In the late 1980s, screenwriter Barry Blaustein was at a Los Angeles Clippers game watching Michael Cage – a six foot nine rebounding machine known almost as much for his vibrant Jheri curl as his domineering talent – when an idea hit him. He and his writing partner, David Sheffield, had been working on a script with Eddie Murphy called The Quest, about an African prince who travels to America to find a wife. Staring at Cage’s formidable follicles, Blaustein thought back to 1970s commercials for Afro Sheen hair products. He decided on the spot that he and Sheffield should lampoon the ads in their film, which would later be retitled Coming to America.
Blaustein and Sheffield named the product the less catchy “Afro Glo” in an early draft of the script, and sent lyrics for a mock jingle to the film’s composer and music supervisor, Nile Rodgers. After the product name underwent a minor rebranding, Rodgers employed rock singer Christopher Max to belt what would soon be immortalized in two words: “Soul Glo.”
It was supposed to be a throwaway joke, just one of many in the beloved comedy starring Murphy as naive prince Akeem, of the fictional nation of Zamunda, and Arsenio Hall as his beleaguered attaché Semmi. Though the movie was panned, it became the second-highest grossing film of 1988 — and over the years, a cult-within-a-cult formed around the Soul Glo commercial and song. Lizzo parodied it for her “Juice” video. A hardcore band used it for their name. NBA star Giannis Antetokounmpo created a Soul Glo-branded sneaker for Nike. A trove of bootleg shirts, hats, and onesies cropped up online. The name itself entered the cultural lexicon, in the same way people use Kleenex for tissues or Q-tip for cotton swab. “The term should be ‘Jheri curl,’” Coming to America scholar Questlove tells Rolling Stone. “But everyone says ‘Soul Glo.’”
As the film’s sequel, Coming 2 America, comes to Amazon Prime on Friday, the writers, singers, and actors behind the fake commercial — plus the NBA star who inspired it, musicians who cover it, celebrities who love it, and more — reveal the story behind a 35-second pop-culture masterpiece and its lasting impact on the world.
Part I: The Inspiration
“We Were Very High”
Barry Blaustein (Co-writer): When Dave and I were writing [Coming to America], we thought it would be funny to show a commercial in it. It was in the original script, and we were influenced by the Afro Sheen commercials on Soul Train, where people’s hair would magically be enhanced by a product and their lives would be forever changed. I remember looking at a bunch of Afro Sheen commercials.
Questlove (Co-founder, the Randy Watson Experience, named for Coming to America’s middling bandleader): As a Soul Train-head, I got what they were going for with the commercials. Especially the first five years when Soul Train had to actually shoot those commercials for Afro Sheen. Soul Train was the first time anyone saw unabashed black joy without any minstrel overtones or weird stereotypes. Black Panther coming out a couple of years back is the third one. But right in the middle is Coming to America.
Blaustein: The scene was written very quickly. We were laughing and saying, “This could be a [real] commercial.” We were very high.
David Sheffield (Co-writer): I don’t dispute that. That’s almost guaranteed. I think we were probably high when we wrote the entire movie [laughs]. We were looking for a way to hate Lisa’s boyfriend in the movie, played by Eriq La Salle. We came up with the idea that he had this company Soul Glo, and that he was a customer as well as an owner. We wrote this scene in the screenplay where Eddie and Arsenio walk up to a store window and see this commercial. And the idea was that that establishes Soul Glo and gives Eddie the idea of getting a haircut at the barbershop. It was all connected.
Blaustein: We wrote the song’s lyrics, and it was sent to Nile [Rodgers] who put music to it.
Nile Rodgers (Composer): I get a phone call from [director] John Landis, and he says, “I don’t know who you are, but somebody told me that you’re some kind of genius or something. I’m doing this new picture with Eddie Murphy.” And he sent me the script called “The Zamunda Project.” Coming to America was my first big orchestral score, but goddamn, I grew up in movie theaters.
The first day, I drove up on the lot, and John and an older man I thought was his father were waiting for me to take me to my parking space. We’re talking for 10 minutes before I realized it was Eddie Murphy in full makeup as the Jewish guy in the barbershop. John and Eddie were probably secretly dying inside. You can imagine what an adventure this was for me from beginning to end.
