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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.”

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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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VIBE Vault: Jada Pinkett / August 1994 Issue

The first thing you notice about Jada Pinkett is her long, curved, scarlet-enameled fingernails—“ghetto Vogue,” she calls them, laughing. Describing her meteoric ascent from the Baltimore School of Arts (where her best homie was Tupac Shakur) to overnight Tinseltown success. Pinkett coos for a few moments over her continuing romance with former Duke star hoopster/future NBA player Grant Hill, and those acrylic claws click like miniature castanets.

With close-cropped hair and a pearly smile, the tiny, gamine Pinkett is even prettier in person than she was as Lena in A Different World or as Ronnie in Menace II Society. Her compelling feature film debut as the heroic teenage single mom at the center of Menace’s world of adolescent violence and moral indifference catapulted the 22-year-old actress to the top of Black Hollywood’s A-list and into starring roles in three major movies this year.

Those nails actually belong to Peaches, Pinkett’s loud-mouthed, sassy character in Keenen Ivory Wayans’s A Low Down Dirty Shame (tentatively due this fall). Peaches brings Pinkett a sharp 180 degrees from Menace’s serious, responsible Ronnie. Her performances as Lauren, the upper-middle-class BAP brat in Matty Rich’s The Inkwell “who only worries about boys spending money on her,” and as Lyric, a fragile rural rose blooming from the dusty back roads of a Houston ghetto in Doug McHenry’s Jason’s Lyric (due in November), showcase her range further still.

The challenge of playing four radically different roles back-to-back could unsettle a young film newcomer, but Pinkett’s characters are always grounded in her own sometimes difficult life experience. “Ronnie is very close to my mother; she graduated high school with me in her tummy,” Pinkett says. “Lauren was also familiar because my Jamaican grandmother raised me in that upper-middle-class background before she died.” That loss and the divorce of her parents (both substance abusers at the time) plunged 13-year-old Pinkett into a very different world, one she says equipped her at age 18 for the Hollywood jungle—and for a character like Peaches. “I have a really obnoxious nature,” she admits, laughing. “I can get stank sometimes, all attitude and just being forward with it.” In contrast, she says, “playing Lyric allowed me for the first time to be loving, vulnerable—to let the walls down and say, ’Here I am.’”

The self-confident Pinkett, who counsels troubled teens across the country in her spare time, seems particularly savvy about her career. “I’m extremely lucky not to have been typecast, even though I’ve done only black films by black filmmakers,” she says. “It’s not, ‘Let’s get Jada for the homegirl and blasie-blah.’ That leaves my opening to grow.”

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Illustration by Alvaro

Revisit Aaliyah's August 2001 Cover Story: 'WHAT LIES BENEATH?'

With a new album and the romantic lead in the upcoming Anne Rice-adapted flick Queen of the Damned, Aaliyah is ready for superstardom. But don’t think you can get too close to her. Hyun Kim tried and found out that some things are best left alone. Illustration by Alvaro. Styling by Angela Arambulo

Aaliyah lives the perfect life. To hear her tell it, she wouldn’t change a thing. “This is what I always wanted,” she says of her career. “I breathe to perform, to entertain, I can’t imagine myself doing anything else. I’m just a really happy girl right now. I honestly love every aspect of this business. I really do. I feel very fulfilled and complete.”

It’s true that a young woman with a burgeoning career in music and film might as well be ecstatic about her life. In fact, there’s nothing more annoying than hearing some spoiled star whine about the pitfalls of success. So, while Aaliyah’s comments are refreshing, you can’t help but wonder if things sound, well, too good to be true. She speaks like a veteran politician – well prepared and press savvy, like she’s reading from an unseen teleprompter.

Of course, 22-year-old Aaliyah has been preparing for stardom since childhood. And now that she’s made it this far, it’s impossible to determine when she’s in performance mode, or just honestly being herself. A trained actress who is quickly becoming a hot property in Hollywood, Aaliyah has mastered the art of hiding herself from the public. It started back in the day, when she always rocked dark sunglasses. Because her eyes were rarely seen, a rumor quickly spread that she had a lazy or glass eye. She soon took to covering just her left eye with her long, straight, black hair. She hid again when, at 15, reports of her marriage to 25-year-old mentor and producer R. Kelly – the story broke in the December ‘94/January ’95 VIBE – scandalized the R&B world.

