Courtesy of Netflix

The Art Of Soundtracking Netflix's Soul-Stirring Miniseries, 'When They See Us'

Composer Kris Bowers and KCRW 89.9FM radio host Aaron Byrd share their approach to soundtracking Netflix’s latest program.

Please do not pass go. Exit this free society with a negative $200 balance and enter a world of mental and physical detainment. The dice you rolled ordered your steps to go directly to jail despite you pleading your innocence and asking for a second chance, but that’s the way this world of power and corruption operates over the less fortunate. For Ava DuVernay’s cinematic true story, When They See Us, five teenage black boys who were falsely imprisoned for the rape of a white woman in Central Park (1989) found their lives being dictated by detectives vying to villainize them. While the miniseries’ actors and language gripped viewers’ hearts, the music was an unseeable, yet palpable character as well.

Out of all of the parts that go into creating a moving piece of cinema, whether it is the writing, drama or cinematography, it’s no secret that the soundtrack/composition also holds an equal share of the weight. Its ability to inflate the balloon of an emotional scene can serve as the icing on the reel, and for a motion picture as moving as When They See Us, the composed melodies to Nipsey Hussle’s “Picture Me Rollin” found its intended spot within the recollection of the Exonerated Five (Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise, Raymond Santana Jr., and Antron McCray).

But while the music seemingly aligns itself with poignant scenes, it wasn’t as easy as it appeared. Composer Kris Bowers (Green Book, Dear White People) and Los Angeles-based radio host Aaron Byrd embarked on a monthslong process to execute this task. Just as the actors had to insert themselves into the shoes of these real-life people, Bowers and Byrd had to allow their minds to roam the emotional depths this heavy miniseries requires.

Before he began drafting ideas, Bowers says a range of emotions ignited after he viewed the series’ opener. “It was really impactful on me that first time watching it. It was on that first watch that I started thinking of some of these concepts of how to approach it a little bit more like a horror film to be honest because it all felt so scary,” he says. “I also thought of trying to take instruments and manipulate them and make them sound broken as possible just because for me it reflected how these young boys were being treated.”

For Bowers, the film Hereditary’s original score helped catalyze that musical spark. Composed by Colin Stetson, Bowers says he was blown away by the 2018 horror film’s use of the saxophone and how he was able to manipulate the instrument to the point where its sound was unrecognizable. That “inventiveness” led Bowers to contract saxophonists, trumpeters, and cello players to remix the styles of playing and insert “a human element to it.” Those elements came into play during the scenes of Wise’s solitary confinement. In episode four, Wise (played by Jharrell Jerome) is seen navigating mental and physical turmoil in isolation.

“We want to feel his craziness and, for that, it was all about trying to create some different sounds that sounded weird, left of center and not like anything else we heard before in the rest of the series,” Bowers says. “A lot of those sections, when he’s in solitary confinement, we were about being as weird and eerie as possible.” While scoring the solitary scenes, Bowers recalls a conversation he and DuVernay had about Wise. In isolation, Wise said “he wouldn’t have survived that whole experience” if he didn’t learn “how to live a life of the mind.” Working through personal experiences, viewers witnessed Wise visualize conversations with his mother Delores (Niecy Nash), his sister Marci (Isis King) and his girlfriend Lisa (Storm Reid) which helped Bowers construct a score packed with hope.

In part four, Bowers says he “got to go the furthest with making the music sound a little bit different than anything else because there’s scenes where he’s imagining going to Coney Island. We know it’s a complete imaginary thing but we want it to feel euphoric and as happy as possible."

As the music was able to manipulate those scenes of solitary confinement, Bowers also mentions the power of no music in certain instances. One section where he drew back the melodies was when a 16-year-old Wise was left in the precinct as Yusef Salaam (Ethan Herrise) and his mother Sharon Salaam (Aunjanue Ellis) were on their way home after a lengthy interrogation. That silence led the viewer to fully realize what was to come for Wise whether or not you were aware of the true story. In multiple takes, Bowers said he and DuVernay had to figure out if sounds were necessary, because despite the joyous moment in seeing Salaam’s mother address law enforcement for their unethical practices, “where we finally see a parent that has the facilities or understanding to know that their child can’t be treated or kept this way,” the viewer is suddenly left feeling heavy and silent as the camera pans to a sleeping Wise.