Blaustein: The hair and makeup people came to me and said, “How bad should the Jheri curl be?” I’m a Clippers fan, and there was a basketball player named Michael Cage who had a Jheri curl, and the hair was based on his hair at the time. I remember going to a game once — he was a ferocious rebounder — and actually seeing some of the liquid flopping off his hair and into his opponent’s eyes.
Michael Cage (Former NBA player, Soul Glo inspiration): [Laughs hysterically upon hearing that.] I’m sorry, man. [Continues laughing.] Everybody had the big hair in the Eighties. The Jheri curl had started in the early Eighties, and when I got to the league, I wanted to wear one too, but it’s maintenance keeping a Jheri curl [laughs]. I love that movie, and I had no idea back in 1988 that I was the inspiration for the scene until years later, and I laughed even more, man.
Sheffield: By the time we got around to it, Jheri curls were pretty much outré [laughs]. They had already been made fun of a bit for good reason.
Cage: There were people that laughed at Jheri curls and then there were people like me who actually did it. I loved my hair, man, and it was a big part of my whole persona at the time. I kind of held on to the Jheri curl a little bit longer than most people. But I feel honored because that movie is so iconic in every way possible.
Part II: The Music
“A Superhero Song for Those That Embraced That Look”
Rodgers: Around that time, there were a lot of commercials that played in the black community. There was particularly one about hair products and another commercial about a collection of soul classics — I thought about those two commercials, my own family, and Eddie Murphy, and all the great jokes saying you always have an uncle in your family who mispronounces polysyllabic words.
When I wrote the [intro], I had actually written: “You could be all the things you’ve always wanted to be / Smooth, ‘staphisticated,’ easy as one, two, three.” John Landis looked at me and said, “I can’t say ‘staphisticated.’ I’ll get run out of Hollywood.” I said, “John, every black person will be on the floor crying when you go, ‘staphisticated.'” I was fighting with John. He would say, “Well, maybe white people won’t get it.” “That doesn’t make any difference. Half of the people will be laughing and the rest will go along with them because it would be so infectious.” But he wouldn’t let me do it.
Christopher Max (Rock artist and “Soul Glo” vocalist): Nile had played “Soul Glo” for John Landis, and John wound up thanking me profusely for [singing it]. He really loved it and said it was one of his favorite parts of the movie. It was supercool.
Rodgers: Chris is an incredibly talented musician, like a next-level kind of guy. And when I met him, he was trying to bring an album to me that he wanted me to produce. The biggest blessing and curse of my life is talented people. They can talk me into almost anything, because I’m just in awe of their talent. When I first met Chris Max, I was like, “Wow, this dude is incredible. The world needs to hear this.”
Max: I was born into the music business. My father was [soul singer] Eugene McDaniels. I was writing my own songs and got my first record deal with Ted Templeman at Warner Brothers when I was 19. My first TV appearance was singing backup vocals for Michael McDonald on Saturday Night Live. And the irony is, while I was there, I met Eddie Murphy for the first time.
I met Nile on the street in L.A., on Melrose Avenue, around 1987. He was out shopping and was like, “Hey man, I’m looking for jean jackets, can you help?” I introduced myself, and he asked me to send him my demo. And he agreed to produce my solo album.
Rodgers: [For Coming to America], my little studio was like a film within a film. James Earl Jones would pop in. Oprah Winfrey was one of my closest friends and would come over while doing The Women of Brewster Place.
Max: He was like, “Hey man, I got this cool song, ‘Soul Glo,’ do you want to sing it?” Like I’m going to say no to Nile Rodgers asking me to sing a song for him. It was literally one of the most hilarious moments in my life. Every single time that I hit one of those high notes, I could barely get the song recorded because I would start cracking up and the guys in the control room would just start rolling on the floor. We practically didn’t get it done because it was so hilarious.
Rodgers: By the time I did “Soul Glo,” I knew that Chris not only could sing it, but he understood the comedic aspect of it. It was just Chris’ delivery that really brought that thing home. He sang it with so much soul and so much conviction. We had to be dead serious. If I was trying to make fun of something, it wouldn’t have worked. There couldn’t be anything funny about it.
Max: I just interpreted it as being the ultimate spoof parody on the typical gospel soul singer. Everything is about the song, and what this particular music needed was a parody voice. Yes, it was me singing, but it was like I was pretending to sound like someone else.
B.o.B. (Rapper who sampled the jingle in his song “Soul Glo”): I remember when I first heard it, I was like, “Is that Prince? Is that not Prince?”
