“Change” is Jermaine Dupri, Johnta Austin, Ne-Yo, and Bryan-Michael Cox’s sermon to Black Americans and the next generation during one of the most difficult years in recent history. The coronavirus pandemic has killed millions of people around the world, and the police-involved deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others this year have put a spotlight on how difficult the experience the people of color face in the United States is at this moment in time.
Dupri released “Change” in October and, most recently, shared the official video for the song last week (Nov 20) featuring that features Common, The Detroit Youth Choir, Keedron Bryant, Kirk Franklin, and more. The legendary producer and songwriter spoke to BET about creating the song, its role in the current political climate, working with Joe Biden for the I Will Vote Concert, and more.
BET.com: What inspired you to create “Change?”
I was thinking of my whole career and my goal. I wanted to get my name to the front of the line of those that I felt [are in the] front of and … in the conversation with the people that I feel like I belonged to: the special producers, special songwriters, and so forth. I had to ask myself when I started seeing so much of this, am I stepping up to the plate and being who I think I am? If I believe I'm in the hall of fame for songwriters if I believe I'm one of the top producers of all time from this era, then what's holding me back from writing a song that soundtracks basically what we're going through? Marvin Gaye. Sam Cooke. These guys wrote about their eras. Where are the guys that are writing about this era? So, it was just like a real true conversation with myself.
BET.com: There are a lot of people involved in the song. So I wanted to ask, how did you orchestrate such a massive array of songwriters and singers for it?
Well, my mind was actually trying to get more than what's there. I was trying to make a record that had females, males, country artists rap, anything. I was all over the place in my head. The COVID basically snapped me back into my space and let me know that these times have changed. Everybody ain't got no studio. Everybody can't just run to the studio and do what you are asking them that ain't already happened.
So it was a COVID [that made me say], “Oh, ok Jermaine, this might not happen the way you want it to happen. This might not even happen at all.” Then it was just that frustration space I went through. Then I started looking at who had sent their vocals, and I started looking at the direction that the song was taking itself in, without me. Which was to have all these Black Kings, basically all on one record and just make the record all into like a Black male record. We hadn't had that in a long time anyway. It just started morphing itself into that direction based on the time we were in, based on studio availability, based on people not wanting to go out and go to studios, studios being closed in LA, just a bunch of different things.
BET.com: We've heard Lil Baby's “The Bigger Picture” and DaBaby's Black Lives Matter remix of “Rockstar.” What do you think that the role of protest music is in these turbulent times for African-Americans, and how does “Change” fit into this role?
Well, “Change” is an R&B record basically. It's the one R&B song that I feel incorporates something that we haven't seen in any of these types of records, where big stars get on a song with new artists and new artists get an opportunity to be on a record with established artists. For example, Keedron Bryant gets an opportunity to be in a space with all of these other artists that are put on this record. That probably would never happen. He probably would never get a chance to be on a record with Wanya (Morris) from Boyz II Men until he actually became more established. And I was looking at that saying, “What's the Jermaine Dupri way. What's the way that Jermaine has always done it?”
It's always been me to introduce you to new talent or help new talent go somewhere else that they didn't see themselves going by themselves. I just started reaching out to new people like Keedron and the Detroit Youth Choir and as many people as possible. Then I wanted rappers on the record, but I knew it was a singing record so I had to figure out how to incorporate artists like Big Rube, Common, and so forth. DaBaby and Lil Baby’s records, those were straight rap songs. This is an R&B record, completely: a singing song that has those same [Hip-Hop] elements, but it's no rap involved. That's where it holds its weight as far as the separation between the three.
BET.com: How did the video for “Change” come together?
It was actually a performance that basically was put together for the Joe Biden and Kamala Harris I Will Vote Concert. Once we did it, I realized that, damn this is a video. It's a live performance because each person is in their own space, reenacting and re-singing the songs, but ultimately this is a video. We weren’t even originally thinking about doing a video because of the COVID situation. We didn’t think we could get one — asking people to do the song and performance was already enough. But the video came almost as if it were an accident.
BET.com: What motivated you to work with Joe Biden for his campaign?
The fact that he wanted to have a conversation with the people of Atlanta and when he first came to Atlanta for the democratic debates. When he did a democratic debate at Tyler Perry's studio, he asked the mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, to put together a crew of people, movers, and shakers in the city that he could talk to and ask questions about what we wanted in this next election and what we saw moving forward. I felt like that was a very forward mindset to come from him. That wasn't something I requested, that wasn't something that I don't know if anybody else requested, but I mean though. From that point, I was asked to come there by the mayor and I went to have this meeting and we talked and I left there feeling like he really genuinely wanted to hear what we had to say.
