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February 16, 2021
Online Originals

We Have A History

Composer Matthew Head draws on personal experience to score a docuseries about the impact of the Black church in America.

Ny MaGee

"The church was the safest place for African slaves to be at one point in time, and a lot of things were trying to disrupt that," says Emmy-winning composer Matthew Head.

His own childhood experiences growing up in the Black church served as his inspiration for scoring the PBS and WETA docuseries The Black Church: This is Our Story, This is Our Song.

From executive producer, writer, and host Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the two-part documentary chronicles the 400-year-old story of the Black church in America, and how gospel music served as a secret code that allowed African Americans to continue to move forward and have faith.

"Our ancestors used these songs that we play every day and listen to every day as a way to get through every day," says Head. "We weren't allowed to read. We weren't allowed to learn. So we did it in song. We weren't allowed to speak in our native language. We did it through songs and those songs that we are singing now were our tools and our light when we were slaves."

Featuring interviews with Oprah Winfrey, John Legend, Jennifer Hudson, among others, the four-hour series aims to uplift and educate by tracing how the Black church nurtured slaves and served as the bedrock for Black Americans during the civil rights movement.

Head wanted the new gospel songs he wrote for the project to reflect the huge impact this series had own his own faith.

Talk about the inspiration behind creating the score for this project.

Matthew Head: I am from Marietta, Georgia, which is about 20 miles North of Atlanta. So I grew up in a Southern Black Baptist church. My home church I grew up in was Pleasant Grove Baptist church here in Marietta. My family, grandparents, cousins, uncles, aunties, friends, and family all went to this church. It's probably one of the most historical black churches in Marietta.

So we have a long history, and this was right up my alley. I worked on Greenleaf for several years, so I definitely knew the background, the church background, the gospel background - and basically when the opportunity came my way, it was an immediate yes.

My grandpa was a deacon. My father's a deacon now. So I was right in the middle of it.

So scoring this project was literally an amazing experience for me. It was fun to do, and I'm grateful and appreciative to be a part of it.

Is it important for you to first watch a film or TV series to capture the mood needed to write music for it?

Yes, definitely. I love to watch it as a consumer, as a fan. It's a four-part series with four hours. And so when I got the first hour, I didn't know what I was expecting. This is a history lesson, and I wanted the music to feel that way. I wanted to watch it. This documentary is telling our history. It's our story in The Black Church that a lot of people don't know, even me as African American, I didn't know a lot of stuff.

We started from 1619, all the way to 2020 with a lot of history that was told, and I wanted to make sure the music reflected that. I wanted to watch it, of course, and to get the vibe and get the tone. And once I watched it, I definitely understood where we were coming from.

It wasn't all about just throwing some old gospel spirituals in it. It was about telling this story from 1619, when we landed here at the coast of the Caribbean in Savannah, Georgia to turning to 2020, while we are celebrating gospel music every day. So it was just one of those things where I had to watch it. I love to watch the movies first and then take notes and ask questions on top of questions and get ideas, and then go from there.

Was it important for you to craft a sound that would resonate with viewers who have never had a Black Church experience?

The directors and the production wanted that experience. I want the audience to experience the history and the nuance of the Black Church. It is an experience if you've never been to one or to a service. So I had to get creative with the instrumentation. We started in like 1619, so we had to dig deep into some old African styles.

Once we got into the 1800s and 1900s, the music changes, and once we get into the 70s and the 80s, the music changes. So we had to evolve with the score throughout the entire process, which was fun, difficult during COVID, but we made it happen.

Once you watch it, it's not your typical documentary. It was literally an eye-opening experience where it makes people question. You get African American history and even as a Black man, I didn't know a lot of things that I feel like we should know, and that's eye-opening for me and musically we must express that as well.

Did you find yourself playing with new sound applications and tools, maybe even some non-musical instruments for the first time?

Yes. I had to go old school. I wanted to make sure we had those sounds and vibes back in the 1700s and 1800s. They didn't have technology that we have now. So I didn't want to duplicate that electronically. I really wanted to get the emotion in the field.

We had to experiment with hand claps and body thumps and using everyday things like hitting against the wall. We did some stomping and clapping and yelling. We used old school techniques, putting the microphone up in the middle of the room and making noise to see what we can come up with.

I had to do a lot of recording from home and do remote sessions. It was a lot of experimenting and using different effects and different sound palettes. It was fun, stressful at some points, but it came out really well. I'm excited about it.

Do you enjoy listening to your old scores for inspiration?