Clyde Risley Jones (Actor in Soul Glo commercial): Everybody thought I was the one singing the song.
Questlove: All this time, I thought it was Mic [Murphy] and David [Frank] of [1980s synth-pop group] the System.
Rodgers: Chris was the only guy who could sing it. He had that register that could kill it.
Max: I don’t know who else could have hit those notes other than me at the time.
Sheffield: Now that Pavarotti is gone, [Chris] is probably the only one who can hit that high C if it was necessary.
Max: [Laughs.] I was in my twenties when I did that song. I’m 58 now. Hitting those notes is literally an impossibility at this point in my life. I would have to significantly lower the key, like we would be doing it in heavy metal.
Eriq La Salle (Darryl Jenks a.k.a. “The Prince of Soul Glo”): I remember Nile Rodgers being on set and introducing himself and saying, “Hey, man, I’m working on this great song.” I didn’t know I was going to get a theme song. But I was a huge fan of Nile, and he was just a cool brother. I’ve never been on a set that big. There were just so many things that you’re taking in, and you don’t know how things are done. So you get a bit of a song and you go, “I don’t know how it’s gonna be.” But it was hilarious. When you see the commercial, then you’re like, “Oh, OK. I fully get it.”
Rodgers: I’m not playing Akeem and Semmi’s reaction [to the ad] as comedy. They’re startled; they don’t understand Jheri curl.
Cage: The song is what people still tease me about today. I still get shit for that. Even late in the Nineties, everyone would look at me and say, “Hey, Mr. Soul Glo coming!” They would sing the theme song when I’d come in. I was laughing just as hard as they were. I’ma take this on the chin for the rest of my life.
Marsha Ambrosius (Singer formerly of R&B duo Floetry, frequent “Soul Glo” cover vocalist): That became a superhero song for those that embraced that look. You’re like, “I’m a superhero now at this point, and this is my theme song.”
Craig Brewer (Director, Coming 2 America): I don’t think there’s anything more powerful than a good musical worm that gets in your head. That jingle is something that, once heard, does not leave your brain. You could forget former lovers’ names, but you won’t forget the gorgeous ascension of those notes.
Ambrosius: “Soul Glo” is one of the most prominent things I remember about the movie, and it just stayed with me. Is no one else listening to the excellence of this falsetto hitting this note right now? It’s not an easy song to sing. You have to sing it correctly incorrect to get the actual feel [laughs].
B.o.B: When we sampled it, I was on the fence because that saxophone riff is the perfect tempo for trap beats. My mixtape [that “Soul Glo” is on] was supposed to be an ode to Nineties hip-hop. But I was like, “This is just too good not to do it this way.”
Ambrosius: The vocal excellence of it all… It’s this raspy, full-voice falsetto with this very synthesized saxophone solo that does this very awkward note at the end of it. I’m like, “They did this on purpose, how could you do this to me?” [Laughs.]
Questlove: The best part of “Soul Glo” that’s rarely discussed — but only certain musicians know — is that the keyboard patch that’s used for the fake saxophone solo is very hard to find. At one point, [Roots and Randy Watson Experience member] James Poyser and I were super-obsessed with finding that particular saxophone patch, because it was distorted and sounded fake. It’s a very Eighties reference.
When Eddie Murphy came on The Tonight Show and we did his walk-on [music], we spent 20 minutes trying to build our own distorted keyboard patch for a seven-second [piece of music]. We did it. He didn’t acknowledge it, but it felt like such an achievement.
Part III: The Casting
“What the Heck Did I Just Do?”
La Salle: [Coming to America] was my first big break. It was basically an audition like every audition. At that point in my career, Eddie Murphy’s name attached to it felt beyond me — great jobs that someone else always gets. And so I went to the Paramount lot in L.A. and parked on a side street — I didn’t even have enough clout to get a pass to get into the studio lot.
John Landis was there [with] the casting person. It was actually a very impactful experience that I’ve tried to emulate [as a director and producer] whenever I can, which was something very simple: John Landis hired me on the spot. At that time in the Eighties, you had so many people that had to sign off on you. I never auditioned for someone who had the power to just [hire you there]. I did my audition. He gave me a note. We did it again. And he was like, “That was great. I’ll see you on set.” I was like, “Excuse me?” “Yeah, I’m hiring you.” It was so surreal and had a numbing effect — he had to keep telling me I got the part. But it was one of the most empowering moments of my career. I’ve never forgotten that feeling.
