During the first season of Dollface, Kat Dennings’ character visits a car dealership that sells, instead of cars, options for a significant other. She walks through the first showroom and what’s described as “groovy lounge music” plays while she browses through the bachelors whose qualifications are described as “boyfriend material.” When she walks to the back lot, where the less desirable, “just one-night” men are, a very trap-sounding beat plays laced with high hats and bass.
I sarcastically thought “of course the men with ‘something wrong with them’ would be accompanied by a trap beat.” But I wanted dig deeper: how many times have I seen hip-hop music being used in film or television as a way to emphasize that a scene or character deviates from the norm, or is considered rebellious or “cool?”
I started watching everything on high alert, noting when hip-hop or rap music was used and what the scene was attempting to convey. I don’t think I have ever paid that much attention to music when watching a show or a movie, but now that I have I truly see why soundtracks are extremely important to the overall viewing experience.
Seasoned film and television composer George Shaw spoke about how vital music is to the projects we watch on screen. “If you just mute the volume on your tv while you’re watching something, it doesn’t have that same immersive and impactful experience that you do with music,” Shaw says. “It does everything from putting you in the mood and bringing you into the scene, into the world of the characters and just helping the drama unfold.”
Shaw, who is currently working on a DreamWorks animated series, knows first-hand the difference music can make, sharing with me how one of the more treacherous parts of his job is watching projects before adding his compositions. I mentioned to him the scene in Dollface that got me thinking and he said that the change in music did exactly what it was meant to: assist in taking the plot from point A to point B in the most meaningful way possible.
For example, one of the early scenes of Don’t Look Up features Jennifer Lawrence’s character listening to ’90s rap over her headphones. A simple scene, but the music choice establishes a characterization of the rebel scientist’s personality. Playing ’50s swing music or bluegrass would set a different tone.
There’s no coincidence that rap music, a genre created by Black people out of protest, perfectly embodies the energy of a rebel.
In Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, the author explores the underlying Black presence in classic American literature, a framework that I began using when consuming television and film. She wrote: that while “explicit or implicit, the Africanist presence informs in compelling and inescapable ways the texture of American literature.”
In other words, due to the racial conditioning of our society, most forms of American media have a Black presence whether intentionally or not, it just takes a seasoned eye to uncover it.
That’s the interesting part about race in America; on the surface it appears (pardon my pun) very black and white, defined by binaries. But when you look closer, it’s clear that it’s impossible for whiteness to exist without the concept of Blackness. If white represents the standard that we all should strive towards, Black represents everything we shouldn’t want to be. And one thing we know about radicals and rebels — they are attracted to what contradicts the status quo.
I don’t believe that composers deliberately choose Black music to signify any racist thoughts or ideologies. What I do believe is that subconsciously, we’ve been conditioned to associate Black music with rebellion and deviation from the dominant culture, something that dates back to the jazz era (and maybe even before that).
Black American music was birthed out of resistance. Not only does Black music serve as an extension of our African roots, but it’s also a testament to the artistry of Black people, as we were often denied participation in the more “classic” forms of American music.
As Wesley Morris wrote for The 1619 Project, “for centuries, Black music, forged in bondage, has been the sound of complete artistic freedom. No wonder everybody is always stealing it.” From slave songs to jazz to Black gospel and, eventually, to hip-hop, Black music has consistently been a creative vessel that rises above our enslavement.
For these reasons, there’s a very specific kind of magic in Black music, a magic that cannot be duplicated, only imitated. It’s obvious why musicians like Elvis and The Beatles or Teena Marie and Amy Winehouse were drawn to mimicking the sound that was dripping in emotion.
Beyond that, Black music has always been associated with “coolness.” While I’m still exploring why Black people are simultaneously the curators of cool and the least respected members of society, an interview with bell hooks articulated what I’ve been noticing.
Hooks said: “There’s a way in which white culture is perceived as too Wonder Bread right now, not edgy enough, not dangerous enough…When Blackness is the sign of transgression that is most desired it allows whiteness to remain static, to remain conservative, and its conservative thrust to go unnoticed.”
“Blackness as a sign of transgression” is the perfect way to explain the specific type of social conditioning that lays dormant under the surface of our culture. This social conditioning is often exposed through the tropes we see on screen. Tropes like the “sissy villain,” where nefarious characters are assigned effeminate traits, or “the woman needs a man for happiness,” show the way that outdated and stereotypical narratives are attached to how we view the world.
Blackness as a sign of transgression, edginess, rebellion, or coolness has become a trope in media that is undeniable because it reflects how we’ve been taught to view Blackness in real life. When jazz first rose to prominence, it was widely known to white audiences as “the devil’s music.” R&B in the 50s and 60s was heavily associated with hyper-sexuality (so much so that many parents tried to outright ban it). When rap music started to develop within Black communities, there was an immediate outcry from white communities that the genre was a manifestation of gang violence and anarchy.
These associations that we have with Black music make it an extremely effective storytelling device. Using rap music as part of a visual narrative immediately evokes specific connotations within the viewer. Want to set an “urban” tone or convey the opposite of suburban life? Play hip-hop. Want to give a white character “street cred” or add to their overall “coolness?” Play rap.
On the flip side, Black music holds a power that is able to emphasize emotions and strength that are hard to put in words. Think of the frequent use of Black gospel choirs and the imagery that comes to mind, or the soulful ballads that pull at our heartstrings.
Even if a project isn’t specifically related to race, the use of Black music shows how much of our culture is both intentionally and unintentionally racialized.
When I brought up the scene in Dollface to Shaw, in no way did his reaction indicate that he felt that race played a role in deciding to use hip-hop music. And, for the record, I don’t consider it objectively racist either. What I’m most interested in, however, is uncovering the ways that Blackness permeates American culture at all levels. The music in particular feels especially magical to me. An art form that blossomed from my ancestors’ will to survive carries a spirit in it that no other genre can recreate.
Black music is love, joy, strength, forgiveness, salvation, resistance, hope, and protection. It contains all human emotions. It is a testament to the creativity and voice of my people, who have been treated as inhumanly as possible for the majority of history, that our music embodies the human experience in a way no other music does.