Before Michael Abels was tapped to score the 2017 film Get Out, he was a music teacher who wrote concert music, much of which was uploaded to YouTube. It only had “dozens” of views, he says, “but among those several dozen was [director] Jordan Peele.”
“He was looking for someone who could write for orchestra, but also has some familiarity with the Black experience,” says Abels. “When we had our first meeting he said, ‘I want this score to have the African American voice, both metaphorically and literally.'”
Abels’ discovery story came from a stroke of luck, but also spotlighted a struggle musicians and composers face all too often: access. It’s why, a year after scoring Peele’s hit horror film, Abels co-founded the Composers Diversity Collective, a networking space especially for composers of color. “What’s needed is for established composers to provide not just mentorship, but on-the-job training to young musicians who are not from the composers’ background,” he says.
Also in 2018, NBCUniversal launched its Universal Composers Initiative (with Abels as an adviser), offering professional mentorship for emerging composers from diverse backgrounds. The program, which facilitates direct connections between composers and studio executives, is in its early stages. Still, Universal president of global film music and publishing Mike Knobloch says all eight composers in its first class have earned scoring jobs since then, while the second batch included Bridgerton composer Kris Bowers’ assistant Pierre Charles.
Bowers — a possible contender for best original score at the 94th annual Academy Awards with King Richard — adds that investment in music education classes can also level out the disparity between composers of color and white ones. “My parents had to drive all over the city for me to be a part of the best music education institution because it wasn’t near where we lived,” he says. “They had to work hard to find that information, and I was always one of the only Black kids in the space.” Beyond that, a lack of existing representation can be a deterrent for “musically gifted Black and brown kids who think of being a rapper, singer or producer in musical genres they already see themselves in,” continues Bowers.
“I remember feeling a bit frustrated by certain projects that would reach out to me just because I was a Black composer, and not because of anything that has to do with my music,” he adds. “It could be a hip-hop score and … that’s not necessarily the thing that comes most natural to my composition approach.”
Both Bowers and Jeymes Samuel (The Harder They Fall) believe that diversifying Hollywood’s ranks of composers will not only demonstrate the strength of artists of color but also bring film scores into the future. Bowers cites how Jon Batiste’s jazz-inspired work on Soul made him “happy to hear how authentic and rooted in New York the sound was.” Sharing the award with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Batiste became the third Black composer to win an Oscar in the scoring category after Prince and Herbie Hancock in the 1980s.
While scoring Get Out, which features African voices speaking in Swahili juxtaposed against the chilling rhythm of the main title, Abels and Peele coined the term “gospel horror.” And in the contemporary Western The Harder They Fall, director-composer-producer Samuel used African and Caribbean sounds, blending orchestral sounds with strong sub-basslines and dub echo guitar. The score is “modernized in a huge way because of the places I go culturally to bring everything into one sonic landscape,” he says.
Samuel hopes his work will compel more composers of color to be inspired by their cultural backgrounds when breaking into the industry. “When asking ourselves how to get into positions of power, we answer with: ‘We are the positions of power,’ ” he says. “Let’s use it.”