Oscar's Best: Surveying The 5 Best Original Songs by African American Artists
Photo Credit: S & A

Oscar's Best: Surveying The 5 Best Original Songs by African American Artists


As the 86th annual Academy Awards are set to occur this Sunday evening at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles, California, I’ve found myself, for one reason or another, thinking about a category I’ve never given much credence to: Best Original Song. 

Given the often high-wattage star power of the nominees, the category is often given far more attention than it deserves, in my opinion. The songs rarely fit prominently into the film (and occasionally just play over the closing credits) and often feel tacked onto a production, hiring a big star who can provide a toe-tapper to gain some Oscar love.

Perhaps I’m being too cynical and am going about evaluating these songs the wrong way. Maybe I should just take the songs at face value, give them an honest listen and judge them as stand-alone pieces of art. Forget the films they’re in (it’s worth noting that films about the creation of songs, i.e. OnceHustle & Flow often win Best Song as a rite of passage) and just rate them based on their own musically-inclined, aesthetic value.

This Sunday, pop sensation Pharrell has a good chance of nabbing an Academy Award for his immensely popular hit “Happy” from last summer’s Despicable Me 2. If he were to win he would be only the sixth black artist to win in this category since its inception in 1935 at the 7th Academy Awards. Anticipating this, I decided to take a look (or rather a listen) back at the past five African-American winners in the category, using the ever-helpful Spotify to relive their award-winning work.

On a side note, one thing to keep in mind is that the award honors the songwriters and not the singers who perform the song (although often the two are the same). But let’s be honest: the better the song is recorded/performed, the better its chance at winning; production most certainly matters.

1971 – From Shaft: “Theme from Shaft” by Issac Hayes (performed song and wrote music and lyrics)

This song has become quite iconic over the past forty-three years and for good reason. Judged as a stand-alone piece of work removed from the film, the song, lyric-less for the first two minutes and forty-five seconds, still works, telling a story of a guy who everyone – man, woman and child – is in awe of. I visualized everyone moving off the sidewalk when they saw this bad mother (shut your mouth) walking by, hoping for just one glance of the man they call Shaft.

Best lyrics: “Who’s the cat that won’t cop out, when there’s danger all about? Shaft.”


1983 – From Flashdance: “Flashdance…What A Feeling” by Irene Cara (performed song and co-wrote lyrics), Keith Forsey (lyrics) and Giorgio Moroder (music)

For the life of me, I had no idea this song was from Flashdance. I’ve heard it over and over again for years and found it the epitome of 1980s pop culture and subsequently embraced it as such. Even if it’s not particularly deep, it does prompt you to jump up and conquer the world. I mean, come on, it doesn’t get much more inspiring than “take your passion and make it happen!” Cara’s intense, breathy vocals only further the theme of hard work being necessary to conquer your dreams and inspire the masses.

Best lyrics: “What a feeling, being’s believing, I can have it all, now I’m dancing for my life.”


1984 – From The Woman in Red: “I Just Called to Say I Love You” by Stevie Wonder (performed song and wrote music and lyrics) 

Another hit that has endured over the years, this is nonetheless my least favorite of the five African-American-winning songs in the Academy’s history. “Superstition” and “Higher Ground” this is not. More muzak than music, the song’s instrumentals tend to put the listener into a slight daze, as if brainwashing me into giving in to its slight and painstakingly slow pleasures. It’s a sweet song with a nice message (“I just called to say I love you” is much more sincere than what would ultimately be today’s mantra: “I just texted to say we’re breaking up.”) but it bored me all the same. And how did this beat fellow black nominee Ray Parker Jr.’s iconic song “Ghostsbusters” from the 1984 Ivan Reitman classic?

Best lyrics: “No summer’s high, no warm July, no harvest moon to light one tender August night.”


1985 – From White Nights: “Say You, Say Me” by Lionel Ritchie (performed song and wrote music and lyrics)

Now this is music. This doozy of a love ballad may very well represent the pinnacle of high school dances. You know, the ones where you would stand on one side of the room hoping that a romantic song would come on that would prompt you to slow dance with that special someone. Ritchie just gets everyone in the mood. Toward the song’s conclusion, Ritchie makes a slight up-tempo detour to get the blood pumping, riling you up before bringing it back home with the memorable chorus.

Best lyrics: “So you think you know the answers? Oh no. Well, the whole world’s got you dancing, that’s right I’m telling you.


2005 – From Hustle & Flow: “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” by Paul Juicy J, Frayser Boy and DJ Paul (wrote music and lyrics)

A song that will live in infamy less for its content than for its creators’ palpable joy on Oscar night, “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” is a harrowing rap song that manages to be both realistic and optimistic in its depiction of people struggling to get by. The chorus has become legendary, Terrence Howard’s (who performed the song) vocals representing the best character he ever played and its Oscar win a continued representation of a change in the Academy (Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” had won three years earlier).

Best lyrics: “But I gotta keep my game tight, like Kobe on game night.”

What is your favorite of the five? Do you agree with me that “Say You, Say Me,” is the best of the bunch and that “I Just Called to Say I Love You” is the weakest? Think Pharrell has a chance at taking home the gold this Sunday?

Shadow and Act is a website dedicated to cinema, television and web content of Africa and its global Diaspora. With daily news, interviews, in-depth investigations into the audiovisual industry, and more, Shadow and Act promotes content created by and about people of African descent throughout the world.

© 2023 Shadow & Act. All rights reserved.