There has been so much great Black television this year that it is hard to contain excitement for what’s to come in 2021. Shows such as Lovecraft Country, Insecure, I May Destroy You, and Black Lightning are just a few examples of original programming that have forced viewers to stop and pause more times than one can count. For example, Issa Rae’s award-winning comedy-drama series had its fans on the edge of their seats when her character and Lawrence reconciled with the swaying melodies of Baby Rose’s “Show You” as their backdrop. Legendary music supervisor Kurt Farquhar always places a mixture of new and veteran sounds throughout the Cress Williams-led CW superhero-actioner, such as Bad Brains (“Re-Ignition”) and Michael Kiwanuka (“Cold Little Heart”), making his entries an evocative production that mixes Black history with panache and flair.
Adding to that storied legacy is Woke, the new Hulu sitcom which stars Lamorne Morris as a cartoonist named Keef, whose traumatic experience with the police increases his sensitivity to the everyday “micro-aggressions” of the day. To help add the right sounds to those actions, Issa Rae’s record label, Raedio, tapped an all-star team of Sarah Bromberg (VP, Music Supervision & Library), Philippe Pierre (VP, Music Supervision & Library), and Stephanie Diaz-Matos (Head of Music Supervision & Library) to curate the show’s soundtrack. With credits ranging from Wu-Tang: An American Saga to Godfather of Harlem to P-Valley, these three eclectic curators have used their credits and their carte blanche to introduce viewers to the next generation of music acts via Woke.
ESSENCE got a chance to speak to the trio about their processes in finding the right music, ushering the voices and soundtracks of the future, and their thoughts on their favorite TV needle drops from the show’s first season.
ESSENCE.com: First things first, thank you for such an engaging show. Woke has quite a few evocative moments, but the music helps to take it over the edge. For the ESSENCE readers, can you all talk a bit about your respective careers and how you all came together to work on this show?
Sarah Bromberg: I’ve been doing music supervision for about seven years. My first biggest project was with Stephanie Diaz-Matos, which was Netflix’s The Get Down. That was when she started her music supervision company and I began working with her. We did a bunch of projects together, and then in the beginning of 2020 Stephanie’s company Bonfire were merged with Issa Rae‘s music company, Raedio, and that was when we met Philippe [Pierre] and we started doing projects. This is our second project that we did together.
ESSENCE.com: The partnership with Issa Rae and Raedio is unique because she, like us here at ESSENCE, are very much early adopters of new music and spotlight those rising voices in the game. How did you all connect with the award-winning creative and what has it been like while working on Woke?
Stephanie Diaz-Matos: We call Raedio an “audio everywhere company,” and Issa’s team knew that she wanted to make this play [with Woke]. She is with UTA and so am I, so they connected us and with the label deal, the publishing deal, we all just hit it off. [Issa] and her team had a lot of the same sort of vision and values aligned, and I was ready to be part of a bigger vision. For myself, I had been running my own company for several years, and it was time to tap into a larger experience to focus on the creative side, to be honest. Philippe, you should talk about how you came into our lives…
Philippe Pierre: …It was about 2014 and I was working with Issa right before Insecure. She had just wrapped with Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, and she was beginning to set up a new show called, First. The main characters of that show were working with me on a short film that I scored, and from there the relationship between Issa Rae and I took off. From that point on, I did a couple more projects and after about three pilots, the relationship just flourished and kept going from there.
Fast forward to December 2018, and I got an email basically bringing me into the fold over at Raedio. I did a few freelance projects for them and this year, 2020, it was made official. I want to say it was October 2019 when we all started together on P-Valley.
ESSENCE: After P-Valley, it’s safe to say you all had an established flow together, yes? What was the workshopping process like when it came time to collect music for such a timely show like Woke…?
SB: We didn’t originally work on the pilot for Woke. The team had a general sense already of what they wanted from the pilot. We took over after that with a different budget than what the pilot had [laughs]. We really focused on what [music] we actually could afford to make the show sound like the pilot. For us internally, it was all about finding those gems that weren’t the best known songs in the world [at the time]. They’re not the best known, but they’re great music, and that was where we hit our mark.
Following along with the show, Keef, who doesn’t initially identify very strongly with Black culture, it was important for us to take a different look at the music and have it not be the “typical” music for him to listen to. Philippe really found a lot of artists, such as Reggie, that I think led to some really great moments on the show.
PP: Sarah really covered it. The overall vibe of Woke was that the music was not typical for someone just in Black culture to be listening to, but still identify as Black. We found Black artists that were a bit more different or had an alternative sound, if that makes sense.
ESSENCE: Yes, yes. Little Simz is a favorite here at ESSENCE and her music has been placed on a lot of television shows.
SD: I also wanted to add that Woke, being based on the real life of Keith Knight, we wanted to hone in on his Bay Area roots. He grew up listening to a lot of punk rock such as Bad Brains and Living Colour, and that was important to him and us to keep alive in the show. We placed bands like The 1865 into this first season, and they don’t land in a typical Raedio format genre, but his personal connection to the story helps to define the sound and the story it is trying to convey.
We had to dig to find bands such as them — either with a Black singer of a full Black band — and get a couple of tracks in there. We couldn’t get Bad Brains, but there were plenty of new artists out there that had that sound, and we definitely sprinkled those throughout the first season as well.
ESSENCE: Shoutout to The Black Pumas, too. Once the music for Woke had been finalized, talk about what that sense of accomplishment was like and any expectations you had about when the viewers finally saw the show.
