America’s Dilemma. The Racial Divide. The so-called Race Card. Does it still exist in Hollywood? Moreover, does a subtler form of institutionalized “benign segregation in music” still exist when it comes to the hiring of black composers for films with non-black themes and casts?
I don’t think anyone would argue that historically, black composers have not always been welcome through the front door or onto the conductor’s podium of Hollywood’s scoring stages. Thankfully, that era has changed – but what hasn’t is the lack of equal opportunity for composers of color to score anything other than films requiring blues, jazz, R&B, Hip-Hop, or music generally associated with traditional or contemporary African-American sounds and voices. The typical classical score or non-urban film music has been, and remains by de facto — off-limits.
Unfortunately, it took a category 5 hurricane in the cradle of New Orleans jazz, Delta Blues, and Dixieland to once again reveal the overarching racial disparity that continues to exist in America. Granted there have been many improvements, but to the majority of African-Americans, the only “improvement” within these past 40 years, has been in the political and socially insidious concealment of that disparity. Then there are some who would say that far too many of Hollywood’s “liberals” or “progressives of conscience”, have had an: “if-we-hear-no-evil-see-no-evil-speak-no-evil-then–no-evil-must-exist” spell cast over them with regards to race, equal opportunity and real diversity in the workplace.
This is the context of the following article regarding the dearth of black composers scoring music for all white or non-urban pictures in Hollywood or for network television, which has been carefully researched and even more thoughtfully written. – SB III
* * * * * * * * * * *
“The racial divide in America today is exacerbated by…widespread societal denial about the realities of racism…”
Race Relations and Changing Ethnic Demographics in the United States of America²
“…diversity is not yet reflected among Hollywood composers….”
The Hollywood Reporter, January 2005
“…(I hope an article such as this) will bring to light some issues most white people in the business don’t really think about….”
Stephen James Taylor, composer, The Wedding, Carmen: A Hip Hopera, The Natalie Cole Story
“The only thing that really qualifies me to do urban television shows is the fact that I grew up on the south side of Chicago….” Kurt Farquhar, composer, Moesha, Girlfriends, King of Queens
“….for some reason black composers don’t seem to be given (m)any of those opportunities…” Todd Cochran, composer, Woman Thou Art Loosed
“….I have noticed that black composers have been typecast. This makes no sense to me …”
Geoff Levin, composer, Oscar nominated for The Janitor; Bloody Streetz, Sabrina
* * * * * * * * * * *
“Ebony and Ivory live together in perfect harmony; Side by side on my piano keyboard; Oh Lord, why don’t we?”
A good question as posed in the song “Ebony and Ivory” by Stevie Wonder and Sir Paul McCartney. For those of you who don’t remember, the 1983 hit song compared people of all races, metaphorically, to the keys (“living in perfect harmony”) of a piano.
Shortly after that song came out, the highly visible and successful African-American composer and arranger, Johnny Pate (Superfly, Shaft In Africa, Brother On the Run, Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde) and I were playing tennis when I asked him for his thoughts about me transitioning into composing and scoring for films, using my own success as a record producer, songwriter and arranger (I had just had a #1 record with Michael Jackson in the UK) as a jumping off point. As an arranger for Curtis Mayfield, it’s what Johnny had done. He thought for a second and said he thought that I was certainly qualified to compose for film (I was also studying film scoring with Earle Hagen at the time), but not to expect Hollywood to welcome me with open arms like the popular song “Ebony and Ivory.”
I chuckled at his sense of humor and wry observation as he went on to say that the song was a nice idea but wondered, “Did I notice that the black keys are at the ‘back’ of the keyboard…?” To put his thought into context, he was basically saying I shouldn’t expect to ever be asked to score anything but “blaxploitation” or “black/urban” films because there was a form of “benign segregation in music” being practiced in the industry when it came to black composers. That observation was made back in the late 70’s.
Fast forward to today. Except for A-list composers, a majority of composers I’ve talked to, black or white, feel as though they are at the bottom of the overall Hollywood film financial food and “respect-of-the-craft” chain, and the overwhelming majority of working black composers feel they are below that.
Why? Because, the thinking goes, “They (white studio/network executives, directors and producers) don’t think we (black composers) can compose anything without flatted 5th’s and 9th’s.” Simply put, nothing that requires traditional “European”, neo-classical or 20th Century modern scoring. Only scores that require a jazz, R&B and/or blues oriented vernacular.
Even today’s A-list of “go to” black composers express concern that not only do they not get the major big budget studio pictures to score, but they aren’t even asked to be involved in meetings or are even considered.