“That was a scene that we did a few times because Ava really wanted to make sure that we felt that win for him [Yusef Salaam]. We felt not excitement, but so glad that one of the parents was able to finally do that. But we chose to cut the music right at that moment when we see Korey because the feeling of victory is so fleeting, especially in this whole series,” Bowers says. The toying with silence after a triumphant moment can manipulate the viewers’ emotions, he adds, leading them to immediately address “the realization of what’s going on.”

Another turning point in the series that Bowers says was hard to compose music for was the end of part two, where the verdict is being prepared to be publicized. Yusef’s mother’s monologue helped set the tone for the composition because of its balance of hope, anxiety, and the inevitable. “We hear Sharon talking about this idea of, you’re trying to do your best to take care of your kids and to be there for them and to look out for them and then one night you look away and everything changes,” he says. In a sense of foreshadowing, the composition during this monologue goes from sentimental to tense as the verdict is publicized.

The scenes featuring Antron McCray’s father, Bobby, also served as a striking point for Bowers, particularly when the patriarch encouraged his son to confess to a crime he didn’t commit. While the writing painted Bobby in a certain light (due to the system’s pressure) that might portray him as aggressive or a villain, Bowers wanted the score to play into the opposite of those characterizations. While playing the piano composition for his fiancée, his partner described it as “‘somewhat sweet, but incredibly sad at the same time. There’s something fading.’”

In terms of composing the feature in its entirety, Bowers adds that not only Bobby’s story can be told through music, but also the rest of the characters’ storylines. “That was what I was trying to portray and achieve, this fading of innocence,” he says, “this light that’s being dimmed but unintentionally.”


As New York City’s DNA courses throughout the film in terms of location (Coney Island, Harlem, Central Park), the music of that time period also knots its way within the series. When selecting the original recordings for the soundtrack, Byrd tried to place himself in the minds of the five boys and what they might’ve been listening to at that time. 

“This is what they’re feeling, this is the backdrop, this is the sound that people are inspired by, that are making music from this place,” he says. “It only made sense to me to pair as many of the experiences, as many of the senses for the listener to the actual experience of the characters.” Shifting the audience to ‘80s NYC “right away” was also a unanimous decision, Byrd mentions, highlighting the selection of the city’s very own Special Ed’s “I Got It Made” in part one to jumpstart the program. 

“Special Ed was young, he was just a year or two older than these boys at that time,” Byrd shares. “That song and album came out literally within a month or two of the incident so we imagined this is what these boys would be listening to.”

Cutting another piece out of the Big Apple’s energy of that time, Bowers says he used objects such as bucket drums to help up the ante of certain scenes. The idea was vocalized by fellow composer and pianist Jason Moran, who recommended Bowers for the job. The use of the drums entered whenever the boys were being chased by law enforcement or during scenes of interrogation. “But it was something I thought of as having a pulse instead of using...again, if this was a stereotypical TV show or procedural drama, I probably would’ve just used some sort of synth to do that and there were some synths layered into it, but one of the main sounds was this bucket drumming that was something I would return to,” he says.

Although the majority of the melodies derive from New York City natives, tracks from artists foreign to the East Coast city help to summarize When They See Us in song form. For Byrd, the Cinematic Orchestra’s “All Things To All Men,” and the rest of the band’s discography, is “tailor-made for film.” This particular melody toward the end of episode three summarized Raymond Santana Jr.’s return to prison for selling drugs. “It’s lush in melody and string arrangement and it has a key lyric that we pick out right at the end of the actual scene, the end of the episode and Raymond is talking about ‘We were just boys, I feel like I have my foot in one world, my foot in the other world.’ It just made sense to me that these boys that are now young men, they have to try to be everything for everyone all at the same time,” he says. “All Things To All Men” showcased the notion that the Exonerated Five were no longer afforded a “normal typical life,” and weren’t allowed “to be in service of themselves,” Byrd adds.

