Jermaine Stegall Talks Composing for the Kingdom of Zamunda in ‘Coming 2 America’

Coming 2 America opens in much the same way the first film did in 1988—with a version of Solomon Linda’s “Mbube,” the basis for the Disney hit “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” “It was written in the script from the very beginning,” says the film’s composer Jermaine Stegall. But in Coming to America, it was a lone voice singing, while in the much-anticipated 30-year-later followup, Stegall added something new. 

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“We brought in a full orchestra, percussion and layered in our own melody on top of that,” he tells American Songwriter. The LA-based composer also added in the Yoruba words, kaabo si Ile-Ile, or ‘welcome to the motherland,’ a kind of tip of the hat to those West Africans who might be watching the film. 

In taking on the reigns of scoring for the Eddie Murphy sequel—this time where his character, Prince Akeem finds out he has a son—Stegall also took on the job that was first assigned to Nile Rodgers back in 1988. Back then, The System sang the film’s theme song; today it’s John Legend and Burna Boy.

“I was encouraged wherever appropriate, to use a nod to the melody that Nile created, in our score,” says Stegall. “So there are moments that we weave in the ‘say, can you see I’m coming to America,’ either the rhythm and or the melody. Sometimes it’s stressed out longer, sometimes it’s hinted at; maybe a kalimba or mbira will play it or something subtle, or strings pizzicato. It’s a vehicle to help tell the story,” adds Stegall.

It’s one of many Easter eggs that pay homage to the first film, both visually and sonically. For Stegall, who’s composed and contributed music for an array of TV and film productions, from Our Star Wars Stories to The Christmas Chronicles, balancing the old with the new was key. 

The film’s soundtrack echoes this, as does the music that connects the scenes and songs with each other. 

Stegall focussed on Pan African instruments, with the producers specifically asking to incorporate instruments that could actually be visible onscreen. “The first day I showed up to shooting, I’m on set and it’s a scene where there are drummers outside, and they’re like, ‘Oh, hey, Jermaine, welcome, we want you to go over there to those drummers and tell them what you want to do and tell them where you want them to sit,’” he chuckles. Stegall worked with the costume department, too, to make sure that any add-ons for the musicians would be included—like ankle bracelets on the feet of the drummers that added to the sound they made. 

Another major focus was establishing the two worlds Murphy’s character occupies—the fictional African country Zamunda and New York City. “We really wanted those to be distinctly different,” says Stegall. “When Murphy’s character is out of Zamunda, he’s out of his element, so it should sound a little bit different.” Stegall used instruments to bring out the flare, fun and energy of Zamunda, while relying on the undertones of a traditional comedy for outside of it. 

Coming 2 America features a number of surprise special music guests, including Gladys Knight. Part of Stegall’s work on the film involved making sure those numbers turned out smoothly too. “I was asked to go to Gladys Knight’s trailer and rehearse her part with her,” says Stegall, who had made sure he was prepared for such a moment. 

“She lives in Vegas and she had done a recording session, which I did a source connect to so I was able to be a part of that. I decided, for whatever reason, that we had her vocal performance transcribed,” he says. “So I had the printed music of what she sang.” When the call came to assist, Stegall was ready. “I showed up with the music printed that she already sung, able to help her know where her inflections were and what she needed to do on camera.” 

Working with the likes of Knight and with songs he didn’t write made him somewhat of an on-set music producer too, adding to his experience of the film. “It was a fun one,” he says. “I’m hoping everyone else enjoys it too.”

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