Blaustein: Eriq came in and we said, “That’s the guy.” He was one of the first people, if not the first, to read for the part, and he was perfect. He had the perfect looks; he had the perfect attitude.
La Salle: Barry and David had an idea of what they wanted. I didn’t know.
Blaustein: One of the notes we got from Paramount was, “You have to make the boyfriend more of an asshole.” I remember telling them, “Wait ’til you see this guy. Believe me, he’ll walk on the screen and people are gonna go, ‘Asshole.'” [Laughs.]
Sheffield: When [Eriq] was cast, I thought he was just perfect. He was a good-looking guy, and there were some executives from Paramount who were concerned that he was so great-looking, why would [Lisa] not like him? Why don’t we want her to stay with him? And then the way John shot his entrance, pulling up in that car with the Soul Glo music playing… All he had to do was just look at himself in the mirror and adjust his hair, and you knew immediately that the guy was an asshole [laughs].
La Salle: I was just basking in the glow of having gotten the job. I left the studio jumping up and down and screaming all the way to my car.
Sheffield: We wound up hiring Clyde Jones as the man and Paulette Banoza as the young woman in the commercial. I remember when Clyde auditioned, he was also such a handsome guy. He seemed perfect for it. And he was so eager to get the part. He said, “Now look: I look dark in a room, but I’m a lot lighter-looking on camera.” And it was true! [Laughs.] We hired Paulette the same day. We wanted to do a handsome couple and they were.
Blaustein: Clyde was a very nice guy. He looked chiseled. He was so good-looking, he was almost like a parody of a good-looking guy. I remember going, “That’s the guy. I don’t know if he could act or not, but that’s the guy.” Paulette was so nice and very easy to work with.
Paulette Banoza (Actress, Soul Glo commercial): I was doing runway modeling, and my agency sent me out because there were a lot of auditions for videos and commercials. I’ve always been a hair-changer; I had no qualms about wearing a wig. It was like a real commercial audition. They said to me, “Can you swing your hair?” I said, “Ooh, yeah, I can swing some hair, girl!” I start slinging it around, and they’re cracking up laughing. Before I got to my car, I was in the parking lot, and they came out and said, “You got the job.” I didn’t even know it was for an Eddie Murphy movie [laughs]. I just thought it was for a commercial for a hair product.
Jones: I knew Arsenio, and a friend of my ex-wife said, “Arsenio and Eddie are doing this movie about some guys from Africa.” I went in and met with David and Barry and they said, “Put this wig on your head, take off your shirt, and shake your head.” Paulette and I did this little thing and they said, “OK, thank you. You got it.” “What did I get?” And that was it! I walked out wondering, “What the heck did I just do?” All I knew was my part was some guy with a wig on [laughs]. I had been doing a lot of commercials, and I guess they were looking for models, and that’s what I was.
La Salle: As we started, I thought, “How can I do things that are going to elevate my connection to the character?” A friend recommended a wig beauty supply store. I’ve never worn a wig. I didn’t know if I was going to have to do something to my natural hair. But I went there and saw the pick with the moisturizer spray-top pump on it, so that was my contribution. So when Darryl first arrives on the scene in the red car pulling up to McDowell’s, he pulls out his thing, he sprays, and then he picks and looks at himself. I brought it to John and he said, “Oh my God, I love this.”
Cage: It was hysterical, especially when Darryl pulls up in his car and pulls out the bottle and sprays his hair. I used to carry my bottle around. I wanted a moisturizer that stayed in my hair and lasted all day [laughs]. To see Eriq do that was funny, because I was like, “I do that in the morning.”
Rodgers: I had a serious Jheri curl. Curl activator was our thing; you carry your activator with you. I even have a little cameo in the film where they’re at Madison Square Garden at the basketball game. I’m going to the bathroom wearing a gray sweater with big shoulder pads. I walk by and turn around and look at Eddie like he’s out of his mind.
La Salle: John [Landis] was very clear on what kind of wardrobe he wanted this guy to have, and his wife was the costume designer. She brought in some very outlandish, over-the-top stuff, but that was who this guy was. [It] started helping me discover the character. It was overload looking at some of these outfits, but then I started really getting into it, like, “Let’s get some red leather gloves and a red and white poncho.” [Laughs.]
