Nearly every dimension of Disney Pixar’s latest animated feature Soul challenges the expectations of the typical animated Disney movie: a strong Black lead, a sincere effort to represent Black, urban jazz culture, and a movie soundtrack that serves as the foundation for the entire film. Central to the movie’s musical achievement is its Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice Award-winning lead composer Jon Batiste.
“When I was doing a run-through of the music, there were close to 50 GoPros all angled straight at me,” Batiste explained. “The animators wanted to make the playing [in the movie] as authentic as possible.”
This was one of the numerous quirky anecdotes Batiste shared during a virtual press conference hosted by Universal Music Group’s 1824 on Feb. 23. Representatives from a variety of collegiate, music-centered publications asked Batiste questions about topics ranging from his platform as a political activist to the inspiration behind his newest album We Are.
Batiste grew up in the heart of New Orleans and credits his musical interests entirely to his upbringing. “I grew up in a family of musicians while living in a very musical city. […] Dad [always] played bass in the house,” he shared. The composer went on to explain how his curiosity led him to study at The Juilliard School in New York City at 17. After graduating, he toured with a small music group and later transitioned to work in TV. Today, Batiste composes his own music in addition to working as the bandleader and musical director of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
Within minutes of opening statements, Batiste took a moment to emphasize how music plays a crucial role in the sphere of social activism. “[Music] plays with people’s emotions. […] It feels communal and acts as a social glue,” he began. “If you get people together and make them feel the same emotion, it’s a lot easier to have a nuanced conversation or to have a [social] dialogue. It’s the oldest trick in the book.” The panelist even cited the historical origins of music in the world of political activism, including the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King’s experiences marching with choral singers amid demonstrations.
Before diving into the specifics of his work on Pixar’s Soul, Batiste briefly touched on his views about Black ingenuity and creativity and how they have both influenced his career. “We can’t avoid being influenced by Black culture. It’s just part of our DNA. It’s like the air we breathe,” Batiste explained. “We went through times where we were reluctant to recognize Black genius. […] I have had the good fortune of being born into the lineage, but I’ve also had the misfortune of being placed in a box of the typical Black performer by those who are ignorant.”
In breaking beyond the expectations he experiences under the stereotypes of Black performers, Batiste shared how most of his personal ideas about jazz were integrated into the creation of Soul. “You know the first scene [of the movie] where Joe is teaching a group of students?” Batiste asked. “I said all the dialogue in that scene and it was totally improvised. I was so moved that I cried when I saw it for the first time because I didn’t know they were going to put that [scene in] even though I had been working on [the film] for almost two years. […] It was so me.”
Amid the emotional recollection, Batiste gave audiences a sneak preview of the thought process behind the development of Soul’s musical soundtrack. His goal was to find chord structures and melodies that were grounded in the New York jazz scene and mix them with a “celestial, ethereal sound.” Upon discovering the emotional world created by the chords, Batiste ensured that melodies and character development were soon to follow.
In discussing protagonist Joe’s search for his passion in Soul, Batiste imparted his final words of wisdom to the audience. “The thing about passion is we have a built-in passion-finding mechanism, also known as our heart,” he explained. “It looks for things to get wrapped up in and get a hold of, yet gives us so many feelings and emotions that motivate us. […] Our passion isn’t our purpose, but it is when the mind and heart are in alignment.”
For all Her Campus readers wanting to hear more from Batiste, his newest album We Are is expected to release on March 19, 2021. “It’s genreless,” he proclaims. “It’s a novel, and if you close your eyes, it’s a movie. It’s meant to be read or viewed without skipping scenes. There’s rap and folk, and my story is in the middle of it all. A lot of the time we look around for answers to save us, but [the phrase We Are] is the question, and it’s the answer.”