Interview conducted by: Joi Childs
This interview was recorded before the premiere of Netflix’s Dear White People
Joi: With us today, we have a very special guest. Someone who has worked with Queen Ava Duvernay, which is a super big deal. Working with her on “Middle of Nowhere” as a music supervisor, worked with her on “Selma” as well as on “Queen Sugar”. Now, she’s currently working on Netflix’s forthcoming show “Dear White People”, which a lot of us are really excited about. I have here, Morgan Rhodes. Morgan, thank you so much for having us.
Morgan Rhodes: Thank you, thank you for having me.
Joi: Yeah, of course. I’m super excited to talk about this because with your experience and your work on so many different films and television shows doing music supervising, it’s super cool that you’re working on “Dear White People”, which I know myself and our team are really excited about the show.
Morgan Rhodes: It’s going to be really … I can’t wait. I can hardly wait until it drops and … Shout out to Justin Simien and Yvette Lee Bowser and Stephanie Allain for putting together something really beautiful. Justin is smart, the show is smart, it’s funny, it’s topical and it’s really appropriate for such a time as this and I’m just glad to be involved.
Joi: Yeah, absolutely. So, let’s kind of get into it. What is your process when you’re doing music supervising for picking your songs for a soundtrack? We got to get a good look of the soundtrack for “Dear White People” coming up and you got a little bit of Future, you got some Chloe and Halle. You’ve got a great eclectic mix of different artists and different genres. So, what’s the process for you, typically, when you pick those songs?
Morgan Rhodes: Well, I think it appropriate that on your show, which is “Black Girl Nerds” … because I consider myself, as it relates to music, certainly a nerd. I go around collecting music before I even know what project I’m going to work on. And so, typically, I scour blogs. I go to shows. I like to do my own digging. I’ve hosted radios shows for several years like I dig in my own crates. I start picking songs for a soundtrack that the script phase. I make little notes in the script … sometimes directors will put their own queues to give a vision of what you might hear in the scene. And so, I add alternatives because a part of licensing music for a show or film is figuring out how you’re going to pay for it and that’s informed by your budget. So, I make little notes, things that I feel. And then I go from there. I always am in favor of eclectic music and I’m always trying to squeeze black folks in the door despite the genre.
So, if this scene calls for country, I’m looking for black folks doing country. If it calls for punk, I’m looking for black folks doing punk. I’m really meticulous about how I go about looking for music and I spend a lot of time looking for music, scouring. I mean, anywhere you could possibly look. Record stores, like all over.
Joi: That’s awesome. I love how you have different processes for each soundtrack that you’re working on. Now, do you approach your soundtracks as moods or moments or kind of what Drake did with “More Life” as a playlist? Or, are you doing it based on a shows film or a description of what the show or film you’re going to be working on?
Morgan Rhodes: All of the above. And that’s a great question. Moments, because in any narrative there are specific plot twists that transition you from one place to the next. There’s expository of background information where you need music to provide a history. And there are moods. There are a lot of moments where main characters are thinking and you need to be that voice. Especially if they’re not talking. You need to tell the audience what this person might be feeling. So, I approach it all three ways. It varies from project to project and from scene to scene. That’s a great question because I think all three things are important.
Joi: Yeah, so talking about the specific soundtrack that you’re supervising this time around, Netflix’s “Dear White People” … We’re not going to spoil it because I’ve seen the film more than once and I enjoyed the film. Justin did a great job there. Now, he’s coming back for the Netflix show. Working with the “Dear White People” team, did you have a chance to get to know Justin prior to that when it was just the film kind of out? Did you get to collaborate with whoever the music supervisor was for the “Dear White People” film and did you use that person’s foundation to push along for the Netflix show? … Because it’s a longer format.
Morgan Rhodes: I didn’t. I know the music supervisor for the film, but I didn’t work with him, it was his own independent thing. I’ve been following Justin on social media and listening to a lot of his interviews. And as I’ve said, he’s a brilliant filmmaker. Extremely articulate speaks poetically about race and politics and culture. And so, what I wanted to do is to serve this story and to serve the characters who are alike Justin; smart, woke, articulate, sensitive millennials navigating race and politics and feels in 2017. And I let that sort of be a guide.
