Lauryn Hill fans know how rare it is for her to release new music, which is why the musical legend’s new track in Queen & Slim took many by surprise.
“Guarding the Gates” is Hill’s first new song in six years, and according to the film’s music supervisor, her presence on the soundtrack elevated the film to new heights.
“She put out this incredible album [The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill], which has consistently been called one of the best albums of that time, and never really followed it up, and to be able to bring that kind of moment to our movie was such a great kind of addition,” Kier Lehman told BuzzFeed News. “Queen & Slim was already such a black movie and just coming from that place in black culture where Lauryn stands made it that much more powerful.”
Queen & Slim, starring Daniel Kaluuya as Slim and Jodie Turner-Smith as Queen, tells the story of the pair’s on-the-run journey from the cops after their mediocre first date takes a turn when Slim shoots a police officer in self-defense. Lehman collaborated alongside singer-songwriter Solange to execute the vision of director Melina Matsoukas and screenwriter Lena Waithe to find the perfect combination of songs that span all the genres of black music. When he asked Matsoukas if there were any dream artists she wanted to feature original songs from in Queen & Slim, she said Hill was on a list of “ultimate” gets.
“Lauryn’s name came up and I had recently had a conversation with her agent, who had mentioned to me that she had some music to share and that she might be interested in doing something for the right project,” Lehman said. “So when Melina mentioned her name, I told her that could be a possibility.”
After a productive conversation with Hill’s agent about what was at the heart of Queen & Slim, Hill sent a few music demos to Lehman, who then chose what would become “Guarding the Gates” to pass on to Matsoukas.
“They tried it in a couple of scenes and we experimented with it in a few different places in the movie, and Melina felt good about it and we just kind of lived with it for a little bit,” Lehman said.
The filmmakers eventually moved the demo to the end credits of the movie, after the final scene. After a few successful test screenings, they decided that’s where they were going to keep it. “As it lived in the movie, everybody got more attached and fell in love with it,” Lehman said.
When Lehman went back to Hill and said they officially wanted to use the song in the film, she agreed to include the song but wanted to rerecord the 10-year-old demo and update it to the studio version it is now.”
“We were a little bit nervous about that because we loved it the way that it was, and we weren’t sure if it would change and if it would still fit and have the right tone,” he said. “But of course, the only way we were going to get it is if she redid it.”
Over the entirety of her career, Hill has built a reputation for showing up late to concerts and taking a long time to complete projects. When it came to rerecording her original demo to the studio version for Queen & Slim, Lehman said the filmmakers “waited and waited and waited” for her to deliver — they were fast approaching their deadline for the final mix and final playback of the movie and still didn’t have the new version of the song.
“We were very much out on a limb kind of waiting for this to come in. We had a backup plan, but this was really what it had to be,” Lehman said. “She just kept kind of explaining that she was working on it and recording it and needed to feel good about it before she let it go.”
Still unsure about the fate of “Guarding the Gates,” the filmmakers forged ahead with their final edits and playback without hearing from Hill. But at the last moment when they would be able to add the song, Lehman said he woke up to the studio version of the song in his inbox. With only a couple of hours to spare, he passed it on to Matsoukas and they placed the song over the main title credits at the end of the film, which opened Nov. 27.
“When we heard it, she had changed a little bit from the demo, the sound filled out a little bit from what we had, but it was perfect,” he said. “The perfect tone, the perfect buildup out of the end of the film.”
With lyrics like “Everybody, everybody wants to know / Where you’re goin’ to, what you’re runnin’ from / What you’re goin’ through, where you’re comin’ from” and “Watch them speculate on the life you live / Watch them try to hate all the love you give,” Hill’s song is the last sound moviegoers hear after watching the main characters meet a violent end to their journey.
“Hearing her voice while you watch that film is another element that helps tie everything together and leaves you feeling this hopefulness,” Lehman said. “But also the rawness and the warmth of her voice, and not only just the quality of the voice but her story and what she brings to this story because of her place in black culture, gave a whole other level to everything.”
The payoff to all of the waiting was worth it, Lehman added. The significance of having a new Lauryn Hill song packed with powerful lyrics in a film that addresses racism, police brutality, and what it means to be a black person living in America was not lost on Lehman or anyone else involved in Queen & Slim.
“It was important to us to include her in the film because she’s an artist that is placed in such high regard in the music community and then specifically in the black community,” Lehman said. “And being a woman who has this voice that carries so much emotion to it. Obviously the movie is amazing on its own without that song, but having that song took it to another level of classic black soundtrack.”