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

Shadow and Act By Erik Luers | Shadow and Act February 28, 2014 at 11:53AM

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

This article is related to: Soundtrack

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