"IT'S IMPOSSIBLE TO DETERMINE WHEN SHE'S IN PERFORMANCE MODE OR BEING HERSELF. A TRAINED ACTRESS, AALIYAH HAS MASTERED THE ART OF HIDING HERSELF FROM THE PUBLIC."

If you bring up the marriage with her, she sort of changes the subject. And we’re left searching dying for a glimpse inside this intriguing, mysterious woman.

It’s a bustling Thursday evening in May, and Aaliyah is lacing up her clunky bowling shoes at the AMF Chelsea Piers Lanes in New York City. She goes unnoticed by the rowdy, drunken group of Wall Street types in the next lane. Her tight, red sleeveless top and slightly faded blue jeans give more of a girl-riding-the-subway look than girl-on-MTV. She playfully tiptoes to the line and stomps her feet when her ball ends up in the gutter. But somehow you get the feeling that she isn’t particularly interested in rolling strikes either. She barely pays attention to her score, listed under the name Baby Girl. Aaliyah’s entourage – her stylist, makeup artist, and hairstylist – are more engaged than she is. The entire scene feels very staged, starring Aaliyah as the around-the-way superstar who’s kicking it with her peoples. “I like the simple things in life,” she insists. “When I have time, I stay home a lot, do things like this or play laser tag. I’ve always been a homebody.” It couldn’t have been scripted any better.

Brooklyn-born, Detroit-raised Aaliyah Dana Haughton has been playing her roles well for as long as anyone can remember. All it took was a one-line speaking part as an orphan in her first grade’s production of Annie to convince Aaliyah that performing was her… From ages 8 to 9, she would sing Stevie Wonder and Whitney Houston songs at weddings around Michigan. A faithful watcher of Star Search, Aaliyah was dying to compete on the show. At 11 years old, she got her shot. She sang “My Funny Valentine,” lost, and cried. Ed McMahon, the host of Star Search, who introduced the world to Justin Timberlake, Destiny’s Child, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and countless others, recalls Aaliyah’s performance. “There’s a thing that you see when somebody walks out on the stage,” he says. “I call it the fire. They got that inner fire, which has nothing to do with the schooling, nothing to do with the teacher, nothing to do with the parents. There is a desire in that person to please the audience. You see enough of it to recognize it. And that’s what I saw with Aaliyah.”

It wasn’t long before she recovered from her Star Search loss and hit up the stage again. Her uncle, Barry Hankerson, was married to Gladys Knight when he took his then 11-year-old niece on stage to perform with the R&B legend for five nights at Bally’s Las Vegas casino. Knight would call Aaliyah out to perform “Home” and then duet with her on “Believe In Yourself.” Soon after, Hankerson introduced his niece to R. Kelly, whom he was managing. Kelly ended up writing and producing 15-year-old Aaliyah’s 1994 debut Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number. Her life as a shy schoolgirl from an upper-middle-class neighborhood was officially over.

Not that she cared. Aaliyah is not one of those former child stars who complains of missing out on the innocence of adolescence. So what if she had a full-time bodyguard attending classes with her at Detroit High School for the Fine and Performing Arts? She was living her dream, right? Well, sort of. While she enjoys performing and being a celebrity, she doesn’t want the extra strings – like reporters probing her deepest fears and desires – that come with the package. She makes sure to give only the “right” answers, because she wants to hold onto whatever is left of her private life. So she only alludes to her relationship with R. Kelly when she says, “Of course, everybody’s had hard times. I’ve had hard times. I don’t really think I will go into detail as to what it was. But when you go through something so painful, it just helps you become a stronger person.” When asked if she’s ever been in love, she says with a bright smile, “Private life! I don’t want to share that.”

