Dear White People delivers smart, relevant, and wickedly funny entertainment, complete with a killer soundtrack.
Music Supervisor and DJ Morgan Rhodes got the fun task of curating the dynamic soundtrack to Justin Simien’s critically acclaimed Netflix series, based on his earlier film of the same name. Set at a predominantly white Ivy League university bubbling with racial tension, Dear White People employs smart satire to examine “post-racial” America through the lenses of its’ cleverly complex characters.
Music is a key voice and rich resource to help craft those characters and express the more serious themes under the humor. Rhodes underpins storylines about social activism and awareness with relevant songs across a wide variety of genres, weaving together soul, indie, electronic and even a bit of country throughout the show.
Perhaps best known for her work as Ava DuVernay’s go-to music supervisor, Rhodes has lent her expertise to create the sounds of Oscar-winning civil rights film Selma and the TV series Queen Sugar on OWN, which chronicles the lives of a modern family in the Deep South, among other projects.
We talk with Rhodes about her work on Dear White People, her insatiable appetite for new music, and the important role of post-its in her process.
How did you get into Music Supervision?
I got into music supervision through radio, actually. I’d been a DJ on public radio in LA for 5 years when circumstances found me in the right place at the right time and led to my first project, Ava Duvernay’s indie film Middle of Nowhere.
What’s your fave part of the gig? Most challenging?
Hands down the search for music is the absolute best part of the gig. Theeeee absolute best! Most challenging is pulling myself away from the search.
Where do you find new music?
EVERYWHERE. Every. Single. Possible. Place: Record stores, my own crates, shows, festivals, blogs, documentaries. Between projects my process involves studying music a lot – across genres, generations and movements.
What album do you have on repeat right now?
Elvin Jones “The Main Force.” I just saw Chasing Trane – The John Coltrane Documentary and have been obsessed with Elvin Jones ever since.
What were some of the themes or ideas you and creator Justin Simien decided to explore in Dear White People?
Justin has great taste in music and had a direction in mind for each character that I worked to build upon. It was so cool having a chance to develop a sonic personality for each character. Sam, our lead character is a radio DJ and the voice of the resistance whose radio show is a platform for her activism. I wanted songs with lyrics that reflected an awareness of social and racial issues. To that end, we included Rapsody’s “Drama,” OD Hunte’s “I Can’t Breathe,” Joi’s “Freedom,” Run The Jewels “Legend Has It.”
The series is based on the movie by the same name. How much inspiration did you take from the original film?
What was amazing about the film is the very nuanced way it brought humor, pop culture fluency and political awareness to the screen and I was really inspired by that. Having a central character in the film who is also a radio DJ was a dream – I loved having the opportunity to music program her show in the series.
Can you describe your process for finding and selecting the music?
The process always starts with my list. Over the years I’ve compiled quite a large wish list of songs I’d love to place – those songs are written on hundreds of post-it notes in my office. As I’m reading the script, I make notes and then pull songs from my post-it archives, lol. While I’m waiting on a cut, I look for more music to supplement what I have. Finally, once I’ve narrowed down my choices for cues, I audition those against picture over and over until I feel like I have songs that work.
What were your favorite music moments from the season?
So hard to choose favorites – I loved all of the moments, but what comes to mind is Sam walking across campus and then switching songs from an indie pop vocal to Innanet James “Black” in Episode 1, the bar scene in Episode 8 – all the varieties of genres from country (Yola Carter “ What You Do”), electronica (Jean Deaux “Father Time”), soul (Gabriel Garzon Montano “Crawl”), and Justin’s brilliant choice of soul/disco (Thelma Houston “Saturday Night/Sunday Morning”), James Tillman’s beautiful “Casual Encounters” ending episode 8 and the moment I heard our composer Kris Bowers’ “It Was Me.”
Can you share more about the use of Digital Kids in episode 6? That was a big fan favorite on Tunefind.
Yes! This moment in episode 6 was precious to me because of the tenderness of the scene and the vulnerability of our two central characters in that moment. As the relationship between them is integral to a broader narrative in the show, it was important to me to make sure that my interpretation of the scene was aligned with the emotionality of the scene. There is such a sense of longing in the moment, and I just thought Victor’s vocals and gorgeous lyrics captured that. My hope was that the song would help to underscore the moment and not overwhelm it. I think the minimalist texture of the arrangement as well as the slow tempo helped to build the necessary tension.
Band/artist you’re most excited to feature?
Being able to feature The Softones was such a joy for me. The Softones are an incredible 70’s soul band from Baltimore whose music I was came to know a year before I started working on Dear White People, through a compilation album. The song, “My Dream” is the first song track on that compilation and it was love at first listen. It’s sweet and romantic and I live for a soft falsetto, so it felt right for the end credit song in episode 2.
I’d have to say also it was awesome to be able to feature the late great J. Dilla and also Rapsody who’s an incredibly talented MC.
Tunefind Fan Favorites from Dear White People
Want more of Morgan’s favorite songs in your life?
〉The Dear White People soundtrack on Tunefind
〉The Queen Sugar soundtrack on Tunefind
〉The Selma soundtrack on Tunefind