33 years ago Prince Akeem Joffer and his friend Semmi came to America. In 2021, they are coming back. As you’ll recall, Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall respectively play the characters from the fictional African nation of Zamunda. Coming 2 America is set to release March 5 on Amazon Prime, and the soundtrack is fueled by a name that is becoming more and more familiar in the world of cinema composition: Jermaine Stegall.
Stegall’s 15-plus years in the industry include scoring more than 20 feature films, writing alongside fellow composers like Danny Elfman (Spiderman, Goodwill Hunting), Harry Gregson-Williams (Chronicles of Narnia, Shrek), and Marco Beltrami (Soul Surfer, A Quiet Place). Stegall wrote the music for the docuseries Star Wars Stories, as well as the additional music for Scream 4 and Christmas Chronicles 1 & 2.
If you ask Jermaine Stegall what inspires him, he might mention the influences of John Williams, other classic composers, as well Gospel and choral music. In an interview near the start of his career, Stegall explained his creative process this way: “I’ll probably do anything I can to get to the musical heart of what I’m working on. If it’s singing to myself, writing down ideas on staff paper, playing piano, creating a midi mock-up, or listening to something that inspires me, I’ll try it. I’m just a fan of new sounds as well so I sometimes spend time, days even, just making sounds from scratch and seeing if they fit with the project.”
Stegall is a graduate of Northern Illinois University’s School of Music, where he majored in saxophone performance. His love of composition grew out of a school project where he handwrote a 35-piece orchestral concert. After NIU in 2000, he went onto graduate school at the University of Southern California, receiving a degree from their Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television.
We sat down with Stegall to talk about the upcoming Coming 2 America project.
Let’s start with your current big project, Coming 2 America. What went through your head when you first learned that you could possibly be part of the musical score to the sequel of such a classic film?
My first thought was, let me put my best foot forward no matter what happens. I definitely wanted to pay homage to the first film, while building on it. I also wanted to make sure it sounded like “myself”, whatever that means.
Who was the first person you called to share the news?
I pretty much always start the good news chain with my wife as my first call, then I owe the second call to my father. After that, it’s always a tie with my two brothers. I think I’ll begin to tell my kids about new projects as they (potentially) show interest in what projects I’m doing.
What were the most rewarding and most challenging moment in this project?
There was definitely the element of trying to conjure up endless creativity, in addition to coordinating remote recordings during this current pandemic! I think we recorded great performances, and I’m quite proud of being able to record at Fox, even though we had to split the orchestra into its major food groups (so to speak).
How did you prepare in terms of finding a musical theme/sound that could carry the story?
I honestly started writing as much as possible, sketching all kinds of musical ideas that related to West-African music and textures. Most of this film actually takes place in the land of “Zamunda” that we see only a little bit of in the original film.
Where does your musicality come from?
I think it comes from a deep place that includes my faith in God, my closeness to my family, and endless memories of watching movies with family over the past 40 years or so. I also try to recreate that moviegoing experience with my kids, watch movies through their eyes, and have conversations with them about the music every now and then.
Can you describe a little what your typical compositional and collaborative process is like?
Typically, I’ll get a subject, or a project and brainstorm tons of ideas. I try to hone in on the most important aspects of what I’m trying to accomplish at a broad level in terms of the “spirit” behind the project. It might be energy or dissonance or a chord progression, but really getting to the heart of a story or assignment is the most difficult and the most important part (to me).
How big a part is a virtual instrument mock-up in your regular composition process?
It’s literally essential in just about every way. I did an elaborate demo based on script ideas and ideas that I had based on how I felt about the first film. I definitely had to have the virtual instruments at my fingertips as well as be familiar with the sound I wanted to pitch for the film. A little less than half of the film’s score required composing and producing orchestral cues for a final product without many light elements. And, some of the elements were composed after our scoring session while they were doing the final dub for the film.
What technology or gear have become indispensable in your composition process?
For me a keyboard is the number one piece of technology!
Was there ever a moment where you wanted to throw in the towel and find another career path?
That always seems to be the most difficult, and at the same time the easy way out, so yes and no. This journey is filled with as many challenges as rewards. The thought of quitting goes hand-in-hand with trying again, experimenting, and continually aiming higher.
Why did you stick with music?
I’ve always felt that continuing the path toward scoring feature films for the studios was something I was supposed to pursue until it became a reality. There are plenty of obstacles for literally any and everything in life that is worthwhile.
If you can have dinner with any composer, from any time period, who would it be and why?
John Williams. The meal would be as many courses as he would allow. I would love to even sit and talk while the food was being prepped. I would even volunteer to get BBQ ribs for him (if he liked…)! Why? Because he is the through-line of music in our language of film scoring. In the art form of movie-making, he is the consummate master of telling stories through music. The well-spring of knowledge, experience, and excellence is impossible to parallel. I could learn from anything he’d be willing to share over a meal.
What is the best advise that anyone has ever given you?
I think “staying true to one’s self” still holds up really well. It translates to so many aspects of life beyond music.
If you could go back 10 years, what would you say to your younger self?
I’d say, “Good thing you’re patient.”