She’s like the Teflon diva, nothing ever sticks to her. After Kelly, rumors linked her romantically to Ginuwine, Jay-Z, and, most recently, the co-CEO of Roc-A-Fella Records, Damon Dash. In May, Aaliyah hosted a bash for Dash’s 30th birthday at a New York City club where they were spotted together; one person said they were “inseparable” – he even walked her to the bathroom. “I think rumors are hilarious,” she says. “I don’t pay any attention. It goes in one ear and out the other. When you’re in the business, you hang out with people, and people are like, ‘I wonder, are they seeing each other?’ I never dated Jay. I never dated Ginuwine. Damon and I are very good friends. I’ll keep it at that right now.” It’s hard to believe her when she’s wearing a small platinum and diamond Roc-A-Fella pendant on her neck. She claims that it’s hers and that it’s “just a little symbol of a record” and changes the subject, insisting that she’s briefly dated just two men in her whole life.

Over the course of her career, the only thing Aaliyah has seemed willing to reveal about herself has been her highly touted body. Her slim frame has become a favorite from fashion figures to frat boys. “She made that hip hop look sexy for women wearing men’s clothes,” says Andy Hilfiger, who cast Aaliyah in the 1996 Tommy Jeans ad campaign also featuring Mark Ronson and Kidada Jones (daughter of VIBE founder Quincy Jones). The ads showed Aaliyah sporting men’s boxers under baggy jeans with a tight tube top. “It created a whole new look,” says Hilfiger. “It was sexy but classic.” By the time the sultry One in A Million hit in 1996, Aaliyah’s sound and look became a lot more mature and darker. Searching for a new style, Aaliyah’s mom suggested her daughter cover her left eye with her hair just like her mom’s favorite classic film actress Veronica Lake. It gave the 18-year-old an enigmatic touch. “She’s got an incredible sense of style, maybe the best of anybody I can think of,” says MTV’s Carson Daly. “She’s really cutting edge, always on step ahead of the curve. [The TRL audience] looks to Aaliyah to figure out what’s hot and what’s new.”

"MY MOTHER ALWAYS SAID I HAD SEX APPEAL," AALIYAH SAYS. "EVEN WHEN I WAS VERY YOUNG, WHEN I WOULD TAKE PICTURES, THERE WAS SOMETHING SEXUAL ABOUT ME. I DO FEEL SEXY FOR SURE. I ENJOY IT."

She doesn’t have the best figure or best voice, but it’s the way she uses what she has that makes her so alluring. “When we dance together, it’s like synchronized swimming,” says Fatima, Aaliyah’s choreographer. “She is naturally sexy without effort.” Aaliyah’s singing voice, while not all that powerful, sounds like she’s whispering in your ear from the pillow next to yours, slowly seducing you over Timbaland’s simmering beats. “My mother always said that she feels like I always had sex appeal,” Aaliyah says. “Even when I was very young, when I would take pictures, there was something sexual about me. I do feel sexy for sure. I embrace it, and I’m comfortable with it. I enjoy it.”

This confidence, her mastery of her assets, is what landed Aaliyah, who had no previous film experience, a costarring role with Jet Li in last year’s Romeo Must Die. Combining hip hop (the movie also featured DMX) and kung fu, Romeo had the perfect formula for box office success. But the critics tore up the highly remixed Shakespearean plot for both its simplicity and lack of any romantic chemistry between Li and Aaliyah. “This movie needs a screenplay,” critic Roger Ebert wrote.

Still, any were impressed by Aaliyah’s depth. The New York Post heralded her performance, which ranges from crying to killing, as a “revelation.” And as for the absence of sex scenes, Warner Bros. decided to edit them out. “We did a [scene with] Jet and I kissing, and we ended up going with a hug,” Aaliyah says. “I guess they thought it was a little sweeter and left more to the imagination.” Maybe audiences weren’t ready to see one of hip hop’s prized young kittens getting it on with an Asian kung-fu master 16 years her senior.

If moviegoers weren’t ready for interracial heat then, they’d better brace themselves now. In the upcoming Queen of the Damned, Aaliyah plays Akasha, an ancient-Egyptian vampire. Based on a combination of Anne Rice’s The Vampire Lestat and The Queen of the Damned, the movie is slated to show Aaliyah in intimate scenes with her Irish costar, Stuart Townsend. Perhaps what’s more striking than the eroticism of her role is that Aaliyah is the biggest star in the movie. The blockbuster Anne Rice movie Interview With the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles boasted Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Antonio Banderas and a big Hollywood budget. Queen costs $35 million and has no marquee actors. This doesn’t concern Michael Rymer. “There were two factors for casting Aaliyah. I was very keen that Akasha, an Egyptian queen, not look like Elizabeth Taylor,” he says, referring to 1963’s Cleopatra. “And not only did [Aaliyah] do a good job on Romero Must Die, but people went to see her. This is a really difficult role, and she took on a huge challenge. She worked her ass off for this film."