In other words, though many white composers are considered, called, involved in meetings, given assignments and do the dramatic scoring for urban pictures (even those helmed by black directors and producers), few – if any – black composers have ever “crossed over” to score all white cast films or films with studio so-called “universal” African-American stars with mainstream (non-urban) themes. Think of any recent film starring Jamie Foxx, Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Morgan Freeman, Sam Jackson, Wesley Snipes, Eddie Murphy or any other A-list black actor in a “non-black” film. Who are the A-list African American composers being called, considered or contracted for any of these films? None. Zero. Nada. Bupkis. Uh-uh.
As a journalist, my year long research on this subject seems to indicate that this is an open secret within the apparently closed society of Hollywood film and television composers. Which of course begs the question as to why? And oh, by the way, the same could be said for women as well as other minority composers. But the focus here is on black composers because like it or not, it is the most in your face of the Hollywood hiring inequities.
In the January 2005 Film & Music edition of “The Hollywood Reporter” (THR), an article titled “Evening The Score” by Chuck Crisafuli reported at length about the problem.
Crisafuli writes, “Perhaps it is no surprise that the film industry might harbor social inequalities as seen in the world at large, but it is striking that the creators of music for film and television remain predominately white and male….it’s clear to (Hollywood) insiders that …diversity is not yet reflected among Hollywood composers.” In other, more direct words, the segregation of film scores and composers by race appears to be just as it was 30 to 50 years ago.
The article goes on to say that: “Great composers might also be women or of Latino, Asian or other ethnic backgrounds, but the black/white disparity is especially notable because it exists amid an increase in film and TV programming targeted at black audiences….”
In the same THR article, film composer Todd Cochran, (Woman Thou Art Loosed; Keep the Faith, Baby) whose classical credentials include the Trinity College of Music (London, England), said that he found it “amazing…two people can go through the same training – the same schools – and reach the same level of ability, and as soon as they step out of the schools, (and come to Hollywood) one is a black composer, and the other is just a composer.”
TV composer and urban sit-com maven Kurt Farquhar (Moesha, Girlfriends, King of Queens), echoed a similar thought in the same article: “The only thing that really qualifies me to do urban television shows is the fact that I grew up on the south side of Chicago.” He goes on to say, “I wrote my first symphony when I was 12 and trained all over the world with orchestras….”
Many African-American composers concur with that assessment because the majority of those in the Hollywood hierarchy of decision makers erroneously assume that only white composers have the education or “necessities” to do dramatic underscoring for either white or black pictures; while black composers or others of color, lack the education and “necessities.” I use the word “necessities” because it was the word used in 1987 by Dodger General Manager Al Campanis (i.e. “…perhaps blacks lack the necessities….”), answering a Nightline reporter’s question as to why there weren’t more African-American managers in the big leagues or black quarterbacks in the NFL. What subsequently cost Campanis his job was not WHAT he said (because it was generally believed among white football fans and the white power structure of professional sports, in fact, to be true), but THAT he said it publicly and on a nationally televised program! A recent controversy over the Air Force Academy’s longtime football coach Fisher DeBerry’s reference to race as the primary reason for success among running backs, seems to indicate and underscore the reality that that type of narrow, sports bar stereotyping still persists in American society today. But it’s usually talked about behind closed doors and not just in sports.
On the subject of stereotypes, composer Cochran, (who was recently commissioned to compose for Steinway Piano’s 150th Anniversary Gala and who also wrote an extended concert piece for 3 pianos), has also composed for and performed with, jazz greats such as Grover Washington Jr., Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Clarke and Stewart Copeland. Hubert Laws candidly notes: “Unfortunately the need for African American film composers to deconstruct the existing stereotypes of musical aesthetic limitations persists.”
“A garden of rich creativity cannot exist unnoticed and untapped forever, while the musical language and passion that fuses new ideas into existence becomes that much more mature and exciting.”
Composer Terence Blanchard, who is Spike Lee’s first call composer, addresses the same issue with his own experiences in the aforementioned THR article: “I’ve gotten to the point where my name is on the short list for the big films, but I’m not hired – I get mentioned, but I don’t get the job. I guess that’s some kind of step forward, but it doesn’t always feel so great.”
Blanchard goes on to say, “(Based on) the movies that get offered to me, I’m clearly still thought of as a “black composer.” I’m always pushing to do different kinds of films because I don’t think the music I can come up with is just for telling African-American stories – that feels a little old at this point.” And though Blanchard believes that overt racism in film music is rare, he thinks a subtler form of discrimination does take place through genre bias.