PP: As a group, we’re bringing a certain level of expertise on our end to elevate whatever the project is. With Woke, it was really cool because its story has a very personal note. Even if you’re not Black, you can identify with not feeling like you fit into whatever world you’re currently in. With the curation of the music and being able to help elevate that story was such a good feeling for myself and the team.
I recently listened to the show’s playlist, and it took me back a bit. The music is a really cool, eclectic group of talented musicians who defy a genre. I think with all the projects we’ve done thus far as a team, I’ve been very proud to put our stamp on something for the culture, which is always an amazing feeling to do.
SD: We finished this project while in quarantine. Philipe, who is based in L.A., had one meeting with the editorial department in person. After that, we were all setting up our gear in our homes and working to finish this project with us all scattered across the country. Sarah’s energy and her commitment to this show never waned and I know it was hard for me to stay connected because of the malaise of the pandemic. So, when you asked that, it just struck me like, how do we celebrate as a group? I am happy with how people received Woke and the music, but getting to the finish line was so unusual.
All things considered, none of that makes a difference. The show came out great. But in acknowledging it all personally and as a group, I say we should take our small victories because it is hard to celebrate with everything going on in the world. At some point in the process, we all would have been together three or four times by now, but I’m in New York, Sarah is in New Orleans, and Philipe is in L.A. We haven’t been able to have a moment together in person in almost a year!
PP: I’m keeping a tally of all the celebrations that we owe ourselves once the world opens back up [laughs].
ESSENCE: With the show’s success and possible second season in mind, let’s revisit some of the songs chosen for Woke and get the inside story behind some of our favorite needle drops. Up first, “Comin’ to Get You” by The Marginal Prophets featuring DJ Quest.
SB: Ah, that’s awesome [laughs]! I love that you love that one. This is actually the name of Keith Knight’s band. In his younger days, he created his own music, and we were sent the album for the show’s first season. Keith and the team really wanted to find a place for this, so we placed it in at the end of season finale. This album was sent to us at the very last minute and we had very few spots available.
We got it into the post-production team, then at the mix they put dropped the song in. When I got the final mix back, I loved it. It was so great that they found a great spot for it on the show. I love that you love that one!
ESSENCE: Jimmy Mawi, “Let Me Keep Away From You”.
SB: That’s a good one too! When we started the process of building out the show, we built a library for the editors to use. As they’re cutting, they can put any of the songs in wherever they feel it makes the most sense. The music changes so much from the very first cut to what you finally see, but there are some pieces that get placed very early where you’re like, yes, and that one stays. Maurice Marable, one of the show’s executive producers, loves that song. “Let Me Keep Away From You” was a song that was in from the very, very first cut, and stayed all the way through to the end.
ESSENCE: DUCKWRTH featuring Troi Iron, “Wake Up”.
SB: That’s a funny story [laughs].
SD: That’s one of the producer’s favorite songs, too, isn’t it?
SB: Yeah, it is. This song closed out the season, obviously, and Philipe pulled it for placement. It was in the library and we were looking at how we could close out the show. The producers wanted to close out with a song from the show’s lead, Lamorne Morris, and it was a very different take on closing out the season. Reminding you that this was before George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter protests, and the civil uprisings. After those things happened, we revisited a bunch of different things in the show. When everyone was ready to change it, “Wake Up” was still in the library, which Philipe and I were excited about. Thankfully, they chose it and we were very happy with how it turned out.
ESSENCE: SiR, “You Can’t Save Me”.
PP: That’s still one of my favorite songs.
SB: I think we had a different song originally and the producers were talking about this really sweet moment between Adrienne (Rose McIver) and Keef. It was sentimental moment of which we don’t have a ton on the show, so the producers and our team wanted to emphasize that. “You Can’t Save Me” was just a song that we loved, and we put it in there. SiR’s song is a bit more pricey, so we’re glad the team loved it, too, because we removed other songs in the episode in order to afford it.
ESSENCE: Last one, everyone. Steve Lacy, “Playground”.
PP: Steve Lacy is that guy. I think his record is such a weird and interesting one, and for the scene it is in, it is an eclectic choice. Steve has this particular West Coast sound, plus with the name of this song being “Playground,” and Keef surrounded by these different characters — it just felt right. I think it worked greatly because thematically it fit, and also vibe-wise, it was spot on for what we were going for.
ESSENCE: In closing with my last question, there has been a lot of great Black television with powerful songs used as storytelling elements. In your respective opinions, how do you all see the future of music storytelling when it comes to television and film?
SD: I believe we’re living in this future moment, now, where the bar is being raised and music is more a part of the mission that needs to be figured out ahead of time. In this moment, and in future moments, we’re looking at the bar to go up, up, and up, and up! You can see that within so many television shows now, and it will have its own original music soundtracks or playlists with a healthy following.
PP: What Stephanie said is definitely true. The bar is being raised. The relationship between music and media is evolving and people are paying more attention to its growth and changing sound. The audience is considering the sonic selections as part of the scene choices. It is a bit of a vibe, but I think it is also reflective of how the craft and our relationship to it elevates. Heck, you might hear a podcast discussing the wrap-up music after a show ends. We’re going to get a lot more people interested in music supervision and paying attention to what’s being placed.
Hulu has yet to announce if there will be a Woke Season 2, so be sure to stream Season 1 now to add more episodes to the drawing board.