Aaliyah trained hard for her role, working closely with her acting coach for a month and then another month with a speech coach in New York. While filming in Australia, she worked with a personal trainer because she wore revealing outfits and a stunt coordinator for her flying scenes. “I have to exude power and be regal,” she says of her role as the mother of all vampires. “I love Egypt. I love vampires. It was the dream role, so I worked very hard.”

During her four-month shoot, Aaliyah somehow found the time to finish her new self-titled album. She began recording it in 1998 before Romeo. She stopped, wrapped the film, and released the super-catchy number-one single “Try Again” off the soundtrack. She traveled to Australia, shot Queen during the day, and hit the studio at night. The new album focuses more on her voice, bringing it to the forefront as opposed to hiding it behind the layered production. It was never her plan to take five years to follow up the double-platinum success of One In A Million. In between, her infectious 1998 hit “Are You That Somebody?” off the Dr. Dolittle soundtrack not only reminded her old fans that she still had it, but introduced her to new fans as well. At the time, “Somebody” was the biggest hit in Aaliyah’s career. She gave us just enough of the tasty appetizer to keep our palates whetted. “When it comes to overexposure, that’s something that I will always be aware of,” she says. “Because I never want that. This is my life, I love it, but it’s important for me to take breaks. Don’t want to overload anybody.”

Aaliyah’s career, like her personal life, is observed in lashes. She comes and goes when she wants. Unlike Mary J. Blige, Lauryn Hill, and Madonna, who pull the public across the fine line between their private and public lives, Aaliyah puts a velvet rope between hers. While most artists scream for creative control of their songwriting and production, Aaliyah–who modestly refers to herself as an “interpreter”–is primarily interested in performing.

“I’m not one to give everything and pour my heart out in one of my songs,” she says. With Hankerson, her uncle, as the CEO of the label she signed to, her mother, Diane Haughton, as her manager, and her cousin Jomo Hankerson as executive producer of her albums, it’s obvious that the marketing, promotion, and sale of Aaliyah is the family’s business. And her father, Michael Haughton, used to comanage her until he fell ill (her family won’t reveal with what). Aaliyah runs every decision by her older brother, Rashad. Her entire world is a tight, closed network, open only to those close to her.

When the people who know her best describe Aaliyah, you would think they were speaking of an angel. Fatima says, “Aaliyah is the sweetest artist I know.” Her best friend of five years, Kidada Jones, uses the words “grounded,” “emotionally balanced,” and “unaffected.” And according to Jones and Aaliyah’s mom, she has a great sense of humor. She’s good at imitations, especially of her mother’s deep voice. Aaliyah likes to make prank phone calls with Jones to what she calls “public establishments.” When asked to go into more detail, Aaliyah chooses not to–for personal reasons, of course.

Even when Aaliyah was young, she was private. “She was a very quiet child,” remembers Dr. Denise Davis-Cotton, whom Aaliyah says guided her education in high school. “Very polite, personable, conscientious. She knew her goals in life at a very young age.” Her mother attributes it to her daughter’s creativity. “She’s quite a complex young lady,” Haughton says. “She’s always been like that. It’s just a part of the genius of herself.”

As a child, it was apparent that Aaliyah was ahead of her peers. During her audition for acceptance to her high school, Aaliyah sang the aria “Ave Maria” in Italian. She was only 14. With the help of private tutors and independent-study programs, Aaliyah graduated high school with a 4.0 GPA. Her home life was pet-packed, with ducks, dogs, and iguanas running around her suburban Detroit home. Her exposure to varied cultures has influenced her approach to music. Aaliyah encourages Timbaland to get as creative as he wants when making up her beats. “She always likes to go to the left,” he says. “She’s the only one who’s willing to use those tracks. It wouldn’t be right if she didn’t.”