Complimenting the physical movement of story arcs, Byrd also says soundtracking Santana Jr.’s back-and-forth conversations with his father as he’s getting older in jail and preceding his first release was tough to pair with a melody. In discussion with DuVernay, Byrd says the director wanted a song to match the momentum. Enter “Happiness” by dead prez. “I’ve always loved that dead prez album [Let’s Get Free], and particular song. It was one of the first things I thought of,” he says. “I tried to imagine what song has movement and changes and also presents somewhere between a subtle and on-the-nose way, what I would be imagining and thinking about at that time.”

Pacing is also a key ingredient in marrying selected songs with originally composed sounds. Byrd says working in tandem with Bowers allowed the process to flow seamlessly, helping to avoid a clash of his selected melodies and Bowers’ compositions. On the selection of Clare Maguire’s “Falling Leaves” at the end of part one, Byrd says the haunting and tragic sound of the melody worked for the slow-motion scenes of the boys being handcuffed and put into the backseats of police cars.

Although part four was packed with the tensest moments, Byrd says he was able to insert points of vivacity like Korey's elation when he saw SWV's "I'm So Into You" music video being played in prison. "It’s important from a directorial perspective to show that despite everything that Korey was going through, he found moments of good times, of happiness, of levity," Byrd says. "I think for some people watching it they would maybe think what’s the use of showing something like that. But the main reason behind it is to show the full spectrum of someone’s humanity. They may be objectively, in many ways emotionally speaking in a situation that’s down and out but they find moments to be humane and find moments of happiness, of laughter, of good times."

The final melody that found a home onscreen is Nipsey Hussle’s “Picture Me Rollin.” Byrd reveals the week he and DuVernay were deciding on featuring the song, Hussle was murdered in Los Angeles. The insert of his song featuring OverDoz later served as a salute to the fallen artist, Byrd adds, noting that it was a tough time during production when the news broke.

“We thought it would be really cool even though people think of The Central Park 5 as being a New York story. The truth of the matter is the subject matter and the concentration on what Ava presented with this miniseries is about how blacks and browns are treated, and how the legal system, the criminal justice system still is rampant with all of these injustices,” he says. “That’s a ubiquitous system and thing we all deal with irrespective of which coast you’re from. Knowing what Nipsey represented, what he was doing for our people and the fact that…” Byrd pauses before speaking on the loss that thousands of Hussle’s supporters endured.

“Picture Me Rollin” as a whole, but primarily the hook (“I bet Imma make it home to my baby”), speaks to the notion of surviving day to day. Hussle’s insert into the miniseries also promotes a characteristic he amplified: do everything with intention.

“There are so many times I’m asked in other projects that we don’t feel as sad as we’re supposed to here, we don’t feel as happy as we’re supposed to here and that’s all due to the acting, the editing, everything, so it’s music’s job to push it over the edge in the direction we want,” Bowers says. “With this show, I just feel like every element was incredibly spot on and well done that it was my job with the music to make sure I wasn’t getting in the way, make sure that I was doing exactly what was needed but to just always be mindful of whether it’s too much or too little.”

When They See Us is now streaming on Netflix.

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Interview: Suave House Founder Tony Draper Links With Celebs Like 2 Chainz, G Herbo and Nick Cannon To Feed Their Cities

The harrowing COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately disrupted Black communities across the United States with cities like Chicago being among the hardest hit. Throughout the year, artists from the city have stepped up and held socially distanced food drives and PPE donations across the city’s South and West sides. With his deep ties to Chicago since the early 90s, Suave House Records founder/entrepreneur Tony Draper, alongside NBA veteran Ricky Davis, made the Chi’ their next stop as part of the nationwide Feed Your City Challenge this past October 17th at the Pullman Park Community Center.

The chilly, yet bright and sunny Saturday saw hundreds of people drive through the parking lot of the complex, receiving groceries from the many volunteers, gathered from across the city. Masked up with PPE in the trenches with the civilians were local natives and celebrity supporters like Chitown’s Grammy winning producer/music executive No ID, rap star G-Herbo, new rapper Queen Key, NBA star Jabari Parker to media/music entertainer Nick Cannon. Draper and Davis were handing off items and loading boxes of farm-fresh produce and meats in the trunk of cars, and offloading the 95,000 pounds of food to feed 7,000 residents. While they were not in attendance, Common with Jhene Aiko and Social Justice Collective donated funds for the free groceries.