Genre bias may be one factor, but there are those who will argue that genre doesn’t seem to matter to the studio or network exec’s choices in hiring white composers to score urban (black) films or television programs. Which is why I said, that door only swings in one direction.
Consider this. If a studio/network executive makes a conscious decision to hire an Usher, Beyonce or Jay-Z to provide the hip-hop or R & B songs for a film, is it a quantum leap to come to the conclusion that the same executive must make a conscious decision not to hire an African-American composer like a Terence Blanchard, Todd Cochran, Herbie Hancock, Patrice Rushen or a Marcus Miller to do the underscore as well?
In an article on “Integrating Hollywood” in People magazine, Quincy Jones said that he “would be lying if I said there was no racism in Hollywood.” Anecdotally he pointed out that it was years (when he first started) before he realized that “schwartzer” (as in “here comes the schwartzer…”), didn’t mean composer. (For my gentle Gentile friends, schwartzer is the Yiddish word for black, sometimes used propitiously and sometimes used as a pejorative.)
Though the People magazine article wasn’t specific about the inroads or lack of inroads made by African-American composers, Q’s observations certainly included the obvious lack of opportunities being afforded black composers back in the day when he got started, but it would also seem to apply to present day as well.
Then there is the major studio argument frequently heard that rather than lacking the educational “necessities,” what black composers lack are the (major studio) “credits.” But that notion flies in the face of the fact that first time white composers as well as first time producers, writers and directors are hired all the time.
I recently read that a first time director was hired to helm a $100 million dollar picture and claimed that his last name (which happened to be Eisner) had nothing to do with it. Now I haven’t seen the movie (Sahara) but I’m told he did a satisfactory job for his first time out. So, that begs the question, would he have been given the same opportunity and that size of budget if his last name was, say…Parsons (as in Richard Parsons, the African-American Chairman and CEO of Time-Warner)?
When I posed this question to a major studio executive over lunch (who asked to remain anonymous for this article), he responded with these thoughts: “Nepotism is the oldest form of job placement in Hollywood,” but to his knowledge he’s never known it to “extend that high up for blacks.” He went on to say, “Racism is a word most of us (whites) don’t want to hear or to deal with so we tend to go into denial when it comes up. When a first time producer or director is hired, whether black or white, we (the studios) always make sure there are plenty of people around them who are experienced, (laughs) just in case. And we make sure there is redundant oversight. I don’t know why that isn’t being done with black composers on non-urban pictures. Frankly, it just never occurred to me and I’m sure it’s not occurred to others; it’s never come up. I don’t know if that’s racism, bias, fear or what. Now that you mention it, I do feel a little guilty about it because it’s obvious to me and it’s something that should be addressed, and in our future meetings, will be addressed.” One might call it a venial, but not a mortal sin.
Even some black producers and directors I’ve talked to have said to me – off the record — that they didn’t hire a black composer for their film because in the words of one, “that’s not a battle I’m willing to fight with the studio hierarchy. I’ve got to fight so many other battles just to get my movie made.” Said another, “Color me guilty for not considering black composers, but by the time I’m into post, I don’t have the time or energy to listen to a whole boat load of CD’s, so I go with someone who wrote the music for film “XYZ” that happens to be (dramatically) similar to mine, and that usually turns out to be a white composer.”
Among other A-list black composers, 4 time Grammy Award nominated and classically trained (Stanford University) composer Stephen James Taylor, (Teachers Pet, The Wedding, Nightjohn, Carmen: A Hip Hopera, The Natalie Cole Story), agrees there is a problem and says he hopes an article such as this will “bring to light some issues most white people in the business don’t really think about.” And he adds, “(having) made my living exclusively for the last 25 years as a film composer….I would say that in my case, the racial factor has cut both ways.”
“There have been numerous occasions,” continues Taylor, “where I’ve been hired because I’m black. Of course, in virtually all these cases this has been because the film or TV show dealt with African-American issues…that’s the good side, (but)….There are a number of those same white producers for whom I really hit it “out of the park” on their “black” projects who have never even considered me for any of their “non-black” films or shows. (Now) this could be seen as a mere extension of the normal typecasting that goes on in all ends of the business….but here’s my take on it.”