"I'VE ALWAYS BEEN MYSTERIOUS. THERE ARE TIMES WHEN I DON'T KNOW MYSELF...I THINK I'M A BIT OF A VAMPIRE IN REAL LIFE, AND THERE ARE TIMES WHEN I JUST WANT TO BE MYSELF."

After bowling a low 73, Aaliyah decides that she wants to play video games before heading to her Upper West Side apartment to read Harry Potter books. She wants to get as much rest as she can. In a month, she’ll head back to Australia to play Zee in Matrix 2 and 3. After that, she’ll play the lead in the Whitney Houston-produced remake of the '70s film Sparkle, which is still in its embryonic stage. But for tonight, Aaliyah just wants to be a regular girl. She blasts away would-be killers with her pink gun in the hyper-violent Time Crisis II.

When Aaliyah eventually gets shot to death in the game, she decides she’s had enough. “I’ve always been mysterious,” says Aaliyah. “My mother and father always used to ask me, ‘What are you thinking, what’s going on?’ There are times when I don’t understand myself, you know what I mean?” You do understand, and you can’t help but believe every word she says as she continues, “I have black-out shades in my apartment, I push a button, it’s totally dark. I think I’m a bit of a vampire in real life, and there are times when I just want to be myself. I wanna be alone.”

So instead of hiding from the world, maybe all the secrecy is Aaliyah’s way of discovering herself; her way of holding on to what’s true in a hazy world of glitz and imagery. “People feel like they own you in this business, and, to a certain degree, they do,” she says. “But there’s a part of me that will always be just for me.”

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This article originally appeared in the August 2001 issue of VIBE Magazine | Written by Hyun Kim | Cover illustration by Alvaro.

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(L-R) Phillipa Soo as Eliza Hamilton, Renee Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler and Jasmin Cephas Jones as Peggy Schuyler in the filmed musical, ‘Hamilton.’
Courtesy of Disney

Watch: Lin-Manuel Miranda & The ‘Hamilton’ Cast Speak On The Musical’s Significance In Today’s Fight For Social Justice

Independence Day is about to hit different. As America takes part in another 3-day holiday weekend filled with socially distanced cookouts and quarantined binge-watching sessions, family and friends can finally see Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda's groundbreaking musical, on the small screen. Alas, that subtle, 5-year feeling of envy felt by those of us who missed the opportunity to see the original cast at a sold-out showing can finally be let go. Thanks to streaming platform Disney Plus, musical theatre enthusiasts and followers of the Broadway production will now be able to relive the cultural phenomenon that debuted on January 20, 2015, after it went on to win nearly a dozen Tony Awards, a Pulitzer Prize of Drama, and a Grammy.

With the ongoing protests around the murderous killing of George Floyd, the unwavering #BlackLivesMatter movement, and the exposing spotlight on the systemic racism that has plagued America for centuries, Hamilton's film premiere couldn't arrive at a better time. There's a melting pot of actors, rappers, and singers of color telling the stories of figures in American history through the lens of hip-hop, R&B, and popular music. But what brings all of this full circle is the irony of how monuments dedicated to many of America's forefathers (and slave owners) are now being torn down in protest.

"Listen, I didn't care about these people either. I was not a history fan prior to reading Hamilton's book," shared Miranda—the filmed musical's protagonist Alexander Hamilton and producer behind its book, music, and lyrics—in an interview with VIBE during an on-camera interview. "All I knew about him was he was the white guy on the 10 and he died in a duel. And then I picked up this history book and my way in was that he grew up in the Caribbean and he came from somewhere else. And so, that was my way into the story. And I think that if you tell it that way, you see it through a kind of different lens. It's not an accident that we have Black and brown bodies playing these founders."

"And clearly, in this moment where we exist, it feels like if this show can give energy and momentum to the movement, then the show is serving the moment. And that's all that we can do..." adds Hamilton's director and producer, Thomas Kail. "Our hope is," he continues, "by putting it on Disney Plus where tens of millions of people can see it in one day, that maybe we're doing some kind of service towards that and just trying to participate and contribute."

Ahead of the Broadway play's cinematic debut, VIBE correspondent Jazzie Belle not only sat Miranda and Kali, but also members of the illustrious cast: Daveed Diggs (who plays Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson), Renée Elise Goldsberry (Angelica Schuyler), Christopher Jackson (George Washington), Jasmine Cephas Jones (Peggy Schuyler/Maria Reynolds), and Leslie Odom, Jr. (Aaron Burr). They talked hip-hop, today's climate around civil rights, and who they'd create a musical around if given the opportunity.

Lin-Manuel Miranda  and Thomas Kail

On the decision to have the musical's characters inspired by hip-hop/R&B artists of past and present:

Miranda: My goal with it was I wanted to have as big a tent in terms of the casting as possible. I wanted people who had never auditioned for a musical to audition. I wanted musical folks who loved hip hop but had never been able to bring that, to come in. So, every character description was a half a musical theatre reference and half a hip hop reference. I think George Washington was a Mufasa meets ...

Kail: John Legend.

Miranda: Oh, John legend. Yeah. And Angelica's character was Desiree Armfeldt, who's the smartest character in Little Light Music meets Nicki Minaj because she's just got the fastest raps in the show and the hardest raps in the show. And it was the intelligence. That's the secret about Angelica. She's smarter than Alexander, she's smarter than Jefferson, but because she is a woman in this time, she only gets to exercise it in a few ways. And so, that was the thinking behind each of the characters. I'm trying to think of some of the other ones. King George was like Rufus Wainwright meets King Herod from Jesus Christ Superstar. I can't remember, but the fun of it was this mashup of a musical theatre character and a hip hop artist. And in contradiction, figuring out what actors would do with that.

It's Mobb Deep, it's [Big] Pun, it's Biggie, it's very East Coast '90s. There's even a little sneaky Brand Nubian in there. It's just sort of—

Kail: Wait, and Hercules Mulligan was Busta Rhymes. So, when Busta Rhymes raps or Hercules Mulligan raps in the mixtape, it was beyond anything you could comprehend.

Renée Elise Goldsberry, Jasmine Cephas Jones and Leslie Odom, Jr.

On the "Dear White American Theater" open letter and the tough conversations around systemic racism within the musical theatre industry:

Odom, Jr.: There are two important talks that are happening. There's the talk that we're having with our white brothers and sisters, our white colleagues and peers, and then there's the talk that we're having amongst each other that sometimes we have never spoken about, about trauma. What everybody's asking themselves right now, what I think the most important questions are...white supremacy is upheld by systems. And so, it's like am I actively upholding the system? Do I have hiring power? Am I actively upholding the system, or am I being used to actively uphold this system?

And that's what that letter is about. It was crafted to this industry that we love so much, and we're saying to them, "Are you being used?" It's going to take work to dismantle this thing. I'll say this. Don't wait. If you love and care for Black people, don't wait for us to get murdered by the police to care about our Black lives. Don't wait for me to get murdered by the cops. Care about my Black life right now. That's what we talking about.

On the women rappers/singers they pulled inspiration from when preparing for their roles:

Goldsberry: I actually studied female rappers my whole life...It's one of those things you never know, when you're kind of feeding your soul with things, what you're preparing yourself for. We [Jasmine and I] almost had the opportunity to do a big tribute to Salt-N-Pepa. We were going to do "Shoop."

What we love... It also mirrors Hamilton. This is a show about a group of men fighting for something, and what our hip-hop queens represent is, in this seemingly very male world, the power of women. They're standing there saying, "I'm here, and I own this, too." They [Salt N Pepa, MC Lyte, etc] were my model way before anybody asked me to play Angelica Schuyler.

Jones: For me, I didn't rap that much at all in this, but what I loved about my number in "Say No to This," it was a huge ode to an R&B ballad. The fact that even Jill Scott sang "Say No to This" on the mixtape was like...I've seen Jill Scott like five times. You know what I mean? I love Jill Scott so much, so it's just full circle for me, even the fact that she was able to do that on the mixtape. And that's who also influenced me as an R&B singer.

On the significance of seeing Hamilton today as Black and brown people fighting for racial equality in America:

Jones: It's about inspiring, and it's about seeing diversity on stage. It's about going out, getting people to vote to make a change. If you can't feel like you can't do it yourself, then go out and reach out to your friends and come together. There are layers to this show. And as Leslie said, it's the beginning of a conversation. Have it open the conversation, and let's continue to talk about it.

