Netflix’s “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker,” the story of America’s first self-made female millionaire, takes place between 1908 and 1918. But the music, instead of focusing on the early jazz that might be expected, runs the gamut from ragtime to hip-hop.
“Madam C.J. Walker is a central, seminal historical figure who I had heard about from my mother, who heard about it from her mother,” says music supervisor Morgan Rhodes. “Her story has been part of the fabric of black history down through the years — one that belongs to generations of women.”
Octavia Spencer plays Walker, the daughter of freed slaves who created a line of specialized hair products for African American women. Her entrepreneurial skills and intense drive made her one of the country’s wealthiest and most powerful women. When she died in 1919, she lived near the Astors and the Rockefellers on Millionaires’ Row in New York’s Westchester County.
Executive producer Elle Johnson says she wanted to portray Walker “as the visionary she was, a forward-thinking, more modern woman,” and that music could help present her in that light. Johnson praises Rhodes as a force of nature. “She would send us music that we hadn’t heard before and really make it work,” she says.
To Rhodes, Walker “wanted to be a voice for women.” So, she reasons, why not an all-black female soundtrack? “Let’s just have women tell her story sonically,” and not just period pieces but artists who crossed genres and generations, from hip-hop to indie artists.
British rapper Little Simz’s “Offence” accompanies the opening titles in Episode 1, with Santigold’s “Creator” over the end titles. Episode 3 opens with Queen Latifah’s “Nature of a Sista’” and closes with Raiche’s “Drive.” Other artists showcased throughout the four-part miniseries include Janelle Monáe, Shanice, Tiana Major9 and Latasha Alcindor.
Still, Rhodes’ passion for 20th-century African American artists — and her habit of acquiring classic vinyl — moved her to also feature songs from the 1920s, including Sippie Wallace’s “I’m a Mighty Tight Woman” and Mamie Smith’s “Keep a Song in Your Soul.” She also found “Sweet Kisses,” a 1919 Ziegfeld Follies tune that Tiffany Haddish (as Walker’s daughter Lelia) sings on camera in Episode 2.
Los Angeles jazz pianist Larry Goldings composed the score, joining the team early in order to arrange the music for several scenes involving bands and choirs. “What would you hear in a speakeasy in 1910?” he asks. “Would they have a bass, a tuba, a banjo?”
Plenty of research was required, and as recordings of the era are both rare and not necessarily indicative of the musical realities of that time, he also relied on photographs from the period and colleagues who were immersed in early-jazz history.
Goldings says he put together arrangements for “five or six” scenes that involved music or dancing on-screen. One of the most satisfying, both for viewers and the filmmakers, was a church choir singing the gospel favorite “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” in Episode 1. Goldings arranged the number based on an a cappella version by the Norfolk Jazz and Jubilee Quartet of the 1920s.
Notes Rhodes: “That one I really wanted to be period. It’s a song I heard all my life, growing up in church, and their version seemed straight out of the time. All those contemporary gospel intonations wouldn’t ring as true. That was one of the best finds.”
Goldings’ dramatic score was “a work in progress” throughout post-production, he says. “At first we thought it would be period-sounding, but that was pretty quickly set aside. [Producers] wanted something that was a little more timeless-sounding and contemporary.”
What the composer felt was “emotionally and contextually right” was a more textured score with the focus on piano and trumpet (the latter of which subtly hinted at the Louis Armstrong influence on jazz of the era) mixed with samples and “glimpses of horns” here and there. “We started to combine the jazz with the hip-hop,” he says.
For producer Johnson, their efforts were echoes of Madam C.J. Walker’s life. “She was surrounded by music,” she says. “In earlier parts of her life, she lived in apartments that were close to all these ragtime music halls.”
The songs and score “illuminate the story in a sonic way,” Johnson explains, “giving the audience insight into the subtext of what’s going on without ever telegraphing or being on the nose. In that way, music added another deeper layer to everything.”