“You can’t lead the people until you feed the people. We’re out here in the community in a real way. People always talk about what’s going on in Chicago and these are the things going on in Chicago. Positive things for the community during a time like this. People coming together and it’s a wonderful event,” said Cannon.

For Draper, bringing the Feed Your City Challenge to Chicago and being able to pull it off successfully was crucial because October 17th, marks the 24th anniversary of the death of one of Chi’s most influential DJs, Rapmaster Pinkhouse, who passed away in 1996. “It feels like myself and my partner [Ricky] Davis coming to Chicago and partnering with Common, No ID, Jhene Aiko, Nick Cannon, G-Herbo, Jay Allen, [local FM radio] Power 92 and Pat Edwards was a sign from God that it’s meant to happen on this day. Even though Pinkhouse is gone, he’s still influencing the south side of Chicago and he’s still sending us blessings. We had to pull it off, we had to,” Draper said with conviction. 

Meanwhile, Power 92.3’s DJ Pharris, DJ Nehpets, DJ Commando, DJ Amaris and Hot Rod were on the 1s and 2s while Parker, Hot Rod, G-Herbo, and community activists Joey G and Nico Naismith played basketball with the kids. A nonprofit Hoop Bus was set up with a small hoop with Black Lives Matter symbols and the names of victims who were killed by police officers. 

G-Herbo, who has been volunteering his time to the kids of Chicago throughout 2020 says that events like this are important to build and strengthen Black unity across the city. “It’s beyond just being able to feed and provide, it’s allowing people to feel unity in the city. This is the city coming together and a lot of important and powerful people coming from the city, all walks of life coming together for a positive reason and that’s what it’s all about.” When asked if this event defied the stigma of Chicagoans not being unified, Herbo exclaimed, “Absolutely! We unified right now and it’s only gon’ get better, so we’re just trying to lead by example and make this normal. This is not just an event, this gotta be the normal for guys like myself and for the city.”

And the people who showed up to receive their free groceries were more than appreciative. Takara, a mother from the Southside of Chicago says that while she found out about the food drive at the last minute,“It’s a lot of food out here, a lot of good people out here and it’s something that we need. Events like this are very necessary and it’s filling the need for families who can’t feed their children during these times. I wish I could have volunteered and done something more, but we need this.”

In a one-on-one with VIBE, the legendary Tony Draper talks about his connections to Chicago, the importance and impact of the Feed Your City Challenge, the role celebrities play in activism, and more. 

VIBE: Earlier you shared that Oct. 17th was also the day that Rapmaster Pinkhouse passed away. For the younger readers who might not know who Rapmaster Pinkhouse is, could you share who he was and why he was so important to Chicago?

Draper: For young people that don't understand how music was heard back then, there was no social media [in the early 90s], there was no Instagram, so you had to get your record to the hottest person in the city. That person had to make a decision about whether it was good or not. And if that person touched your record in Chicago, that person would spread, it was automatic. That’s what happened to a young Tony Draper with 8Ball & MJG’s first albums. He put his hands around it and he exposed it to the Chicago market. Every time I think about Chicago, I always think about Pinkhouse. Pinkhouse was the main reason why I even came to Chicago.

Talk about that. What was Chicago like for you when you first came here?

Coming to Chicago was a very interesting moment for me because when I came, I had my hat cocked a certain type of way and I didn’t know the rules and regulations. And he told me, “Tony, man you gotta keep that hat straight (laughs). And I kept it straight ever since. So, for me, doing my journey as a young Black man from the inner city, raised by a single parent, establishing Suave House at 16 years old, seeing what I went through to establish [the company], and make it a force to be reckoned with. That was an accomplishment, but also I wanted to touch people I knew understood the music and understood where I was coming from and the importance of a young Black man that was a true, independent CEO and giving me the avenue to get my music heard. I’m from Memphis, raised in Houston, but Chicago is Suave House’s biggest market to this date. They supported everything Suave House did and I wanted to bless them [with the Feed Your City Challenge], the same way they blessed me.

