At first, Robert Glasper, Grammy-winning pianist and bandleader in both R&B and jazz, might seem an unlikely choice to score a Kobe Bryant tribute video commissioned by Nike — but as it turns out, he has just a little more in common with the Lakers legend than you’d think. “That’s actually what birthed my piano career: sucking at basketball,” Glasper tells Billboard of his early hoop dreams. “I always tell people, when I was in 9th grade, I was pretty much benched, and I slid that bench over to the piano.”
The tribute, planned to commemorate Bryant’s 20th (and apparently final) season in the NBA, is called “Be Courageous,” and is intended to inspire fans to share their favorite highlights, which will then be collected by Nike and released in full over his last All-Star Weekend. Nike also invites listeners to share their own remixes of the song on SoundCloud. “I’ve been a Kobe fan for a long time,” says Glasper. “He’s the guy who kept it exciting. There’s three seconds, four seconds left — you know [Kobe’s] getting the ball, and you know he’s going to do some kind of random, acrobatic shot that’s never even existed.”
The composition also celebrates the life of one of history’s most important figures, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in an unexpected way: by using both 4/4 and 6/8 time signatures. With that eclectic combination, Glasper commemorates the significance of April 4, 1968, the day Dr. King was assassinated.
For his inspiration, Glasper went straight to the source — game footage from the basketball star’s storied career. “I literally watched mad Kobe highlights on mute, because on YouTube, a lot of people put their own music to [the highlights], and a lot of it is extremely corny [laughs],” he tells Billboard. “The melody started coming to me from that.” Get a glimpse behind the scenes of his writing process below:
The medium, jazz, in this case is also part of the message, Glasper tells Billboard. “Jazz is about being in the moment, in a way that’s unlike any other kind of music. That’s the foundation of it,” he says. “You get lost and find your way back — and that’s what sports are. You can’t say, ‘This is how the game is going to go.’ It’s impossible. Everything is done in the moment.”
That spontaneity is part of what inspired “Be Courageous,” he adds. “It takes a lot of courage to stick your neck out, in the spur of the moment, not knowing what’s going to happen. Stepping out, knowing you could fall,” says Glasper, alluding to risks both onstage and on the hardwood.
Another thing that ties jazz and sports together? Teamwork. “My favorite jazz musicians were supported by great bands, because you need someone to bounce ideas off, just like you need someone to pass the ball to you,” Glasper tells Billboard. “Like with my trio — my drummer throws me alley-oops all the time, or I’ll throw him one. I’ll play an idea, and I’ll let him finish it. Or he’ll play an idea, and leave space for me to finish. I’m going to put this idea in the air, and you can catch and dunk it however you want to.
“When you don’t know what’s going to happen,” he concludes, “the energy is different. There’s a positive, nervous energy, and that’s a whole different thing.”
Listen to the full song below, and share your favorite Kobe Bryant moments (or remixes of Glasper’s original!) on SoundCloud: