At least for the moment, Ludwig Göransson is taking a breather as he nears the end of a busy awards season. “I’ve been in the studio these last couple of months, and it’s been really long nights,” the Black Panther composer tells Playboy from Los Angeles during a pause between working with his longtime collaborator, Donald Glover, on upcoming music for Childish Gambino.
If Gambino fans were startled last year by the direction that "This Is America" takes, they weren't alone. “With Donald, it’s all about the art and the creation," Göransson says. "That’s very rare in today’s times. Whenever we start a new project, it’s like, are we going to go this way or that way? We find our way in the dark by experimenting.”
This hunger for experimentation is what successfully birthed “This Is America.” It’s a resounding and unique protest anthem with lyrics that pack a strong shot of social commentary while combining juxtaposing genres and moods. It all results in a musical clash ultimately designed to be an overarching metaphor about the plight of the country. It’s no wonder then that a song this layered took, from inception to release, three years to come to fruition.
Finding himself squarely in the middle of two lauded cultural touchstones is a far cry from Göransson’s remote European childhood. Enamored by American film and music while growing up in Linköping, Sweden—a moderately sized city that's roughly a two-hour drive south of capital Stockholm—the aspiring composer left his homeland at 22 to attend the University of Southern California. While there, he fell into a plum assistantship with Theodore Shapiro, the film composer perhaps best known for creating the scores for big-budget studio comedies like The Devil Wears Prada.
The mentorship led to Göransson’s first brush with Hollywood by helping out with the score for the Ben Stiller-directed Tropic Thunder. Around the same time, he met fellow USC student Coogler. “He came to a party that one of my roommates had at my house, and we played pool together and started talking,” Göransson says. The two bonded over their shared love of Swedish music, and when it came time for Coogler to direct his first student film—a portrayal of his native Oakland, Calif., dubbed Locks—he reached out to Göransson. “It had no dialogue—just music and sound effects. When I saw it, with his brilliance and his vision, I could instantly tell what a special person this was. I knew he was going to go places.”
I felt very lonely, and it was tough. I left to follow my dreams, and Ryan Coogler and Donald Glover did the same thing.
Göransson was taken aback. “First off, I didn’t know he was even an artist," he explains. "I thought he was only an actor. But as soon as he sent me the first song—I think it was called ‘So Fly’—I listened to it and was like, ‘Oh, my God, this is really good.’ It was incredible. I wrote back with some notes about adding some drums here and a guitar there, and that was the beginning of our collaboration.”
In the time since, his professional life would be defined by his connections to both Glover and Coogler. Göransson produced the entirety of Gambino’s eclectic discography, from his 2011 debut Camp to 2013’s Beyond the Internet, which both featured Kanye-inspired, of-the-moment rap sound. The collaboration later evolved into the '70s soul homage Awaken, My Love!, which spawning the groovy hit “Redbone,” a song that later snagged three Grammy nominations and won for Best Traditional R&B Performance. Simultaneously, Göransson also found himself composing the scores for Coogler’s movies, from the filmmaker's debut feature Fruitvale Station in 2013 (when he cemented his status as a director-to-watch), to Creed, a box office smash two years later.
With the through line for the vast majority of Glover and Coogler’s creative output deftly speaking to the black American experience, how does Göransson, a white Swede, estimate he became an essential collaborator for the two? “There’s something about being all together, and also kind of alone, and working on this art and music and film to make us feel better,” he explains, noting that all three—Coogler from the San Francisco Bay Area, and Glover originally from Atlanta—had isolating, fish-out-of-water experiences in Los Angeles when they first moved to town.
It also helps that he’s a voracious researcher. When Coogler was tapped by Marvel to direct Black Panther and sent Göransson an early draft of the script, the musician's immediate reaction was to head to Africa. “As a 20-year-old studying music in Stockholm, I moved to Gambia for one month in West Africa and studied music from four different tribes," he says. "That was the first time I got a glimpse of how complex West African drumming and rhythms were, so I knew the only way I can score this movie is to go to Africa, immerse myself in its culture, and study and learn its music.”
Göransson did just that, plotting to Senegal with his wife, the violinist Serena McKinney Göransson, to meet with one of the country’s most famous artists, Baaba Maal. One long flight and a tense 13-hour car ride through rural dirt roads later, the two arrived at Maal’s home and shared a meal of hand-fed goat and rice (“the best dinner I ever had”) before heading to a 3 a.m. show for an audience of thousands. “People had been traveling for days to this concert, and you could feel the energy,” Göransson remembers. “Right when he walked out in his traditional outfit and started singing, I had goosebumps. I was hypnotized and transfixed by his voice, and I could tell right there and then that we were definitely at the place where we need to be.” He stayed in Africa for a month, and Maal provided the perfect inspiration, even lending his voice for two of the score’s most notable tracks, including its theme for the mythical “Wakanda.”
Göransson’s immersive efforts paid off: Not only did his music for Black Panther snag that Grammy award for Best Score, it’s now also up for an Oscar. “Of course I’m going to go,” he says with a laugh of the chance he could be front and center, snagging yet another major award in the span of a month. “It’s interesting. We’ve all been working together for 10 years and aren’t doing anything different that we did 10 years ago. I guess the world is just catching up.”