I’m fortunate that Justin and I have similar sensibilities so we like a lot of the same music and we are, what I like to call, “genre agnostic”. We like a little bit of everything and so I just let that be my guide. We sort of worked together to create a Spotify playlist for each character. What would this person listen to? I just took it a step further. What would they listen to in moments of conflict? When they’re afraid? When they’re in love? When they’re disappointed? When they’re angry? And I do that on each project. I kind of put myself in the position of that person. And I base a lot of my choices … not just on script and circumstance … once I see a cut, I sort of base my choices on mannerisms. How they walk, how they talk to people, how they look, what they wear. That’s the choice from which I gathered all this music and tried to narrow it down. To think of what would work.
Joi: Right so, obviously, prior to working with Justin on “Dear White People”, you did a bevy of work with Ava Duvernay for a different type of film mediums. So, obviously, you have a long form. So you have “Selma”. You have short films. You have “The Door” and “Say Yes”. And then you have TV. So, you have “Queen Sugar”. These were all completely different types of viewing experiences, length is different, obviously. Does your process change when you’re working with different types of … any type of visual mediums or is it the same process?
Morgan Rhodes: Completely different. The process of gathering music is the same, I still geek out. I still go deep diving in the catalog and I still look in all the same places. The key difference is time. I listened to several thousand songs for “Selma”. Now, it goes down to 300. Then from 300, we got 13 because I have months to work on it. TV doesn’t work like that. You’ve got to turn it around very quickly. Which I think is a good problem to have because you learn discipline. I mean, it’s great to have the luxury of listening to thousands of songs, but it’s also a great talent to be in the moment, to think quickly. You’ve got to turn this around quickly. The processes of finding the songs were the same, because of the extent that I had a different time line, my approach had to be different. Move quickly. Make a decision quickly. So, instead of submitting your favorite 30, you have to submit your favorite 5.
Joi: Absolutely. I can imagine switching different facets of your brain in order for you to work on those different types of visual mediums. It must be a fascinating process and something probably that comes naturally to you because you do it often … it’s amazing to see because they’re all different types of films, different types of narrative and storytelling. There’s a bit of soulfulness that’s … I usually … and I think viewers usually associate with Ava. And I feel like it’s across the board in all of her films when you think about the soundtracks that attach to it.
Morgan Rhodes: Well, to her credit, she is a fan of underground music. She’s a fan of obscure music. She’s a fan of black music. To that end, the process was really free to be able to dig as deep as I wanted to go, to go as far as I wanted to go. And it was a very free environment, open environment, in terms of my choices. I think the thing that she and Justin both have in common is sonic open-mindedness. They aren’t afraid to push the envelope. We go outside of typical black music. We go into what I like to call “avant-garde” of R&B or future soul or left-leaning soul.
I’ve got a lot of support for that. They both like Hip Hop and I’m a dance music junkie. So, we experimented with house music on a lot of projects and so … I’ve just been really fortunate in that sense. In being able to prepare for these projects in the same way that I prepare for radio shows. It’s the same thing when you play music on the air, you are trying to tell a story. If you have a 2-hour show, that’s a 2-hour story. Your choices have to be meticulous. Not just what you choose but the order in which you choose it. I approach these projects the exact same way.
Joi: So, last question. Or, last two questions actually. We’ll make it fun. Obviously, you mentioned you’re a music nerd. Obviously, this is “Black Girl Nerds.” What is one song that you would describe or pick that says and tells that nerdy side of you? And the second question is for Justin, what is one song, or two, that you can pinpoint for him when you think about your relationship with him and work with him on “Dear White People” for Netflix?
Morgan Rhodes: For me, in terms of a nerdy song, I have to go with the rocker, Betty Davis. In the song that she released in 1974 called “They Say I’m Different”. I think that only counts into my nerdiness but Black Girl Nerds in general. We are different. You know what I’m saying? There’s a dopeness to that difference. For me, at my core, I’m just a girl that likes music and spends hours geeking out to it. And in terms of Justin and my relationship with him, when I think of him as a filmmaker and a person, I have to go with Teena Marie, “It Must Be Magic” because I think he has a really magical quality in the way that he tells stories. In the way that he interprets the things that are going on and the message of “Dear White People”. I think people will really enjoy it. He’s also surrounded by wonderful women like Yvette Lee Bowser, Stephanie Allain and they are, to me, black girl magic personified. So, those are the two songs.
Joi: That’s awesome. Morgan, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast. We really appreciate it.
Morgan Rhodes: Thank you. Shout out to Black Girl Nerds and all that you guys are doing and keep going.
Joi: And for our listeners, make sure that you immediately get on Netflix to watch “Dear White People”, which is coming out on April 28th. Thanks again, Morgan.
Morgan Rhodes: Thank you so much, take care.
Joi: You too, bye.