Brewer: Eriq La Salle was one of the best villains of all time. I loved him as an actor, but this is now an accomplished director and producer in the world of television that has done so many things with his craft. It’s hard because you’re now defined by this villain that you just were too good at. It makes it even more complicated because he’s so damn good-looking in that movie.
Jones: It’s so funny because everybody knows Soul Glo but nobody really knows Clyde. But when I say “Soul Glo,” they go ballistic. I was driving an Uber recently and I had some white kids, and one guy got in the car and kept looking at me. He looked at his friend and went, “Nah!” [He] starts singing the theme song and telling his friend, “That’s Soul Glo! You don’t know Soul Glo?!” This is the type of stuff I get with this character. I can get in front of lines at the DMV.
Part IV: The Shoot
“We’d Like to Look at Some Dildos, Please”
Sheffield: We wrote the commercial to appear in the shop window, and John Landis asked Barry and me to produce and direct it. John gave us a few thousand dollars, and we had to shoot it on videotape. We were sort of annoyed by that, because we wanted it to look good. And then we thought, “Well, it really shouldn’t look good. It should look cheap.” We succeeded in that.
Blaustein: It had to look and play like a credible commercial and it was done with the same production qualities as the Afro Sheen commercials.
Sheffield: We wanted the bottle for Soul Glo to look as much like a penis as possible. We thought that would be funny. So I went in search of dildos with the prop guy from the movie. We went to this sex shop in Hollywood called the Pleasure Chest, walked up to the counter and said, “We’d like to look at some dildos, please.” So we gathered up an armload of dildos and took them back. When Landis found out that’s what we’re doing, he became furious and said, “You can’t put a penis in the movie; it’s gross.” The bottle we wound up with is sort of phallic, but not as much as we wanted it to be.
Blaustein: It was a very simple shoot. We shot it in a couple hours and showed it to John, who was very happy with it. He showed it to the crew and everybody seemed to really like it.
Sheffield: We had to bring a special camera for the slo-mo effect, just for the part where Clyde swings his head in and the spray goes flying, because that was the technology at the time. We put the actors on a little turntable to spin them around. We had a problem at one point, because the spray from the Soul Glo bottle wasn’t showing up, so we had to shoot that separately. I remember we shot just Paulette’s hand squeezing that bottle for several minutes to get that spray we wanted, which we added in later.
Banoza: Right at the very beginning of the commercial is a shot of me with my hair pulled back in a bun. I almost look between mad and sad. That was the “before” shot, and the director is going, “OK, can we get her to look a little worse? Take all the makeup off of her.” He goes, “We need you to look sad and pathetic. Can you think of something really bad in your childhood?” It was this really quick snippet of me “before,” because I just couldn’t look bad enough naturally for the director. Then we did the hair shot, and that stuff was leaking down my neck and down my back. I’m swinging my hair and they’d have to stop and dab my face because the glycerin crap would get in my face. It was fun.
Jones: We shot the scene in one day at the Paramount lot. Everyone started laughing at that part when I saw it in the theatre, but I didn’t even know what to expect. Next thing you know, it was crazy. I was on the road for years doing plays, and they would promote me as “The Soul Glo man.” People wanted to take pictures with the Soul Glo man. For 20 years, I was just the Soul Glo man on the road doing theater, theater, theater.
Banoza: Here’s where my anxiousness came in: when I realized in the script that I had to kiss Clyde. I’m a prude from Texas. I got a husband and three daughters, and I don’t want to put that kind of thing out there. But Clyde’s girlfriend was there, and in between every kiss take, he went to sit with her. [Laughs.] Make sure that he wasn’t enjoying it. I went back and watched the commercial and I was like, “Man, I really kissed him.” I must have blocked that out because I thought we went cheek to cheek.
Jones: I’m surprised that Eddie did all those roles, but God was with me because he didn’t do Soul Glo. I’m like, thank God. Eddie could have probably played the Soul Glo guy. It would have been iconic like it is now.
Part V: The Impact
“It Was a Black-as-Hell-Ass Name”
More than three decades after the film, Soul Glo remains a pop-culture landmark. Ambrosius has ended most of her shows with a belting cover of the jingle, while B.o.B.’s 2019 video for “Soul Glo” re-enacts many of the film’s enduring lines and characters. In 2012, Jones enlisted Marla Gibbs, Tommy Davidson, and Todd Bridges for the no-budget film Who Killed Soul Glow?
