Lenny Kravitz‘s family had been involved in the Civil Rights Movement, so it was only fitting he should lend his musical talent to George C. Wolfe’s new biopic about the activist leader Bayard Rustin, who played a key role in planning the 1963 March on Washington.
Except, Kravitz had never heard of the Civil Rights figure. “I was disturbed that I did not know about Bayard Rustin,” the rock musician tells Variety. While Martin Luther King Jr.’s story was, of course, taught to him in school, Rustin’s was not. So, when producer Bruce Cohen approached him to write the end song for the Colman Domingo-starring “Rustin,” Kravitz dropped everything to learn about the story. “I knew immediately that this was something that I needed to do,” he says.
The assignment, in Kravitz’s words, was “due yesterday,” as Wolfe wanted the song right away. But Kravitz explains, “I’m not one to sit down to write. I’m the kind of artist that waits to hear something. I’m an antenna, and that’s it.” After spending 48 hours walking around his house, he finally felt something creative come through. He sat down at the piano, and the music began to take shape. The result was “Road to Freedom,” a rousing song that builds into a full-fledged rock anthem complete with a gospel choir.
Kravitz knew the music needed to be layered with the gospel choir and R&B influences, but Wolfe had one note: he wanted trombones. Says Kravitz, “I guess he was influenced by the trombone choirs from the Carolinas that play gospel hymns.” Kravitz went the extra mile to deliver a horn section in the song, so he called up Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, the famed trombonist who has worked with the likes of Aerosmith and Mark Ronson.
Next, Kravitz reached out to Domingo, as the two had previously met when they worked on Lee Daniels’ “The Butler.” Kravitz says that Domingo had one piece of advice: “The only thing I can think to tell you is that it’s about the work.” Kravitz continues, “As you can see in the movie, Bayard was about the work. When it came time to have a moment of glory, he went to the White House, but he also chose to pick up garbage and to continue doing the work, and that speaks volumes.”
The first line Kravitz wrote was “We are here to make the dream true,” a nod to Dr. King’s most famous speech. Kravitz explains, “We are here to keep embodying that dream, living that dream, and doing what we can as individuals to keep manifesting that dream.”
When Kravitz finally delivered the song to Wolfe, the director had more notes. “He would say, ‘I know what you’re saying here, and it makes sense, but this word doesn’t resonate with me. Try again,’” Kravitz recalls.
Wolfe’s feedback came as a surprise to Kravitz, and extended the songwriting process three weeks.
“I’m not used to this,” Kravitz laughs of the back-and-forth exchange. “But, I was here to serve a purpose to represent the film, the director and the character, so I kept going until George was happy with every syllable.”
When he thinks about the song’s message, Kravitz says it begs the question: “What is freedom?”
“We’re always going to be pushing forward. The truth always gets revealed, but you may have to wait a long time,” He says. “I think about what I was taught in school as a young child, and so many things are omitted, but the truth will find its way. That’s what this whole thing is about: the continuous road, the struggle and the truth finding its way.”
Listen to “Road to Freedom” below.