Wow. I'm very insecure about my music. I can say that I like what I do, but I'm very insecure because I always want to change something. I'm a perfectionist to a point where at the end of the day, I'm never happy with it. I like listening to my own music sometimes, but my history with music is a love-hate relationship.

I never pictured myself going down this road. It's a gift and it's all God-given. I didn't choose it. It chose me. So a lot of times when I listen to it, I'm kind of like, how did that make it there? I try not to dive into it, but I like listening to it every so often. But I try to move on and use inspiration from other sources because I don't want to copy myself too much.

Each project has its own moment. I start every project with a blank slate. I've never opened a template. I never use templates. I don't like it. I just start with me and the piano and I love for it to start that way. Music and I, like I said, it's a love-hate relationship. I love it when I make it. And I hate it because I want to do better.

What would you say are your greatest challenges at this point in your career?

Communication. The one thing as a composer, what we have to do is gain the trust of the director and production. We have to get in their mind musically, no one knows what they want. So one of the biggest challenges as a composer is to break that communication barrier and that trust barrier, where people feel comfortable to talk musically to me, and I feel comfortable talking musically with them.

That is a challenge sometimes because you look at a composer, you're thinking musical language that no one knows. I don't use that language. I like to be straight and cut and dry. That's a challenge sometimes just to get in someone's head creatively. But the beautiful thing is once you get that trust and once you establish the trust and the love of the project together, it becomes a happy relationship and a beautiful process.

Is your faith at the center of every project you work on?

Oh yes, God is all in this room. My testimony is so unique. Like I said, music was a hobby for me. It was something that I did on my own. It was therapeutic. It was my personal space. And my mother and my father taught me very early about my gifts and to understand the difference between your gifts and your passions.

Your passion is something that you love to do and you want to do it, but sometimes your passions are confusing, but your gifts will always open up doors and make room for things that you'd never know you needed, and that's what music was. It was a gift. It was not something that I was pursuing. It was something that literally snowballed into a career.

I know that's nothing but God. That's nothing but faith for me. That's how I run my household. My wife and I teach our children about faith and believing in something bigger than you. And believing that you are more than just a body on this earth. Faith is very heavy in my home and in my career. I use it every day.

What's on your bucket list?

Wow. It's funny, I don't have a bucket list and the reason why, 'cause I'm just happy to be on anything. I'm so grateful for everything. I'm happy to be in the room and have these conversations and be able to live my dream. I tell people all the time, this wasn't in my plan, it was all in God's plan.

And so once you recognize that and realize that you don't have a bucket list, because my bucket list may not be what God wants me to do. I'm very big on whatever happens, whatever is for me will come. I'm happy to be in the room to be able to say I did it. I let God decide all those things and I just go along for the ride.

Lastly, when we think about the past year and the civil unrest and the protests and the police brutality and the ongoing racial tensions in this country – and it all seeming to come to a head with the Capitol riots last month, I'm wondering in what ways has your art been inspired by all this and the types of projects you want to work on in the future.

I'm a 39-year-old Black man that lives in Cobb County, Georgia. Cobb County turned blue. I live out in Marietta, which is 20 miles North of the city, and there's a lot of red in my area. So me working on television shows or movies and documentaries at this capacity is allowing me to tell the story of me.

And that's one reason why I never moved to LA. I want people to know I'm in Atlanta. I am Black, and I am in a city where if you drive 30, 40 miles North, I'm not appreciated and can't even walk in certain parts of my town, certain parts of my state. So it impacted me tremendously, and that's why working on projects that enhance that is so important for me. Once you watch The Black Church, you realize we are missing out on a lot.

We have a history. I have to have conversations with my son, he is eight, and I want to remind him that we're more than just the skin color. You have a story and your life matters. I'll use my music and my creative tools to enhance our story. It's changed my life.

I grew up in the 80s and 90s. I had white friends in high school, and I see those same friends that I held hands with and cried with at graduation support things that are completely backwards. I'm like, wow, 20 years ago, bro, I'm holding your hand and crying 15 years ago we were hanging out, watching TV.

So I make a point to let people know that as an artist and as a creator, it's important that I tell you my story, because a lot of people have forgotten or don't really care. I'm happy that we are starting to see more of our story. I'm so privileged to be a part of The Black Church crew.

When you watch it, you'll see a lot of our history has been erased and hidden from us. The more we dig into it, you'll see that we are amazing in more ways than we've shown.

The two-part documentary The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song premieres February 16 & 17 on PBS at 9 p.m. ET.

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