Ambrosius: Wait, my cover’s on YouTube? Oh, lord. [Laughs.] I’ve been performing that since Floetry shows in 2004, and it just continued to this very day in my solo career as a staple of the live show. During my shows, I take you through an emotional roller coaster of heartache, pain, breakup, makeup, lust. And then: “Hey, guys, we’re all going to go home, but we want to end on a high note. And I want to give you something that makes you feel really good, something that you know can stay in your soul.” And I’ll hit the [singing] “Just let your soul glow,” and it’s a roar of hysterics and applause. Because the song is saying exactly what you should do, even though it was about a Jheri curl.
Pierce Jordan (Singer, Philly hardcore band Soul Glo): We had been trying to figure out a band name, and I suggested Soul Glo just because it was a black-as-hell-ass name. For black folks in America, Coming to America is such a big pop-culture touchstone. It’s of course a reference to that, but it also quite literally represents what music is to us; like the glow of your soul [and] who you truly are, and communicating yourself through all that. It has this dramatic meaning, but it also sounds like a joke, because we’re a hardcore band with a name like Soul Glo. It’s like the multiplicity of self; the glow of your soul.
B.o.B.: We studied the movie from a scientific standpoint. We really had to be very creative and clever and line up the scenes shot for shot and really nail it. I won’t go too much into detail, but I really did want a zebra. But it wasn’t financially realistic [laughs].
Jordan: We’re making very serious music about topics that you don’t normally hear in hardcore, from a perspective that you don’t normally hear in hardcore. And we’re still hitting you with jokes. That’s very powerful, because people can never anticipate where we’re going to go. It makes everything very, very fun for us.
Ambrosius: So much of the crowd are like, “Oh my God, she is not singing Soul Glo right now.” I’ll walk off and the band is still playing the outro music and a very awkward saxophone synth line, and it’s just a wonderful, feel-good, nostalgic moment to be able to give back like that.
B.o.B.: The hardest part [of recreating the video] might have to be the hair. Finding the right Jheri curl wig took the most time. We were in the dressing room trying on Jheri curl wigs like, “That doesn’t have the right shine.”
Jordan: We were scared for a while about getting a cease-and-desist or getting sued, because we did not have that kind of money to go to court. But under fair-use laws, we’re safe, which is good, because I’m not even trying to disrespect. It’s quite the opposite. A friend of mine had a band called A Spike Lee Joint and he got a cease-and-desist [laughs].
Jones: I had an epiphany: I want to do this movie called Who Killed Soul Glow? And we just did an improv, and it’s the stupidest movie in the world. [Laughs.] It’s crazy.
Ambrosius: The commercial is celebrating the essence of blackness at that time. And it now has a theme song that has been embedded in our brain since 1988. That is absolutely incredible.
It was an ongoing joke amongst ourselves as a community. It was fashion. I knew a couple of drip-drips [laughs]. We know it’s funny, but we also want to do things with our hair, so Soul Glo was that. The fact that that look had a theme song liberated those that actually wanted to wear the Jheri curl.
Jones: My mom used to tell me, “Boy, if you put that stain on my bed, I’m going to kill you,” because everybody had that Jheri curl juice that would mess up your bed and your skin. You couldn’t even kiss a girl because it would taste like grease in your mouth. So that whole Soul Glo thing was indicative to that time period, and even though we thought we looked good, we were still making fun of ourselves. It made us feel good as black men at that time; it was just something sexy about it.
Jordan: It’s a funny-ass song, but it’s also a very specific reference to black pop culture, and that’s also what makes it so special.
Questlove: It’s one of those things where you realize after the fact, “Coming to America might be my favorite film.” You just don’t know it at the time. [Soul Glo and Coming to America] are truly moments in which black people got to experience a cross between Afrocentricity and black joy and things that we needed to see. I didn’t realize how aspirational it was, because it seemed like a fantasy.
B.o.B.: I feel like I saw the Soul Glo commercial first, and I was like, “Oh, where — huh, what is this from? Why does this exist?” [Laughs.] I had to find out where this originated at. The storyline in the movie is so deeply phenomenal, because being in a pristine place and then going to America, finding love, and returning back to the kingdom is such a dope story. That’s why it wins over so many people’s hearts.