He also asked us to write down stuff and send him information that we felt he could use going forward. And this was way earlier than [before] everybody [else] even got involved with this whole election. I felt like, as being one of these guys that didn’t care for elections growing up, this was the first time that any presidential candidate had ever requested my presence and asked me any type of questions about what was going to move on forward.
BET.com: What do you think that he's going to do for America?
I don't know what he's going to do. I learned about being [the president when I was] the president of the Grammy Association here in Atlanta. And the year when Janet and Justin had the situation that happened at the Super Bowl, Janet was my girlfriend at that time. There wasn't much I could do. I resigned because I was the president and I didn't like the fact that I could hold a title such as president, but I couldn't really get my hands dirty and help the situation. I couldn't do much for her, which I needed to do a lot for her being my girlfriend. They wanted me to just ride with the decision that they made.
That wasn't my thing. I wasn't going to do that. When I hear people talking about being a president and all of that. That's the one thing that always pops in my mind is that, yeah, he's the president, but how much can he actually do? That’s why I feel like runoffs that are getting ready to happen next year are really more important because, in the House, I feel like, is where the real decisions are made.
BET.com: What do you think are some of the next steps that the United States has to make to move into a better place, now this Trump’s presidency is over?
Just addressing everything. I think we are a nation looking at stuff and addressing it like we don't see it. And that goes for everything — whack ass music, everything. I think we have to stop doing it like that. We know what's not good. We know what's not for us. We know what we shouldn't be doing. We know what we should be doing and we got to start addressing it as such. It's just like, I think the gay and lesbian community, it's something that we saw and it was out here and it wasn't being addressed and they demanded that it be addressed. This is what it is: if that's what you choose to do, that's your life. That's your life and the judgment is out the window. I feel like that's what we have to do with the rest of life that we have here. We just have to address things the way that they have, and I use that as an example.
BET.com: What do you think are some things that the country needs to do to show its Black citizens that their lives matter?
Well, I actually think that they have, I think that the NBA in itself did something. I think that you see in these cities with the influence of Black Lives Matter. I think just having someone in control that speaks to both and addresses both, I think, seeing Joe Biden hire, pick Kamala, it should be something as, not a justification, but a breath of fresh air for us as blacks to say okay, we do have someone.
I know I've heard people say, “Well, Jermaine, Obama was there and he didn't really do that much, and whatever.” But the crazy thing about that is, a Black person getting in that position is doing more than a Black person not being in that position. I know we want everything, but you can't always want everything. You got to move at a certain pace. That's what I was always told and I will always believe that you get one space and then you get something else, you can't get everything. That was the first time we ever had a Black president. We can't expect him to just go crazy. That's a space that had never been filled.
He didn't know how to completely move in that space. Fair enough, we should just be happy that we have come far enough where we can get in that space. I'm just saying now it's like, let's take that energy and add that to the Kamala Harris energy. And let's keep adding more and more energy to that fire and see exactly where it gets us.
It's just like music. When you come from a different territory, you just try to get in the space. And once you get in that space, you could bring the rest of your homeboys. Politics is not, has not been our thing. And this year and a couple of years back have been more something for us to just like pay attention to and get involved. So I feel like, as more of us get involved, it's going to get better. That's all I can believe.
Joe Biden has hired Cedric Richmond as White House Senior Advisor. That's one of the highest positions for a Black person in the White House ever, aside from being president. I think that's another thing that should make Black people feel like we are in a better direction than we have been in the last four years.
BET.com: With all of this said, what do you want the message of “Change”’s song and video to be?
I want people to listen to the keywords in the song and be the change that you want to see. We can have the world. We can have it all. These are true words. This is not something that's a made-up story. This is all true. But we have to act on "action," and that's what I want people to take from it. Whatever it is, use this towards anything that you're going through in life. That's one thing about the song — It's not just for the election and not just for voting. It's for everything we need to change people's attitudes. We need people to start understanding (and understand) that it's more life out here than just ourselves.
When you look back on this year and the craziness that's happened, you do have to have music that reminds you. You should have some kind of soundtrack that reminds you. A lot of people don't want to be reminded of 2020, but I'm saying you should have some kind of soundtrack that reminds you of this time. And I hope that my song along with the other records that have come out is part of that soundtrack and that playlist.