Bobby Sessions & Arlissa Discuss How Personal Experiences Inspired 'The Hate U Give' Soundtrack

Twentieth Century Fox/Photofest
Amandla Stenberg and Algee Smith in The Hate U Give.

The most evocative films draw their power not only from strong visual statements, but also from having exceptional scores. Whether it’s a downtempo dirge that awakens a swell of repressed sadness, or a more sultry rhythm hinting at potential romance, we inevitably attach deeper meaning to visual cues that are underpinned by music that triggers emotion.

Striking that subtle balance between what we see and what we hear is a special necessity in films that intend to communicate complex messages in a way that makes us question our world view. The Hate U Give, the newly-released film based on Angie Thomas’ best-selling novel of the same name presented Def Jam Records with a unique opportunity to do just that -- curate a score that taps into the film’s timely themes of injustice, activism, self-discovery and community.

The film tells the story of Starr (played by Amandla Stenberg), a young black girl from an economically disadvantaged, predominantly black neighborhood who attends an affluent, mostly white prep school. In the midst of coping with the realities of existing between two drastically different environments, Starr’s life is irrevocably altered when she witnesses the murder of her childhood friend at the hands of a white police officer.

In our current cultural climate, it’s a story that is unfortunately quite far from fictitious, a fact that Def Jam --  which was tapped to issue the soundtrack earlier this year -- no doubt was hyper aware of. That might explain why the label opted to look within its own ranks, calling on two artists with personal histories that parallel the film to compose two of its most prominent offerings.

Dallas native Bobby Sessions’ contributed the flagship single, “The Hate U Give” while UK-based crooner Arlissa’s “We Won’t Move” is a powerful testament to the effectiveness of holding a united front in the face of adversity. And, as Billboard learned from the artists themselves, each felt a deep personal connection to the film. Sessions, who lost a family member to police violence, felt immediately drawn to the film’s narrative. “I was moved to tears when I saw a screening a few months ago in New York. I knew there was something of value I could contribute. I want my song to motivate listeners to make the world a better place,” he tells Billboard.

“When I watched The Hate U Give and read the book I found a lot of comparisons between Starr and myself,” explains Arlissa, who, like Starr attended a predominately white school, and as a result often found herself having to code switch between environments. “I would question if my truest self would be accepted. I would question what even was my truest self. I felt very confused,” the singer admits.

“When I was making “We Won’t Move” I really felt her [Starr’s] vulnerability but then she really does come into her own. The really brilliant thing about this film is that yes, it connects you deeply to the characters and their emotional turmoil, but it also shows that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Through adversity we can come together and be strong and resilient.”

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