With the conversation within the music business revolving around Black Lives Matter and supporting Black communities, what do you think it’ll take to get many of these CEO and executives from the major labels to support these communities like what you and many of the artists have been doing across the country?

I think they have to be involved with people they’re not comfortable with. Stop giving money to these organizations you think is giving the money to Black people, because they’re not. Nobody is holding these organizations accountable. Do business with somebody that has their finger on the pulse. A person that you know is in the music business that has been very successful in the business. Like right now, the Feed Your City Challenge, we’re in our ninth city. We’ve had eight of the top music artists host these cities without funding from the parent companies. [The artists] are giving the money themselves. Jhene Aiko gave money herself. Nick Cannon, himself. Rick Ross, 2 Chainz…Pee from Quality Control. 

Pee was on vacation in Mexico and he took a private jet back to Atlanta just to attend Feed Your City in Atlanta. He didn’t have to do that, but he did because he cares about where he’s from. He cares about the area. He wants to take [talent] from the area, but he also wants to give back to that community. See, white people want to come and exploit your community, but don’t want to build a library over there, never build a basketball court, never build anything. When an artist is dead, they say ahhh aahh ummm. If you wanted to demonstrate good character, you would have said, ‘I made a lot of money off that artist. Let me do something for that community as a token of appreciation for birthing that particular artist.’

I don’t think we’ve ever seen that before.

And you’ll never see it unless I do it and I am going to do it. That’s why I’m in Chicago. I’m going to every city that has blessed me and fed my family because every time I feed myself, I feed my family, my loved ones, it comes from my fans. My fans gave me the opportunity by buying my records. I had a dream, I had a drive, but without the opportunity, you might not have heard of Tony Draper. So, I’m always appreciative of people that have helped me, that’s why I want to help them. I’m in the best place I could ever be in my life. I’m 49 years old, I’m successful, I’m good. Bro, you want to know what makes me happy? Giving to somebody else. There’s another star out there that’s hoping and praying that they could get an opportunity and if I could give them that opportunity, I’ll give it to them. I don’t relish in the attention; I relish in the accomplishment. Let me help somebody. And if I help them and they become successful, they don’t owe me a quarter. I won’t sign them to a management deal or nothing. I just want you to acknowledge it and pass it on. See, we got to learn how to pass it on.

With the timing of this event brought on by the pandemic, how do you feel about it all?

I think it was God’s mission. With COVID that’s really unfortunate, a lot of people lost their lives during this pandemic. A lot of people have lost their jobs, their homes, their properties. My heart goes out to them. But if me and Ricky Davis can put a smile on a mother’s face, a father’s face and feed their children, that’s all I need. I remember me and my mother going to churches and food banks, walking with free government cheese, powdered eggs and we was happy. We were so happy, smiling and grateful. I think without that, I don’t think we would have made it to the following week. So, I’m always thankful for everything God blessed me with. I don’t think I’m special. I think that I had a plan and I stuck to my plan and made it happen.

Suave House has had a lot of artists who have always been outspoken about social and political issues, [similar to like an] Ice Cube recently. Considering that, and what you’re doing with these artists for the Feed Your City Challenge, do you think that the role of the celebrity today is to get in front of these issues or to fall back and support the people who're already doing the work?

I think it’s a choice. For me, I’m not a city official, I’m not a politician. I’m more comfortable with doing and getting my hands dirty on the ground. If I was in Chicago building houses for people, I would actually be there. I wouldn’t [just] send no money or send a crew there. I would be there. That’s how I feel blessed. I feel blessed by actually talking to the people and them seeing me out there distributing groceries. I feel good when a person drives up in their car and they pop their trunk and say ‘Draper?! You putting groceries in my car?!’ And they may be happy about ‘Space Age Pimpin’’ or ‘I’m So Tired of Ballin’’ or whatever, but just the mere fact that they were happy about me putting groceries in their car meant more to me than anything else. I think it’s a choice you make as an individual.

For a lot of people, some celebrities end up causing harm because their celebrity and actions might overshadow the actual issue.