Rodgers: Nelson Mandela once told me, “Coming to America is so important to black people in Africa. It is like the fairy tale. It’s like Cinderella.”
Part VI: The Afterlife
“It’s Almost Like a Fuckin’ Real Product, Damn Near”
Blaustein: When Dave and I wrote it, we didn’t know it’d have this long-lasting effect. But one of the things while we were writing it was that, though it took place in the Eighties, it wasn’t specific to the Eighties. When you put contemporary jokes in, by the time the movie comes out, it dates it. I never thought Soul Glo would be one of the more identifying things with the movie, but I’m glad it is.
Rodgers: I don’t have any kind of ego that thinks, “Wow, this is going to live on to become something else.” It’s: “I’m hired to do this job, let me do it the best way I can. And I also have a creative spirit, and I want to try and make it even better than you’re asking me to do it.”
Questlove: Those two words [Soul Glo] represent a hairstyle and a lifestyle. When you say “Soul Glo,” that instantly means someone that uses way too much gel or rocks leather. Soul Glo is probably the most distinct, specific, late-Eighties reference you could give. The term should be “Jheri curl,” but everyone says “Soul Glo.”
B.o.B.: A juicy Jheri curl isn’t necessarily a necessity in life, but Soul Glo is.
Cage: My Jheri curl lasted until around 1989. I was traded to Seattle and it was “New team, new hair.” I’m not in L.A. anymore, so it was like, I don’t know if Seattle is ready for this. [Laughs.]
Brewer: I want to be really honest with you with what I was experiencing while watching the Soul Glo moments [in 1988], because it may be vulnerable as a white dude. But to see it with an all-black audience, there’s laughter, but there’s cultural-awareness laughter. There’s people going, “Oh my God, I know someone who’s like that. I get to laugh even more so than anybody else, because you don’t know completely what that is.” To see Darryl spraying his Jheri curl, I thought it was funny, but there was this energy of something known among everyone around me that I desperately wanted to know. It was a known unknown to me.
La Salle: You never foresee it. You try to make something as good as you can and, in a comedy, as funny as possible, and you just let it go. I had no idea. Piece by piece, you just see it grow more and more. Once you see the film and you see how people are reacting to it, and people are approaching you on the street, you start realizing it’s a fan favorite, even if it’s to poke fun at. One way or another, that character stood out, and that’s all I know.
Blaustein: You know what shocked me? I remember seeing the joke with the family who was sitting on the couch and they got up and there are little grease spots on the couch. I thought, “Maybe that’ll get a laugh, but it’ll probably just go over most people’s heads.” I remember that getting a big laugh. I’m going, “Oh my God. They got that!”
Sheffield: I can’t get over the impact it’s had. I don’t know why people love Soul Glo so much, but I’m glad they do. We just thought it was a gag like any one of several others in the movie. That it’s survived this long is still a mystery to me. I think [its legacy] has to do with Nile’s jingle. It’s just great. It’s fun to imitate; people do their own commercials and put them on YouTube.
Blaustein: I’ve gone on to direct, and actors sometimes come in wearing Soul Glo merchandise. All that makes me think of is, “Where’s my cut of it?” [Laughs.]
Banoza: I do get a residual check every three to four months for about 16 or 18 dollars, and after they take taxes out, it’s six to eight bucks [laughs]. It’s so fun to get. It’s too bad it wasn’t bigger so I could have become a really big star [laughs]. I’m an esthetician now and have a skin-care business in El Paso. I’ll get people that will call up and say, “My cousin comes to you. I want to come and get a facial, and she said you’re the Soul Glo lady.”
Jones: They got [bootleg] Soul Glo onesies and hats. Paramount called me the other day because someone just created a Soul Glo liquor with my picture on it. The only deal I have is with Paramount and Nike, but no one seems to care. You can’t catch ’em.
B.o.B.: It’s almost like a fuckin’ real product, damn near. It’s timeless.
Jones: When it hit the film, everybody could identify with it. “There goes Leroy.” “There goes Bob.” Everybody knew somebody that had a Soul Glo Jheri curl. I had one myself until it fell out of my head. My mom would get so mad at me because my pillows were so messed up, and I had to go hide the pillows because that juice wouldn’t come out.
Banoza: It’s embarrassing, because when people see that I’m there, they treat me like I’m some superstar, and I’m like, “Oh my God, it was a flash of a commercial that Eddie watches.” Everyone was like, “Did you meet Eddie?” Naw, girl. I’m like a glorified extra [laughs].
