StereoVisual wants to make film composers out of BIPOC musicians

Toronto musician and composer TiKA says there’s an insidiousness to film and television scores.

“They are most often written by white men who use music to manipulate our emotions and control our reactions to what’s onscreen, whether it’s Bert and Ernie or BIPOC characters. A white composer could treat the racialized experience as “goofy or comical,” says TiKA in a podcast conversation with NOW, and there’s a history of cinema going all the way back to The Jazz Singer where film composers work alongside directors, producers and cinematographers to uphold white supremacy.

That’s why she’s on a mission to diversify the field and help dismantle the barriers that keep marginalized communities from even discovering it. TiKA will be at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) launching StereoVisual, a workshop designed to bridge the gap between between marginalized producers, beatmakers and musicians and the film composing community that is 94 per cent male and mostly white. According to StereoVisual, there are currently 150 Black film composers worldwide.

TiKA was compelled to design the program after her experience at the Canadian Film Centre in 2018.

“One of the things I heard constantly was that in order to be considered as a composer, I would need to know how to play a stringed instrument,” she explains. She knows how to play a stringed instrument. She was raised with the privilege of a grandmother who nurtured an artistic drive and got her into violin. But that’s not the case for most people from marginalized backgrounds who aren’t afforded lessons in stringed instruments and a classical music education.

“A lot of the racialized producers that I know are torrenting [music software like] Pro Tools or Logic Pro,” says TiKA.

“[Film composing] is very rooted in this idea that in order to be considered, you need to know music theory,” she continues. “That’s completely classist.”

And it goes against what music production looks like in 2021, where beatmakers like Frank Dukes, Kanye West or Boi-1da aren’t relying on or aren’t even necessarily trained in stringed instruments. TiKA adds how absurd it is that she is deemed worthy to enter the film composition world because she was trained in violin, but God’s Plan producer Boi-1da wouldn’t be.

“Why would he be excluded from this world and this conversation simply because he might not necessarily go about music in the same format that I do… It begs the dismantling of this conversation surrounding what constitutes the composer.”

There is a huge gulf between film compositions and popular music. Hip-hop for instance is featured on countless soundtracks and movie trailers, but hip-hop producers almost never become film or TV composers.

Consider Black Panther. The film’s first trailer hit us with a Run The Jewels beat. A big deal was made about how Kendrick Lamar produced the Black Panther album, collaborating with an international roster of hip-hop artists for needle drops played throughout the movie. But still, the major Marvel movie showcasing so much Black excellence turned to Ludwig Göransson to compose the score – which was excellent, but still.

There are only a few Black film composers we can name in a conversation with TiKA, like Mudbound’s Tamar-kali, Spike Lee regular Terence Blanchard, Queen Sugar’s Meshell Ndegeocello and Clemency’s Kathryn Bostic. And then there is Wu-Tang Clan producer RZA, whose beatmaking skills were tapped by Jim Jarmusch to compose the score for 1999’s Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai. Quentin Tarantino followed suit by calling on RZA for Kill Bill Vol. 1.

“When you watch Kill Bill, his choices and his decisions were unlike anything I’ve ever heard before in terms of film,” says TiKA.

But as NOW’s senior film writer Norm Wilner points out, RZA was already established as a phenomenal and influential talent when Jarmusch and Tarantino came calling. There still isn’t a path for people making hip-hop beats who haven’t already broken through to forge a path into film. And that’s leaving a lot of money on the table.

TiKA says that film composing is a viable income for the people who work in music, to supplement their work while trying to churn out hits. “They might use it as a form of foundational cushioning,” says TiKA, if only they knew how to get access or even that such revenue streams exist.

“They’re not aware,” she says. “They’re not included in the conversation. And they’re not included in the room or in the space.”

TiKA hopes that the StereoVisual program will remedy that situation, just as streamers are ramping up production in Toronto and Netflix is opening its new Canadian headquarters in the city.

“They understand the viability of the diasporic stories from Toronto, which are unlike any other place in the world,” she says. “We have stories that are rich and priceless. But how asinine would it be that we’d have so many television shows and movies coming out of Toronto and no music from the actual diaspora?”


Listen to the entire conversation in the latest episode of the NOW What podcast, available on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or playable directly below:

NOW What is NOW’s weekly news and culture podcast. New episodes are released every Friday.

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