“I keep a running list of songs that I hope to use,” says “Dear White People” music supervisor Morgan Rhodes. “I’m a little bit old-school because I write them down on Post-It notes and they’re all over my office. I’m just completely geeked about digging for music.”
Her obsessiveness paid off for the Netflix series, which is based on the 2014 film of the same name, and uses music to illuminate a broad spectrum of characters.
“The theme was to get each character their own playlist,” Rhodes (“Queen Sugar”) tells Variety. “Because the pervasive belief is that characters and their perspectives are nuanced and varied, just like their experiences. And so, in turn, their music should be.”
Creator Justin Simien, who wrote the 2014 feature, had already developed his own playlists for each character, Rhodes says, “and we just tried to flesh that out and make it more robust.”
Across the show’s ten episodes, Rhodes, a former radio DJ for KCRW, found a home for approximately 70 songs, which run the gamut of genres and from headliners like Run the Jewels to obscure indie artists (including a country/soul singer from Bristol, England).
Each episode spotlights a different character. Troy (Brandon P Bell) is running for student body president, and Rhodes channeled what she perceived as an old soul, using a song by The Softones and Leon Haywood’s “I Want’a Do Something Freaky to You.”
“I didn’t make him for a ’90s R&B guy,” she says. “I made him for a ’70s R&B guy.”
She got to live vicariously through Sam (Logan Browning), the outspoken DJ who hosts the titular radio show.
“I like that she had her show as a forum for her activism,” Rhodes says. “I wanted to be able to use the music to make statement pieces about her feelings, and to that end I had an older new soul song called ‘Freedom’ by an artist named Joi. We had Run the Jewels, we had J Dilla. I thought, ‘Wow, this will be cool — sort of an activism meets that famed radio DJ from ‘The Warriors.’”
Kris Bowers (“Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me”) wrote the actual score. Simien pointed him to two of his cinematic heroes, Stanley Kubrick and Spike Lee, “and how they juxtaposed music you wouldn’t really expect to see with certain imagery,” explains Bowers. “His decision was to make sure that everything we wrote was either traditional classical music or bebop-era jazz.”
Like Rhodes, Bowers wrote a unique theme for each character’s distinct personality. Troy’s theme for string orchestra was inspired by Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” “and this character that has a lot of weight on his shoulders, but doesn’t really want it.” For Reggie (Marque Richardson), who hails from a militant Black Panther background, Bowers wrote a ’60s jazz idea. His theme for Coco (Antoinette Robertson) is a “flighty and active,” Chopin-style piano piece that represents “how quickly she’s trying to move in the world to make sure that nobody finds her out.”
Bowers, a Juilliard-trained jazz pianist, performed piano on the score and programmed the virtual orchestra, joined by a live band (trumpet, bass, drums) made up of friends.
“The story itself speaks to my experience,” he says, “speaks to me as a person of color. I went to an arts high school, and then I went to Juilliard, so I was one of very few black people. But at the same time, struggling with having this diverse and varied interest in music that ranges a lot wider than the stereotypical black person, but having a deep affinity for a lot of the music that is maybe culture-specific — that’s what this show talks about a lot. I felt like if it rang true with me, then it would with a lot of other people in our generation.”
Similarly, Rhodes says she relished the opportunity “to be a voice, musically, for the different characters in this story, to show that we all have a common human experience, but we are different — our sensibilities are different, our concerns are different, the things we’re compassionate about are different. I loved being able to be the voice for each character.”