La Salle: I was shooting on set [years later] and one of the crew guys came up to me and said, “I’m from South Africa, and it’s great seeing an African-American in this role of executive producer on a show.” I think we’re about to have this bonding moment, one black man to another, and he goes, “When I saw Coming to America...” and turns into a little kid. So it just comes in these unexpected places.
Jones: I did a movie last year with Brian Tyree Henry, and I gave him a Soul Glo shirt. He looked at the shirt and said, “Man, I love the Soul Glo guy.” He don’t even know it’s me. The makeup guy told him. He said, “Hell, no!” He picked me up and swung me around and said, “You’re iconic. I love you.” It put tears in my eyes what people feel about this character.
Banoza: After I stopped modeling, I was a sales rep for Office Depot. Every year, they paid for this big convention for us, and every year for seven years, Coming to America would play on the night that we were in the hotel. One of the sales reps would tell everybody that day, “Paulette’s gonna be on Coming to America tonight,” and I’m looking at her like, “Really? No! Don’t tell people that!” I could not escape it. I still don’t get it.
La Salle: Two years ago, I came on set and somebody had dressed up as Soul Glo. It’s out there. People still have fun with it and that’s the most important thing. You don’t set out to create something iconic. You don’t control it becoming iconic. You just do the best work you can, and you put it out there in the ether, and you just see where it goes.
Wesley Snipes (Actor, Coming 2 America): The ad was a culture-defining moment because it accurately captured a period in African American history where we literally lost our minds, washed our brains down the drain, and still thought, “We look good!” This is a time when being “straight” wasn’t cool, you had to be “curly” and “wet” to be “hot.”
Tracy Morgan (Actor, Coming 2 America): The way they sang the vocals and the arrangement was dope. You wanted your curls to shine, without the drip, and it made your soul glow. You walk in the room and your soul was glowing. [Its legacy has endured] because it was connected to Soul Train. The body dies, but the soul never dies.
Jones: I am so happy because kids like it, and it’s a positive role. Now I got tennis shoes from Giannis [Antetokounmpo] from the Milwaukee Bucks. He liked Coming to America so much that he did a deal with Nike and Paramount that they would put some shoes together. So Paulette and I are on a tennis shoe together.
Banoza: I go back to L.A. and visit this church with my daughter. This woman stands up and says in front of my daughter and everyone, “We welcome her mother. I just want to let everybody know, she’s the Soul Glo woman.” Oh my God, in church! It never dawned on me that at least 75 percent of black people in the United States have a copy of Coming to America.
Jones: On the set of [the sequel], all the cast started shouting and screaming and wanting pictures when they found out I was Soul Glo. Eddie sat back and watched the joy on people’s faces. It was the joy of being proud like a daddy. He was so proud to know that a character in his movie still had the energy it had, and he was part of creating these roles. I try to wear that character well, because Eddie and the others put their heart in it.
Sheffield: It’s one of my proudest accomplishments in life.
In 2016, Rodgers tweeted that the “Soul Glo” theme song was his “single proudest moment,” leading fans to wonder if he was being serious or ironic.
Rodgers: I was serious!
Max: You’re talking about the guy who did “We Are Family,” Chic, Madonna, David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance.” What?! He says that his proudest thing is “Soul Glo,” and I’m the guy singing the song? It’s just mind-blowing. How do you process that?
Rodgers: When I was a student, I had a phenomenal music teacher, and he was a real heavy, hardcore jazz guy. He told me one day when I was going in for a lesson that I had a real sourpuss attitude. I was pissed off because I was doing a gig that night of all Top 40 songs, and the main song that we started our set with was “Sugar Sugar” by the Archies. He was asking me why I was so upset, and I said, “Man, I got to play this bullshit composition.” He says, “Nile, that song has been number one for three or four weeks now … It speaks to the souls of millions of strangers.” And I said, “Yeah, but it sucks.” He says, “Wait a minute, let me get this straight: The millions of people who bought ‘Sugar, Sugar,’ they’re wrong. But you, Mr. Nile Rodgers, you’re right?”
It was the greatest lesson I ever had in my life. As a composer, that’s what you want to do. No one knows who the hell Nile Rodgers is when you’re hearing “Soul Glo.” But the fact that I’ve spoken to the souls of millions of strangers is incredible.