Odom, Jr: The premiere on Disney Plus, we hope—in the same way that I felt before the show opened off-Broadway—was the beginning of a conversation. It's the beginning of critique. There can be an honest critique of the work. There's a lot of love and hard work that went into it, but it can be looked at with new eyes and picked apart if somebody wanted to. Again, I hope it's the beginning of a conversation. I leave it to other people to sell stuff, but I think that the show is about them, but it is also so clearly about us, and you feel that when you watch it. It's about Thomas Jefferson, but it's about Daveed. It's about Alexander Hamilton, but it's about Lin, and so that's worthy of your time.

Goldsberry: This is a show about this ragtag group of people that were the voices of a revolution, and they won. We won, we won, we won, we won, right? We are in a revolution right now, and we need to win it. The risk that these people took is an example and actually reflects the risks that people are taking right now. Not to mention, don't get it twisted. This is not a country that was made by others. This was a country that was made by our people, too. And seeing people that look like you play it is the first step in acknowledging that. I think that's really hugely important.

Don't write off your history because of the pictures that they put up and showed you to tell... It's the same thing like, how do you deal with your spirituality? Because of the picture somebody showed you of Jesus? No, you claim that. You claim that, and you should claim this country. You should claim that, too. We would hope that the work that's been done in the show breaks down some of those barriers and that people look with new eyes.

Daveed Diggs and Christopher Jackson

On how he wasn't initially sold on the idea of Hamilton:

Diggs: It was Tommy [Kali] who told me what Lin was cooking up, and I told him it was a terrible idea. I stand by that, by the way. (Smizes) It was a terrible idea...The second that he sent me the sort of demos, which are not great. They're nothing like what we have now, but it was so clear that it was going to be amazing. The fact that it is a terrible idea has nothing to do with it being a great show. And as soon as he sent me the music, I was like, "This is a great show and I really, really want to be a part of it." It's still a bad idea. If you pitched me that idea today, I would tell you it's a bad idea.

On how his love for hip-hop began in his entertainment career:

Jackson: I grew up in Southern Illinois, right? My family, we didn't have cable and we didn't have what would be known as urban radio. We didn't have Black radio back there. Any of my friends, anytime they would go visit family in Chicago or St. Louis, we would all rush over to their house with blank tapes so that they could then record the mix shows on a loop and bring back whatever we could get. I remember running through the house singing Run DMC and "Roxanne, Roxanne" just had my mind. I had no idea what this was, but I was like, "Ahhh." I used to get in trouble for rapping at the dinner table because back then, you didn't sing or do anything at the dinner table. But I'm 44 years old. Hip-hop has been a presence in my entire life. Just as pop music has and just as Michael Jackson and any country artist because I'm from the South. It's just the amalgamation of all of these different musical things, which is why Lin and I get down so well because he's constantly mining for that kind of stuff in his work. I found that I have a little reservoir that I always get to pull from when we do stuff together.

On how Hamilton should be interpreted in light of America's forefathers' monuments being torn down today:

Diggs: I think we have to accept the fact that there are sides of the people that we have considered heroes for a long time that don't deserve to have monuments about them, that those monuments don't serve us. I don't think that is a reason to not learn about them. I think it's actually an argument to learn about them in their totality and struggle with the idea of what is useful about the things that a dude like Thomas Jefferson came up with or penned what is instructive about them. And what about him do we disagree with? He was a human being. You know what I'm saying? I think the same argument is true of watching the show.

Jackson: Hamilton shouldn't be confused with hero-worship. It shouldn't be confused with the type of veneration that historically, we viewed a history through that lens and that's not what we're doing. I think that one of the many statements that are made happen to be about the fact that we're bringing these men and women down off of pedestals, we're looking at them in their most trifling states. The founding of this country was always aspirational and was always meant to not live up to it because the men that were actually in charge at that point were not capable of being their greatest selves in regard to the way that we view this now. But slaves back then, sure enough, didn't see any greatness in them.

Interview's music bed provided by Gus.

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