Ashleigh Murray and Sinclair Daniel star in Hulu's The Other Black Girl
Artfully combining percussion, vocal motifs, synth sounds and other elements, composer and musician EmmoLei Sankofa (Lizzo's Watch Out for the Big GRRRLs, Step Up: High Water) created a uniquely playful and eerie score for the Hulu series The Other Black Girl. And she did so using a complex but compelling mix of choir, experimentation and needle drops.
Here, EmmoLei— born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia — reveals her scoring process for the satirical workplace thriller, which centers on editorial assistant Nella (Sinclair Davis). Nella is the only Black woman working at a New York City publishing company, until Hazel (Ashleigh Murray) joins the team. Soon, Hazel goes from newfound friend to foe, and EmmoLei accompanies that relationship's plot twists with a chilling and unique soundscape.
Television Academy: How challenging was it to find the right tone for the series?
EmmoLei Sankofa: Nailing the tone for this project was difficult. It was a delicate balance of aligning with the vision of the showrunners, writers and [Hulu], and it was also a blend of me creating something that I felt good about as the composer so I could still maintain my unique voice. It was essentially an experimentation session. Once we nailed the tone for the entire series, I was like, "Okay, now I can roll my sleeves up."
Whose voices are we hearing in the clusters of whispers and vocal motifs that populate the score?
They flew me out to Los Angeles to track and record the vocal group Tonality. We used a miniature choir and had representation on every voice — soprano, alto, tenor, bass and baritone. We recorded and mapped out the motifs across that ensemble — did it all in one swoop. Then, once I got back to Atlanta, I integrated them into the show where necessary. I also leveraged my own vocals throughout the series.
Aside from voices, it seems you also used a combination of electronic and real instruments to perform the music.
It's really a hybrid score. The main instrumentation is the vocals and the percussion. So, there's mallets, vibraphone, xylophone and marimba. There's piano, there's strings here and there for certain sentimental moments. Then there are synth sounds that are like morphed brass and strings. We're using regular instruments and stretching them away from their normal sound and processing them in a way that they sound electronic, or they sound haunting.
You flawlessly blend the music you composed for the series with needle drops from artists like Busta Rhymes, Sudan Archives and others. [Editor's note: Music supervisor Tiffany Anders sourced the needle drops.] Was it a lot of work to finesse those transitions?
Very much so. When music cues rub up against needle drops, I'm mindful of the key that the needle drop is in. It's almost like being a D.J. I'm mindful of a lot of different elements that allow it to transition into the moment fluidly. What I don't want to do as a composer is snap the audience outside of the world that they're in — for whatever length of time they're watching the show. Even if people notice the music, it should still feel seamless and flow in a way that keeps people locked into the moment until the very end.
The Other Black Girl is now streaming on Hulu.