You know what though? Without you being a celebrity, you might not be heard. So why not use that platform to be heard? I think LeBron James is phenomenal. I think Ice Cube is phenomenal. You don’t have to agree with him, but you have to respect him for speaking his mind and trying to get something for Black people. Nobody else did it! Nobody else took the initiative to write a Black America contract and present it to both [Biden and Trump] camps. So, I think that was a phenomenal move, whether I agree with it or not, it was still a phenomenal move. We got to stop with all this goddamn talking and do some action.

Draper and Davis’s Feed Your City Challenge will be arriving in Compton, California as their next stop on November 21.

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Interview: T.I. Talks Activism, Verzuz Battle, And His Desire To Produce A Biopic On His Life Before Fame

Although Tip "T.I." Harris has earned some very respectable stripes as an emcee for his successful rap career, the self-proclaimed “King of the South” moniker really began to take true form once he stepped into his community activism calling. He’s acted in blockbuster films opposite Denzel Washington, Paul Rudd and Kevin Hart, but his willingness to speak truth to power has shown an unwavering commitment to being on the good side of history, as opposed to choosing silence to secure a spot on the good side of Hollywood.

During this recent conversation, Tip talks about his upcoming Verzuz battle with Jeezy, politics, the Trap Music Museum, and his desire to make his TV/film directorial debut.

Be sure to check out his newest album, L.I.B.R.A available on all streaming platforms.

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Ziggy Marley's First Time Voting In America

No more long talking from politicians. Today, the people have their say at the ballot box. Judging by the number of voters who showed up early this year, the 2020 election is going to smash all records for voter participation. With a deadly pandemic, wildfires, floods, economic pressure, and a struggle for survival playing out from the tweets to the streets, the stakes have never been higher.

If you're reading this right now and you haven't voted yet, it's not too late. Get up get out and let your voice be heard. As Samantha Smith recently discussed on her IG Live, this year's election is too important to sit out.

Snoop Dogg will be voting for the first time this year—and he's not the only one. Ziggy Marley voted for the first time this year also and documented the process on social media. "I decided to vote and I wondered to myself why," Ziggy wrote on his IG. "Then I thought about those who came before, the price they paid. In part, I am voting in honor of them and to honor them, to not belittle their many sacrifices and struggles with my high jaded righteousness and indifference. Many brothers and sisters from numerous backgrounds and origins marched, bled, and died to give people like me basic rights in 🇺🇸 , the right to be treated like a human being, the right to vote."

As the eldest son of the Robert Nesta Marley aka the King of Reggae, Ziggy is part of a mighty musical legacy, but his father is more than a musical legend.  The new film Freedom Fighter—part of the 75th anniversary series "Bob Marley Legacy"—examines Marley as a symbol of human rights with a voice more powerful than any politician.

Ziggy has continued his father's musical mission as a solo artist and part of the Grammy-winning family group Melody Makers. His 2018 album, Rebellion Rises opens with a song entitled "See Them Fake Leaders," leaving no doubt about his views on the institutions of government. Still, Ziggy remains engaged in the political process, doing his part and encouraging others to do the same.

"Imagine if Martin Luther King Jr, John Lewis, and others thought, 'Voting rights? Civil rights? Who cares? What difference will it make?'" Ziggy wrote on IG. "Just imagine what the world would have looked like now if not for their sacrifices. Go ahead, imagine it. Can you see it? Well, what do you think?"

"To be clear voting is not the end-all," Ziggy Marley added. "It is a small piece of a puzzle and just one of the tools in our toolbox that we must use as part of a larger effort to bring positive beneficial changes for all people. The work must continue at maximum effort after elections regardless of the outcome." Ziggy emphasized that he was not voting for a party or a person for an idea. "Even though we have differences we can be better human beings, more united human beings, more loving human beings, equal human beings, just human beings. The politics will come and go left right and center but still through it all the humanity that we must show to each other is not negotiable."

Ziggy voted by mail this year, but for those of you standing in line today to exercise your right and let your voices be heard, Ziggy curated a special playlist for Tidal's "Hold The Line" campaign. Music to vote by—from Ziggy and Bob to Fela and James Brown, not to mention Public Enemy and Rage Against The Machine.

Ziggy Marley’s new album, More Family Time, is out now on all music streaming platforms.

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