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Oscar's Best: Surveying The 5 Best Original Songs by African American Artists

by Erik Luers
February 28, 2014 11:53 AM
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Shaft Soundtrack

As the 86th annual Academy Awards are set to occur this Sunday evening at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles, California, I've found myself, for one reason or another, thinking about a category I've never given much credence to: Best Original Song. 

Given the often high-wattage star power of the nominees, the category is often given far more attention than it deserves, in my opinion. The songs rarely fit prominently into the film (and occasionally just play over the closing credits) and often feel tacked onto a production, hiring a big star who can provide a toe-tapper to gain some Oscar love.

Perhaps I'm being too cynical and am going about evaluating these songs the wrong way. Maybe I should just take the songs at face value, give them an honest listen and judge them as stand-alone pieces of art. Forget the films they're in (it's worth noting that films about the creation of songs, i.e. OnceHustle & Flow often win Best Song as a rite of passage) and just rate them based on their own musically-inclined, aesthetic value.

This Sunday, pop sensation Pharrell has a good chance of nabbing an Academy Award for his immensely popular hit “Happy” from last summer's Despicable Me 2. If he were to win he would be only the sixth black artist to win in this category since its inception in 1935 at the 7th Academy Awards. Anticipating this, I decided to take a look (or rather a listen) back at the past five African-American winners in the category, using the ever-helpful Spotify to relive their award-winning work.

On a side note, one thing to keep in mind is that the award honors the songwriters and not the singers who perform the song (although often the two are the same). But let's be honest: the better the song is recorded/performed, the better its chance at winning; production most certainly matters.

1971 – From Shaft: “Theme from Shaft” by Issac Hayes (performed song and wrote music and lyrics)

This song has become quite iconic over the past forty-three years and for good reason. Judged as a stand-alone piece of work removed from the film, the song, lyric-less for the first two minutes and forty-five seconds, still works, telling a story of a guy who everyone – man, woman and child – is in awe of. I visualized everyone moving off the sidewalk when they saw this bad mother (shut your mouth) walking by, hoping for just one glance of the man they call Shaft.

Best lyrics: “Who's the cat that won't cop out, when there's danger all about? Shaft.”

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  • Mike | July 3, 2014 6:28 PMReply

    The Academy doesn't understand music in motion pictures period. "Happy" is a feel good song, but it was not used in the film at all. The only song that was used properly in the film was "Let It Go" from "Frozen." Disney really knows how to use music in their films that are a cengtral park of moving the story along. Other filmmakers need to learn from Disney.

  • Mr. Marin | March 2, 2014 6:44 PMReply

    I take it that 'Purple Rain' never happened. Oh.

  • Donella | February 28, 2014 4:30 PMReply

    I think Ray Parker Jr's "Ghostbusters" suffered the controversy from its similarity to Huey Lewis and the News "I Need a New Drug."

  • @IvoryJeff | February 28, 2014 3:41 PMReply

    As always, I love the opportunity to chop it up with fellow movie-lovers. Just wanted to respectfully point out a couple things in response to the comments so far.

    @ INDIENERD - This is not a list of what that the writer considers the best movie songs composed by blacks. It's a roundup of the five tunes that won the Oscar for Best Original Song.

    @ SOSGEMINI - Just looked it up and Prince won Best Original Song Score for the track Purple Rain, not When Doves Cry. I agree about the category being silly btw. Glad it's gone.


  • indienerd | February 28, 2014 12:47 PMReply

    You are mother effin' crazy to not include "When Doves Cry" or anything from the Color Purple. Shut this site down. PLEASE!

  • sosgemini | February 28, 2014 12:41 PMReply


    After number two, I just cant. :sigh:

    And what the heck was up with Prince winning for Song Score for When Doves Cry? Still don't get that category. Guess no one did hence it being eliminated. And wouldn't Ghostbusters also be a song score since the song was used throughout the film as a score theme? silly.

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