Meet Morgan Rhodes, the Woman Behind The Spectacular Sounds Of 'Selma'

Photo by Alyx Schwarz
Rhodes, a radio DJ and all-around renaissance woman, is a longtime Ava DuVernay collaborator.

Morgan Rhodes is a woman on the move. The Los Angeles DJ, and all-around Renaissance woman, has made the jump to the big leagues, music supervising Ava DuVernay's Oscar-nominated film Selma, the critically-acclaimed Middle of Nowhere, and the shorts, The Door and Say Yes.

"I'm a music critic, and also, I'm a radio DJ," Rhodes said. "That's how Ava found me; she was listening to me on the air in the afternoon, which is rare. I was actually subbing for someone else that day. That's the show that she heard, and we got together on Middle of Nowhere, and the rest is history."

Rhodes took some time out of her busy pre-Oscar schedule to chat with ESSENCE.com and talk about her process, Ava DuVernay and the powerful Academy Award-nominated song, "Glory." 

The song, “Glory” is up for an Oscar. How does one prepare for the Oscars?
I’m just excited to be a part of the project and happy for them, because as you know it's a beautiful song and it's great that it's getting the recognition that it deserves. [Common and John Legend] submitted that song to us; I didn’t choose it. I chose everything else on the soundtrack except for that song and a song by Fink that's featured at the end.

Common is in the film. Did they submit the song after seeing it? 
It was submitted before we were done but closer to the latter part of film. Common had written the rhymes and obviously John had written the melody and then they recorded it. 

Tell me your first impressions of the song.
The lyrics are powerful. That he's able to thread the past and the present is powerful. When you see that footage at the end of the film, it reminds you that we're only 50 years away from that. Yet, 50 years from then, here we find ourselves again on the front lines of protesting for justice and for social change. There isn't that much difference sometimes when you look at 1965 and when you look at 2015. That Common was able to do that lyrically is real genius. Timely and real genius.  

Share you process. As a music supervisor, do you watch the film as it's being made or do you watch it afterwards and then curate the music?
This is my fourth project with Ava. I did Middle of Nowhere, The Door, and Say Yes. I came in at the script stage. They gave me the script, I read it and I started making notes in the margins of what I thought the mood was. Ava gave me the direction, which is that she wanted B-sides from 1965; underground hits. I was so excited to get that direction because it meant that I had to do some crate digging, which is awesome. I'm a radio DJ and that's what I do—play underground music or what we call avant-garde R&B or alternative soul. I started at the beginning of last year and then she shot the film in the summer. By then I had amassed a group of songs and I was able to marry the picture to some of the things that I had pulled. The film is divided into score, which is the all the instrumental stuff by our very gifted composer Jason Moran and what we call source music and those are all the tracks that I pulled. I had my list of cues and then she sent me clips for all of those cues and I would run maybe between 15 and 30 songs under each clip. I'd keep trying and trying to see what works and I'd submit my choices to her. We went from a couple thousands to a couple hundred to 14. 

So now you've selected the music and you've submitted it to Ava and now you go and you watch the entire film. 
The first time I saw Selma, and the music was synced, was really emotional for me. There's a difference between seeing a film in clip form and seeing a fully finished film or the early parts of the film and seeing where that music lands and how it lands. It was really emotional for me because it was the end of a journey. From an artistic perspective, you're very fortunate to be able to connect the path, but from a historical perspective it's just like, "Am I really blessed enough to add music to a film about my people?” It was really beautiful and emotional. 

Now the Mahalia Jackson selection. A lot of people may not have known how much of a role she played in Dr. King's life. Had you?
I had known. Part of this process of looking for this music was buying vinyl. I bought a lot of vinyl albums at record stores, from collectors and traders online. Before I started getting into explaining music, I did a lot of research on what was important to Dr. King at the time and what was being played on the radio. We wanted songs that had resonance with the folks in the civil rights movement and people around Dr. King. Mahalia Jackson was a key figure in his life. She was the one that I think said, "Tell them about the dream.” And that's when he said, "I have a dream....” I knew about that. I knew of the importance of that relationship to him. Ava had already written “Precious Lord” into the script so all that credit goes to her but to have that moment in the film where you see Dr. King call Mahalia is so powerful because you see how vulnerable he is. 

Did you know anything about Beyoncé singing ‘Precious Lord” at the Grammys?
I didn't know anything about it. I guess I came into the awareness of it like everybody else. That said, “Precious Lord” is just precious to me. It's a song I've heard growing up along the church and it just has such resonance to me that the moment was beautiful. I'm just glad to hear “Precious Lord” being played at the Grammys, because I feel like all the other genres are on the forefront and I love when there's attention to Gospel music at the Grammys, but I didn't know anything about that before the night.

I always think of Ava Duvernay as someone who surrounds herself with an amazing group of Black geniuses. 
Yes, she does. For a lot us, the generosity of Ava is not just allowing us to be a part of this movement that she's built, but also letting the world see that Black folks are doing jobs that you never thought Black folks were doing. Some of us are the first to do this. We are a small minority of Black cinematographers, Black composers, Black music supervisors, Black costume designers. It's great to be aligned with her for building this movement but also to let people know we're here and we're doing this thing and people can see that now.

Read More