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Arts & Culture

Harvard grad reflects on ‘Twilight Zone’ type of year

5 min read

Gabe Fox-Peck discusses his Grammy-nominated song, releasing album in lockdown

It’s been a surreal year for Gabe Fox-Peck ’20, and a worldwide pandemic is only part of the reason.

“We were done with the song by the summer of 2019, and it’s been this crazy long ride since then,” said Fox-Peck, referring to his 2020 Oscar-nominated song “Stand Up” from the acclaimed biopic “Harriet,” about the abolitionist Harriet Tubman. The song, which he helped create with Harvard alum Joshuah Campbell ’16, is currently up for a Grammy award on March 14 for Best Song Written for Visual Media.

The pair hammered out an early version of “Stand Up” during one daylong session in May of 2019 after Campbell was approached by the film’s composer, Terence Blanchard, for a demo recording. (Blanchard had seen Campbell’s 2018 Commencement performance of “Sing Out, March On,” his tribute to Rep. John Lewis, the Civil Rights legend and that year’s main speaker.)

Campbell recalled wanting to ground the song in the “Black music traditions” of gospel, the blues, and jazz, and incorporate the “world of work music and rhythmically driven, vocally driven,” songs reminiscent of chain gangs.

“I knew I wanted it to sort of reverberate with those themes and with those soundscapes” said Campbell, “and Gabe was really adept at hearing the vision.”

Fox-Peck, who co-produced the song, told the Gazette in a 2020 interview that he was “hearing a bass kick and a clap with a lot of atmosphere, almost like a chain gang,” and that he “added harmonies, ukulele, guitar, percussion.”

Joshuah Campbell

Gabe Fox-Peck and Joshuah Campbell ’16 (pictured) co-created “Stand Up,” which is up for a Grammy on March 14.

Photo by Hakeem Angulu

“Stand Up,” co-written by Campbell and the film’s star, Cynthia Erivo, eventually lost out to Elton John’s “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” from the singer’s “Rocketman” biopic. But the young musician did get to experience a star-filled Oscar night capped by a live performance by Erivo that left him teary-eyed. Hard on the heels of that February evening came COVID-19 and the resulting lockdown, followed by the Grammy honors, and the November release of his first album.

“It’s been a little bit of an extended ‘Twilight Zone’ period,” said Fox-Peck, who until recently had spent the lockdown in London. “It’s already a bit of an existential moment to graduate from College and wonder ‘What am I going to do? Where am I going?’”

A computer, a keyboard, and a good Wi-Fi connection have enabled him to keep working on other music projects from abroad, including self-publishing his first album, “Glorybound: The Live Album,” the recorded version of his gospel-based senior thesis featuring a number of former and current Harvard students. “We realized we had done this awesome concert [as part of the project],” said Fox-Peck, “and so we decided to release it as an online album to give it a longer life and more exposure.”

Raised in the Baptist tradition in North Carolina, Fox-Peck said religion has always had a strong pull. A comparative religion concentrator at Harvard, with a secondary in African and African American Studies and music, his creative thesis, a mix of original songs and rearrangements of works by gospel and blues pioneers Thomas A. Dorsey and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, was the perfect way to merge his interests. “The [thesis] project was structured around genre, and blues and gospel, and finding how they relate to each other, finding how they kind of define themselves in this opposition to each other, but also have these intense crossings and throughlines.”

For the final performance, a late-afternoon concert recorded in Holden Chapel on a cold November day, Fox-Peck enlisted Campbell, currently completing his master’s in divinity at Union Theological Seminary in New York, to sing on a number of tracks, including Fox-Peck’s arrangement of “This Train,” featuring Devon Gates ’23. The Harvard sophomore, who sings vocals and plays bass guitar and jazz bass on a selection of songs, called the thesis performance “one of my favorite productions I’ve ever been involved with,” and said the blend of musical traditions highlights “the expansiveness of Black American music.

Devon Gates ’23.

Devon Gates ’23 is featured on “This Train.”

Photo by Hakeem Angulu

“[‘Glorybound’] plays into the idea of Black American music, the origins of all of these different musical traditions coming from the same root, and I think that’s so beautiful, how gospel and blues and jazz and R&B can just coexist in this really cool, integrative space.”

“I think the way that Gabe approached and dealt with the subject matter and the material and the concept was just really solid and really attentive to and pays great respect for the tradition from which” it’s drawn, said Campbell.

The pair’s musical connections run deep. On Fox-Peck’s first day freshman year, he and Campbell, a South Carolina native and a senior and proctor in the arts preorientation program, bonded over their Southern roots and their love of music, in particular jazz. Collaborations soon followed. Fox-Peck played keyboards for Campbell’s senior thesis project; Campbell composed a song for and sang on “Glorybound.”

Today the dream run continues for the musical pair who will be waiting, albeit likely remotely, to hear if they notch a Grammy for their efforts. It’s too soon to tell whether “Glorybound” will attract future Grammy attention. For now Fox-Peck said he is content with “any reception that’s positive,” and that he will be watching from home on March 14, as will Campbell, to see if their Grammy dream for “Stand Up” comes true.

“This is the first the first song that either Joshuah or I ever did for a movie at all. And the fact that it kind of took off, it still just doesn’t feel real,” said Fox-Peck.