bass, drums, vocalist, percussion, harp, all these different things, every cue needed some different element of life and live record to it. So when it comes to woodwinds, I really focused more so on the lower instruments and I ended up using a lot of bass flute, which is this giant flute, and then alto flute, which is actually pitched lower than our regular C flute, which is concert flute. When it came to doing flute lines, I told the flutist whenever possible, use alto flute as your starting point. And if it has to be played on C flute, which is a normal register, go for it. But one of our flute players, I was like, “I want you to only play bass flute. Like basically all day long.”

And then one of our, our woodwind ethnic specialists, Pedro Eustache, who was absolutely great, he ended up using a contra bass flute, which at some points he’s actually kind of singing through and almost like he’s beatboxing with this bass flute and then making noise and key clicks and different things. We really wanted to tie some of those things in with the the more organic and sweeping traditional instruments, the instruments that you hear, but it was fun.

KP: Did you feel like you learned some new things by having to work through process during the pandemic?

JS: The fun thing was really getting to work with people that I’ve wanted to work with for so long. I’d worked with Pedro maybe 12 years ago on another project, but like, a project where I needed to use him, I had to use him. Like, he was the only guy that could really bring the energy and the spirit, and just talking to him on the phone, the level of enthusiasm was so crazy. It was exciting.

I think some of those challenges yielded a few things that we actually preferred in terms of approach to scoring this movie. And I definitely, definitely, definitely would prefer to have the majority of orchestral instruments in the same room, but when it came to experimentation, definitely more fun to have them separate. Also to empower them to go have fun and create an energy and a spirit in your own creative space at home, and just go for it, and not feel like I’m watching you or judging you as the composer. It’s like, let’s have fun. There’s a lot of trust handed back and forth on this movie.

KP: Can you talk a little bit about creating some character-specific scores?

JS: For me, one of the most important elements was the romantic interest. There’s one specific scene where the characters are getting to know each other, and I felt like, okay, if I can dial this scene in, this is going to set the tone in terms of thematic material that I could bring back later. If I could figure out what the appropriate theme is in this scene, I could definitely use it in other places, or hint to it. It ended up as an interesting situation the way these two characters ended up being introduced differently than it had been originally, after we did our scoring session. So when I went back to actually look at the new way that the characters meet, there was a way of bringing in her – the theme for these two characters. Love interests in a way that’s subtle, but will feel inevitable later.

And also, of course, General Izzi who is our antagonist in the movie, when he’s introduced, it needs to be over the top. The audience needs to smile. Wesley Snipes’ performance is just so fun. He deserves a theme. It’s just that strong, the performance. And then, of course Akeem, his new challenges as a father and being a king in this story and in this land, that idea of a fatherly king balancing act. His character has a theme that you hear at different moments when he’s thinking about those moments, and what what it means to him to step into this new role.

KP: There were a couple of times where I could hear music that sounded like the song, “Coming to America.” Can you talk about how you decided where to interject some of that familiar music?

JS: There were a couple of moments that didn’t make it into the final movie that were really fun to start the process of exploring that, but I was very much encouraged to use thematic material from… Nile Rodgers is the composer of the original film, and he wrote a song, the “Coming to America” song for the movie, which was performed by The System. I thought we’ve got to let people know, because that song became so iconic, that they’re watching a direct lineage of that earlier film.

I’m hoping that people who haven’t seen the first movie find it within themselves to watch the movie before they dive into the sequel. You’ll just have that much more fun if you check out the first film beforehand. Andof course, because that song ends up in our movie, we have to help tie and hint at it before we hear it so that when we finally hear it, we go, “Bingo! We’re home! Oh, this is the movie we’ve been waiting for!”

We would like to thank Jermaine Stegall for speaking with us.

You can hear his pitch perfect score in Coming 2 America, now streaming on Prime Video.

Written by
Karen Peterson is the Awards Editor for We Live Entertainment. She previously worked as the Assistant Editor at Awards Circuit, now owned by Variety. Her work can also be found at Citizen Dame and at the Watch and Talk podcast. Her non-awards season hobbies include Angels baseball, taking pictures of other peoples' pets, and tweeting about The Bachelor franchise.

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