It’s all about the message—Grammy award-winning producer/songwriter Dave Tozer assured that entertainers, like him and long-time buddy John Legend, have as much right to speak out on our nation’s issues as anyone else. “You can’t ignore the problems and hope they go away. I think if someone cares about their country,” Tozer chatted with me at The Source, “they will critique when necessary. I think it’s all in the interest of getting to a better place.” And the latest addition to the Legend-Tozer discography, “In America,” [March 22,2017] does just that.
Can we build a new life, was it ever meant that we…
Could make it in America
Legend and Tozer were in the studio months before the single’s release. It was mid-2016. Orlando was happening, Baton Rouge was happening, Falcon Heights was happening, Dallas was happening, Baltimore and Milwaukee too. The presidential election hadn’t happen yet, but we were already amidst a boiling disaccord. “There was a feeling in the air that’s been lingering that we were able to tap into,” Tozer said. More and more Americans were discovering life in the supposed land of opportunity delivered not the white picket fences of the American Dream but viral footage, hashtags, protests, and cruel realities. “I think what ‘In America’ does is just kind of question some of that and says we have to examine if we’re always living up to that promise.” Yet a ounce of hope did exist in every footstep on the asphalt or smudge of ink on poster board—or for Legend and Tozer, these two words: “In America.”
They didn’t even have chords or a melody down. Tozer called the creative process “unique” in that way, compared to all their songs together. Keep in mind these two men have been working together since 1998—when Legend was an aspiring artist studying at UPenn and Tozer spent his days in Philadelphia interning at a recording studio and playing in different bands. That’s before Kanye West signed Legend to G.O.O.D. Music, making Tozer one of the first producers/music directors to work with Legend and a crucial part of his debut album Get Lifted—which doubled as Tozer’s breakout too. He later co-executive produced Legend’s Love in the Future with Kanye. “[John] was somebody who was willing to kind of, I felt, work just as hard as I was willing to work,” he said. The producer noted a vast amount of their relationship was spent writing and experimenting with various directions to go in musically. Most song compositions started with instrumentals, not words.
They had just the phrase jotted into Legend’s voice memo. As the lyrics came to be, the two songwriters would eventually find themselves repeating that phrase over and over again, as if it was a chant by protesters outside breaking through the walls of red paint and plaques in Tozer’s Manhattan studio. “Even if I was actually in the studio, even if I wasn’t out there, I could still hear what was going on and feel what was going on, “ Tozer told The Source. It took one afternoon, English Breakfast tea, patriotism, and the kick in the ass that the country needed for this single to be written.
You immediately sense anger and frustration as Legend recites the phrase “In America” in the first lines, partially due to the fast tempo heard in each verse. Complementing Legend’s signature croaning, Tozer strums his bass before the singer later joins in on the piano for the chorus. “It is an interesting tune for John because I think it does have a bite to it that you don’t often hear at all in his music, especially the way the verses feel,” Tozer said. Production yields a “kind of hybrid of organic and old school, and cutting-edge new school, like electronic meets acoustic.” Musically, the initial rhythm and thumps feel replicant to anxious hearts awaiting a total sense of freedom—a sentiment viable to pre-November, season two of WGN’s Pre-Civil War television drama “Underground” where “In America” first premiered, and today. “What is fascinating to me is it feels like it could have just been written three weeks ago. In some ways it shows that those feelings are still here. Nothing’s changed from the time around the inception of the song.”
There is a theme of timelessness carried throughout the song’s 3.5-minute entirety. The two verses represent a telling of American history from beginning to modern day, one of praise and one of criticism. For example, the opening verse samples Woody Guthrie’s classic American anthem “This Land Is Your Land” and expresses the aspirations of the everyday person to achieve this idea of the American Dream and what this country holds in terms of promise. “All of these chances I take/ Just paying my rent in America.” The first verse especially holds true to immigrants, the working class, veterans, women, LGBTQ+, and minorities. The second verse brings flashbacks of the systematic violence endured by Americans on home soil with contemporary examples of police-related deaths. Tozer pointed out the references to the 2014 chokehold of Eric Garner in Staten Island, “I still can’t breath in America,” and the 2016 shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and many like it, “Watch them bullets connect.” And the chorus acknowledges the tension between the two verses and their concepts.
But maybe it’s a long shot
Maybe it’s a fantasy
We’ve given it all that we’ve got
Maybe we can live a dream
There’s an uncertainty to which aspect of the United States one will fall prey to. So should we keep trying? The gospel motif of the choir in the background brings that optimism Legend and Tozer wanted to exemplify in their own anthem. And then the bridge spells their beliefs out clearly, “We’ll make it in America.”
That’s right! For any naysayers troubled by today’s state of affairs, hear John Legend and Dave Tozer tell you otherwise eight times. “We’ll make it in America.” Listen to “In America” for yourself on Spotify and iTunes.