“White Hollywood is quite comfortable with black people acting in a stereotypical fashion, be it (as) comedians in a WB sitcom or a gospel choir in Sister Act. That is something they feel they “know.” It exists at a safe distance, as a resource they can tap into in small quantities as needed, and then shut the door when done. But when you start mixing things up, not fitting into the “role,” white Hollywood kinda doesn’t know what to do with you.”
Echoing what composers Cochran and Farquhar touched on earlier, Taylor adds, “Case in point, the classically trained black composer…needs to have the ability to create custom blends of diverse musical styles if the picture demands it. It’s part of the necessary skill set. White composers do it all the time…listen to any score by Danny Elfman, John Powell or James Newton Howard and you hear everything from hip hop loops to elaborate 19th century orchestral gestures. (But) for some reason black composers don’t seem to be given (m)any of those opportunities.”
“My good friend, the (black) director Robert Townsend, has observed a similar situation regarding black directors and how they are generally asked to make the same kinds of black films over and over.”
“That being said,” Taylor concludes, “I do want to say something positive, as I have had at least some first hand experience with the way things SHOULD work. What comes to mind immediately is my experience at Disney Animation of the last 15 years or so. I’ve done 6 animated series over there……and can say with confidence that I was hired for each of them because the people there (Chris Montan, Bambi Moe, Matt Walker amongst others) liked my work…period. The subjects of these projects had nothing to do with ethnicity and race never entered it. I have worked with a couple of cool indie film directors as well who also have hired me strictly for musical reasons unrelated to race. So it can and does happen, but not often enough on the mainstream projects. Hence the studios’ old catch 22 of ‘we can’t hire you to do this big budget action feature, even though the director has requested you, because we need to get someone who’s already scored 20 of these’…”
Flipping the script Geoff Levin, a successful white composer (Oscar nominated for The Janitor; Bloody Streetz, Dark Wolf, Sabrina), who has scored urban as well as non-urban films said, “Music (the notes) has no color or nationality when it comes to film scoring. I am currently scoring an urban comedy; this is the third black film for me, my first had Snoop Dog, Master P and a list of other rappers. I had to mix drama with urban beats, but it took cinematic sensibilities and versatility. No one ever told me, “You can’t score it because you are white.” But I have noticed that black composers have been typecast. This makes no sense to me as they are every bit as creative in all genres as anyone else.”
That’s another Hollywood ugly word. Typecasting — a nice, or PC word for stereotyping. It comes up as often in conversations among composers, as it does with actors, casting directors and studio executives.
The ability for one to be seen outside of a perceived box requires foresight as well as a conscious willingness on the part of networks and studio execs, and courage on the part of the creative decision makers (beginning with producers, directors and writers), not to fall into the usual myopic “cookie cutter” trap. It also requires having more than just a parochial knowledge about the craft of the people being hired, especially when it comes to scoring for film.
I remember hearing an interview with the late Elmer Bernstein who said that after he scored the Magnificent Seven, he scored some 20 westerns before directors and studio execs realized that he could also do other genres. (On a personal note, Bernstein was the guy who first made a musically awestruck junior high school student decide that film composing was for him.)
Elmer got me because of his varied brilliant scores, from the jazz influenced Man With the Golden Arm to the Wagnerian-Miklos Rosa The 10 Commandments, and The Magnificent 7 was the coup de maitre! His compositional and orchestral range made me think, “Gee, I want to do that.” (At that time, the issue of not seeing black composers doing the same thing hadn’t yet occurred to me.) Thus, I began studying classical composition, orchestrating arranging and conducting with an eye to one day “do what Elmer does.” Today, urban youth have to see it, to believe it, to want to be it.
It was years later that I realized that the only time I heard or saw black composers scoring for film or television was when the film called for a blues, R&B or jazz score. Then when Shaft came along, I saw someone black, other than Quincy Jones, win an Academy Award (Isaac Hayes), for best song. But I later found out that the actual dramatic scoring of Shaft was done by two other African-American composer/arrangers: J.J. Johnson and Johnny Allen. Both Johnson and Allen were brilliant musicians and were peers of Johnny Pate and Quincy Jones. By the way, Johnny also did the actual dramatic scoring of Superfly – not Curtis Mayfield, who only wrote the songs.
It’s been 35 years since the hey days of the so-called “blaxploitation” films of the ‘70’s and it appears that not much, if anything, has changed. In fact there are those who note that opportunities are fewer for black composers to score films in 2005.
This apparent type of institutionalized, “benign segregation in music” was similarly juxtaposed in remarks by Harvard Professor of African American Studies Department Chairman, Henry Louis Gates, when he said, “(because of white racism), when I walk into a room, white people still see my blackness, more than my Gates-ness, or my literary-ness.”
