Emmy-winning composer Matthew Head scores new PBS documentary, ‘The Black Church’
The 'P-Valley' scorer discusses learning new history about African-American churches during his latest composing assignment
The Black Church has been an unwavering pillar of consistent solace, morality, and inspiration to generations of Black Americans for well over four centuries. In fact, most of American culture has drawn from the pulpits and pews of the Black Church.
Our finest activists and orators, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rev. Jesse Jackson, have used the grace and morality they learned ministering to their flock to try and steer this nation into living up to its promise and potential. The origin of the great and popular music we’d heard past and present, from Ray Charles to the Migos, draws back from hymnals that date back to the 17th century.
PBS and Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. have produced a new multi-episode documentary titled The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This is Our Song, that gives insight to the dawn of the institution, reaching all the way back to the praise shouters of Africa, through to the coded language in negro spirituals sung by slaves in the cotton fields all the way to the present day.
Helming the monumental task of scoring the music for this project is Matthew Head, the Emmy-winning composer and producer who’s lent his talents to series such as P-Valley, Boomerang and Greenleaf. As a kid who grew up in the church with a deacon for a dad and choir singer for a mom, Head was more than up for the task.
However, as he would tell TheGrio, there was much he still had yet to learn about the church until he got this assignment.
Although Head has scored for documentaries in the past, such as Wilmington On Fire, he said that the process of scoring The Black Church was unique; scoring the music as the footage was still being edited. This gave Head an opportunity to both use his gospel background with his experimental spirit.
“I wanted the score to feel intimate,” Head told TheGrio. “I wanted the score to feel so touching because we’re telling a story.”
Head says that The Black Church isn’t some run-of-the-mill educational program.
“It felt like a timeless story that has never been told. And I was very impressed and very intrigued by that.”
Dr. Gates and PBS dig very deep for this project, dating all the way back to Africa pre-transatlantic slave trade. So, Head reached back as well.
“So it started very early, in 1619. And so we had to I had to go pick up instruments and find old guitars and those African sounds that will allow us to feel the most at the time,” Head explained.
And when it came time to explore the history of the church in the later half of the 20th century, Head was able to draw on his roots. “There was moments where we had we were in the 70s and 80s, we had to go pure gospel. So I grabbed a couple of singers and some beautiful musicians that are incredible here in Atlanta and said, let’s go to work.”
The Black Church does not try to sugarcoat the truth about its history. The four-part series explores, not only the racial exploitation and violence exacted against the Black church, but also much of its patriarchal and homophobic tendencies as well.
Head admitted that having been sheltered in his own church life, much of these revelations were a shock to him.
“Our churches have been attacked spiritually, physically and mentally among ourselves and also from white folks and racism,” Head said. “And so I learned that very early on, and that is the common theme that kind of flows through to the end that our church.”
One thing Head did know was that the Black church has created to be “a safe space,” and despite gathering this new found information, his faith has only deepened after completing the project.
“To know that even within my own church or within the church that there were some people attacking them at level made you realize that that is a cycle that we have to learn how to break it. Hopefully this documentary does that and kind of opened the eyes to those who can see that because it opened my eyes and literally brought me closer to God at a different level.”
One of Head’s chief sources of influence and inspiration comes from his all time favorite music producer, Quincy Jones. Much like Head, Jones built a stellar reputation not only as a producer, but as a film and TV composer, scoring popular themes like In The Heat of The Night, Ironside and Sanford & Son, not to mention films like The Wiz and The Color Purple.
Head, who’s produced acts like Koryn Hawthorne, strives for Jones’ versatility.
“I’ll watch what Quincy is done on his own most of his projects from The Wiz and jump around and do it Off The Wall (Michael Jackson), then going to do Thriller of going around doing The Color Purple. Like, I just, you know, musically, I want to touch everything.“
Something else that Head has in common with Jones is the fact that they are both Black film composers, which is still in the minority of that field. However, Heads sees the growing community of minority film and TV scorers like himself, Kris Bowers, Michael Abels and Amanda Jones, and is hopeful for the future.
“Our goal is to literally highlight black composers, minority composers, female composers, Hispanic composers, Latin composers, Asian composers, those who are a part of the community. And the beautiful thing about that is that my goal was always to say, let us tell our story, to let us help you tell the story.“
The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This is Our Song, premiered its first two episodes on PBS on February 16 and 17. Appearing in the series will be interviews, anecdotes and testimonials from Dr. Cornel West, John Legend, Bishop Michael Curry, Oprah Winfrey, Jennifer Hudson, Pastor Shirley Caesar, Reverend Al Sharpton and many more.
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