Meet the Emmy-Winning Composer Who Soundtracked Nike's Colin Kaepernick Ad

Scott Irvine
Courtesy of Scott Irvine

Dustin O'Halloran

Nike's newest "Just Do It" campaign video has generated massive controversy since its Labor Day unveiling for starring former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick?, who polarized the country when he began kneeling during the National Anthem to protest police brutality. But there's one thing every viewer should be able to agree on: It's hard to watch the ad and not feel moved.

Thank Dustin O'Halloran for a large part of that. The 47-year-old American composer, whose notable works include the scores for Marie Antoinette (2006) and Lion (2016) and the Emmy-winning theme song for Amazon series Transparent, is the brains behind "We Move Lightly," the striding, breathless piano melody that plays in the now-viral Nike ad. In the two-minute spot, Kaepernick narrates over clips of star athletes like LeBron James and Serena Williams, and urges viewers to "believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything" -- both a motivational message and thinly veiled reference to the professional consequences of his controversial political stance -- as the music surges forward. 

While "We Move Lightly" was originally included in O'Halloran's 2011 album Lumiere -- and used in the cult romance movie Like Crazy that same year -- O'Halloran jokes that the song has "followed" him ever since. "One of the trickiest things in music is to have a duality," he says, reflecting on reasons for the song's enduring popularity. "There's a simplicity but also an optimism in the piece."

Thanks to the ad, the track's latest resurgence has begun. In the first full tracking week following the commercial's Sept. 5 release, "We Move Lightly" earned 308,000 total on-demand U.S. streams (audio and video combined), according to Nielsen Music, a 361 percent increase from the week prior. Of that sum, 254,000 were on-demand video streams -- a 946 percent uptick from the week before. And that's not to mention streams of the advertisement itself, which has surpassed 26 million views on YouTube.

Below, O'Halloran gets on the phone with Billboard from Berlin to discuss what makes the track work for Nike's message, the power of film and his work scoring the upcoming drama The Hate U Give, which explores racial tensions in America.

When did you first become aware that "We Move Lightly" was being used in the ad?

A few weeks before it dropped. [Nike] wanted to see if I could shape it a bit to the picture. In the end, the piece is pretty intact to its original form. When I saw the ad, I knew that it would probably make waves. I had no idea it would be the cultural phenomenon that it became, which shows the temperature of the country right now -- that it made such big waves. This is a complicated time, and we’re a divided country. It’s advertising, and we all have to be aware that that’s what it is, but it’s important that people are standing on the side of democracy, and free speech and the right to peaceful protest. That’s always a good side to be on.

How much did you know about the ad's content at the time you got involved?

I didn't know until I saw it [on television] that Kaepernick was in it. Obviously, he’s a big part of it, but the rest of it is inspiring people to do their best in adverse situations. It was a comment of where we are as a country and what we have to overcome. [Nike] made him a symbol of that, in some way, by making him the face of this campaign.

I don’t align myself with companies, per se, with my music. But as far as advertising goes, this is something that I could get behind. Anything that creates a conversation going in the right way is good, whether it’s advertising or not.

Why do you think the composition works so well with the message of the ad?

I think there’s a simplicity and also an optimism in the piece, but there’s a sense of depth in it. It's capturing something that has a sense of life. There’s a movement to it that propels forward, and I think that’s what the ad is about. What [Nike was] looking for musically, is they never wanted to make an anthem out of it. They wanted to create something that had a sense of honesty, but not bombastic. 

How did the song come about to begin with, back in 2011?

I wrote it on my last record [Lumiere]. I was working in Italy at the time. That’s a piece that’s followed me for a long time. It’s a mix of modern influences, and maybe a little bit of Bach. It’s basically just two lines playing ostinato against each other, or with each other. It was me trying to find something creative with the piano.

You also scored the upcoming Fox film The Hate U Give, based on Angie Thomas' novel of the same title, which touches on police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. How do you go about composing music for films with a social message? 

The commercial came out the day before The Hate U Give premiered at the TIFF. It’s a moment where I think some big companies are making a statement.

George Tillman Jr., the director, needed something that could be really honest but emotional. With subject matter that a lot of people already have feelings about, the challenge is always to give it an emotional sensibility, but not make it feel contrived or forced. Trying to get a really honest portrayal. The story follows a girl who witnesses this shooting. It tackles a lot of subjects that are in the mind of America right now. I tried to bring a lot of honesty and something visceral that people will feel.

There’s power in cinema. We use it for entertainment, but when there’s moments when it can reach a lot of people, I think that’s the other side of film. It’s still a very powerful vehicle for consciousness.