Jazmine Sullivan on Tills Original Song Stand Up: We All Need to Be Affirmed and Thats What This Does

The import of crafting an original song for “Till,” director and co-writer Chinonye Chukwu’s heart-wrenching biopic on the execution of Emmett Till and the quest for justice led by his mother, Mamie, was never lost on Jazmine Sullivan and Dernst “D’Mile’ Emile II, the songwriters, performer and producer, respectively, of “Stand Up.” Soon to be submitted for Academy Awards consideration, “Stand Up” was released on Oct. 7, as the film, “Till,” expands with its broad theatrical release planned for Oct 21.

The lineage of “Stand Up” is beyond stellar.

The emotional depth-defying vocals and songwriting skills of Sullivan won her 2022 Grammys for best R&B performance (“Pick Up Your Feelings”) and best R&B album (“Heaux Tales”). Equally emotive when it comes to crafting melody, D’Mile became the first songwriter in Grammy history to win song of the year two years in a row with H.E.R.’s “I Can’t Breathe” in 2021 and Silk Sonic’s “Leave the Door Open” in 2022, along with having won an Oscar for best original song for his “Judas and the Black Messiah” (2021) track, “Fight for You,” with H.E.R. and Tiara Thomas.

With little downtime since “Heaux Tales” was released, toured and Grammy-awarded (“I take that as a blessing,” she said of a happily packed schedule), Sullivan was home in Philadelphia when MGM, the studio behind “Till,” contacted her management. “My immediate response was that this was a no-brainer, something I would absolutely love to be a part of, a film that was going to be important,” says Sullivan at the thought of writing an original song for “Till’s” end credits. “I was very open to taking their direction on it because I wanted the song to do the film justice, so we then immediately jumped into the creative conversations.”

The responsibility to history — to craft a song that would acknowledge a mother’s personal pain and the broader social and racial devastation that crosses generations — came to Sullivan with the same poignancy as did “Heaux Tales” paeans to the many fires and flavors of womanhood. “Honestly as a Black woman, pain is a comfortable place for me to write from, but I knew the social aspect would be a little more difficult to combine without sounding forced,” she said. “I guess I was nervous about combining all of the feelings of the film in one song that felt authentic.”

The horror of the Emmett Till story, that of a 14-year-old African-American boy tortured and lynched after being wrongly accused of interacting with a white woman in Mississippi in 1955, was known to Sullivan. Bringing a mother’s grief, grace and need for justice had to drive her songwriting process. “There’s a difference between hearing about something and actually seeing it brought to life,” said Sullivan. “My first thought before seeing the film was that I’d probably write a heartbreaking song from a mother’s perspective because the story was so tragic. But after seeing the film, and talking with Chinonye, I felt the story was more about Mamie stepping into her power after what she had experienced and how she was able to use her heartbreak and turn it into inspiration for us all. She was so strong and I wanted people to hear that in the lyrics and vocals.”

After seeing a completed “Till” in July, an emotional Sullivan (“I can’t imagine anyone not being moved to tears”) contacted D’Mile with whom she worked on another film’s track, a version of “Sometimes I Fell Like a Motherless Child,” from Baz Luhrmann’s 2022 “Elvis” biopic.

“D’Mile is just incredible,” said Sullivan. “In addition to being a talented producer, he is such a kind person and I love working with him. He was very patient throughout the process, always willing to try something out, and try 20 versions of the same thing, in different ways. Chinonye was heavily involved in the creation of the track as well, emphasizing the need for it to reach that cinematic arc and feel big and moving at the same time.”

Working remotely with D’Mile at his bedroom’s home studio in Los Angeles and Sullivan using her go-to-Philly studio, MilkBoy (“along with having to record part of my vocals in a hotel in Chicago after Lollapalooza because we were on deadline,” she said), the singer laughed about all of the “calling and texting” between her and her collaborator. “To be honest, no matter our distance from each other, everything between D’Mile and I flowed so easily.”

In all matters Jazmine Sullivan, “Stand Up,” and Oscar-winning songs of his such as “Fight for You,” D’Mile seconds that emotion.

The producer and songwriter might not have a secret formula when it comes to creating film tracks that make the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Science take notice (“I’m trying to figure this out for myself,” he says, laughing). What D’Mile does acknowledge is that he is blessed to be “the guy who gets the calls and help deliver the material necessary,” and an ear for a song that is stately, soulful, irresistibly earworm-filled and containing of a holy spirit.

“With H.E.R., we had a longtime relationship, so much of our music was based there,” says D’Mile about the singer-guitarist with whom he’s been awarded Grammys and Oscars. “Jazmine is a newer relationship, one that was successful on what we did for the Elvis movie. I assume she hears the musicianship of which I am capable. She knew what I could do, called me in crunch time, and I was ready. It was actually the day of the BET Awards that she called, as I was on my way there, yeah.”

When D’Mile talks about a crunch time, he’s not kidding. From when Sullivan’s manager phoned him and he saw a finished “Till” cut to hitting “Stand Up”’s finish, the co-writers had two months to compose, record and finish the track. “I had a few ideas and basic chord structures around and she gravitated towards the one we wound up working on,” says D’Mile, corroborating Sullivan’s account of their studio interactions.

“I’m such a fan of Jazmine’s to be honest; she’s an artist who can do anything and convey every emotion. When the film’s people called her, they called the perfect person to get such emotion… I was just lucky to be a part of it.  I don’t know if she feels the same way, but in my mind, Jazmine had the easy part – singing the way she always does. The hard part was writing the song. Whenever I get into an opportunity like this, I’m always nervous, especially considering how serious a movie such as ‘Till’ is.”

Regarding his responsibility to history, the heinousness of the act, and the personal way Till’s lynching and his mother’s actions toward justice moved generations to come, D’Mile knew he was touching on something important. “How am I going to do this and what am I going to do? I definitely felt that weight going into the process,” said the writer-producer. “I just wanted to do right by everyone who thought of me for this film and everyone who’ll see and hear this song and this film. I wanted to provide them with the perfect ending. We went back-and-forth with the team behind ‘Till’ to make sure our emotion and our message was translated well. If the team was fine with ‘Stand Up,’ that made me feel better, like I was on the right track. And as soon as we finished it, and everyone had signed off, I knew that Jazmine had nailed it. Is that a ‘woosah’ moment? Yeah, it was that.”

Considering all that Sullivan the artist — alone or with collaborators — has written in the name of heartache, fear and anger, hers and D’Mile’s “Stand Up” is different.

It had to be.

“This song is as much about and for me as a woman, as it is about Mamie,” said Sullivan in relationship to Emmett Till’s mom and her thirst for justice. “I needed my mother to remind me that there was greatness in me. I didn’t believe I had something to offer the world. I didn’t think I was special and my gifts could help other women. I was wrong though. And I know there are other people walking around telling lies to themselves about what they can do and be in this life. We all need to be affirmed and that’s what this song is about.”


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