That thought was echoed by composer Marcus Miller, who said in THR, “It would be a big step forward to be thought of as a composer, rather, than as a black composer…..but it’s something we’ve been dealing with so long in all areas of life, that’s just part of the black experience. That’s life in America and life in Hollywood too.”
So what to do? Or perhaps more succinctly, what can be done to ensure that the door starts swinging both ways for Ebony and Ivory?
I often hear that it’s really about relationships with directors, producers and agents. But if you’re not part of, or invited to participate in “after hours” activities, it’s pretty much impossible to form those kind of relationships.
To paraphrase Ira Glasser, former Executive Director of the ACLU, if you are not invited to the parties, the dinners (at the homes of the movers, shakers and decision makers), or you’re not related to any of them; or if your kids don’t go to the same schools (because you don’t live in “their” neighborhood), or you’re just not part of the “good ole boys” Hollywood social fabric, you’re not likely to make those crucial connections. That, as Marcus Miller puts it is, “Life in America and life in Hollywood too.”
Forty years ago Martin Luther King noted that Sunday was, “the most segregated day of the week in America.” It still is in 2005.
Today, if the majority of social interactions between whites and blacks in Hollywood occurs only in work related places and given that outside of these work places “Hollywood” is a very rigidly structured system socially, then we’re dealing with a circular argument that presumes — ipso facto — nothing can or ever will (should?) change. As one white film producer/director I spoke to candidly told me, “people tend to want to work with people they know and who are their friends. I don’t have a clue as to how to get more black composers into my inner circle. I just don’t meet any in the places where I hang out.”
What to do, what to do?
Present day solutions will never be found if whites don’t see or acknowledge that past stereotypes, notions and behavior like a stuck or out of tune piano key, really do continue to exist.
The Hollywood Reporter article did take note that organizations like ASCAP, BMI and the SCL (Society of Composers and Lyricists) do have development programs to bring more minorities (including women) into the mainstream of film scoring. But the results are “yet to be substantially visible on the scoring stages around town.”
So it would seem that a good place to start might very well be on the scoring stages of Hollywood and New York. It is both shocking and it breaks my heart to walk onto a scoring stage in this day and age and not to see African-Americans anywhere, either in the large orchestra or in the booth. Moreover the many who seem to “not notice,” or seem to be concerned about it. When a large studio orchestra is hired and no one “notices” that out of some 80 plus musicians
— not one is African-American, (even though the Los Angeles Philharmonic contains blacks in practically every section), someone ought to be saying something in a sffz voice, like maybe why!! (I would be equally saddened and heartbroken if, for instance, I saw no Jews or women in similar positions.)
Composers of color cannot be the only ones who regularly “notice” these types of racial disparities, which prompted The Hollywood Reporter to write, “…diversity is not yet reflected among Hollywood composers.”
Concerted, conscious decisions and effort must begin being made in the corporate corridors of power by the men and women of good conscience who can and do make new and challenging decisions all the time (that’s why they get paid the big bucks). But throwing the problem at a corporate “diversity department,” which looks good, but has no real power to cast, hire, green-light or actually do anything beyond the occasional “recommend,” will only continue to yield the same type of negligible results as they have in the past.
Robert Kennedy was precisely on point back in 1965 when he said, “The future does not belong to those who are content with today, apathetic toward common problems and their fellow man alike, timid and fearful in the face of bold projects and new ideas. Rather, it will belong to those who can blend passion, reason and courage in a personal commitment to the great enterprises and ideals of American society. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time someone stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice when it is seen, they send forth a ripple of hope.”
In the world of film/TV decision making, though the door still doesn’t swing both ways for African-American composers, perhaps with, as RFK observed, a lot more “passion, reason and courage in a personal commitment to the great enterprises and ideals of American society,” while standing up “for an ideal (with) acts to improve the lot of others,” and a little less complacency to all of the “isms” (racism, ageism, sexism, etc.), all of us in the aggregate entertainment and specifically composing community might actually pick up our horns (yes, even the sampled ones) and like Joshua, do something to knock down a wall that never should have been erected in the first place. That indeed would be the beginning of a new great tintinnabulating “ripple of hope.”
And here is the best part: without a wall there would be no need for a door. And without a door, all of us composers would have an equal opportunity to just get on with the business of writing great music that swings — be it a jazz, electronic, R&B, Hip-Hop, rock, country or a classical score. “Oh Lord, why don’t we?”