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‘Becoming’ Composer Kamasi Washington Channeled His ‘Innermost Michelle Obama’ to Create the Score

Much of the music he created for the Netflix biography reflects Obama's vision of heaven as "a place full of jazz."

Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama in “Becoming”

Netflix

When Nadia Hallgren, director of the Michelle Obama documentary “Becoming” described hearing the former First Lady talk about her love of jazz it caused Hallgren to immediately think of Kamasi Washington. “He’s a contemporary artist who also has this timeless sound to his music,” she told IndieWire earlier this year.

Now, audiences can learn a bit more about Washington’s score for the Netflix documentary in his own words. In a video released exclusively to IndieWire in anticipation of the upcoming Emmy awards, Washington breaks down how he conjured up the emotion and represented Obama through the power of music.

Washington says he attempted to channel his “innermost Michelle Obama” and focus on music she would listen to through her headphones. “This is such a personal story,” Washington says in the video. “So I was trying to create music that reflected on her.”

Washington aimed to think of the music she would be listening to as she was thinking about the words she’d be saying, whether on-stage or in her book. He pored over her playlists — audiences can see in the documentary she enjoys listening to music on her drives to events — and also looked at her speeches and the words in her book, “Becoming.” to see if he could find a way to pair music with her messages.

One of Washington’s favorite scenes is when Michelle Obama sits down with Stephen Colbert to discuss why people miss her husband, former President Barack Obama. “[The scene] takes an abstract idea, of people wanting to be one, and shows you that it’s a reality,” Washington said.

Washington explains that much of the music he created for “Becoming” is from the rhythm section, including horns. Hallgren said in her interview that “Growing up as a child, the way [Mrs. Obama] described the Southside of Chicago she [said] it was like heaven, and the way she envisioned heaven was a place full of jazz.” So it’s no surprise that Washington factored jazz sounds heavily into the score.

But he also talks about utilizing strings significantly throughout. “In a couple of really special moments I went to more towards like an orchestral, string kinda sound,” he says in the video. “Strings have this ability to kinda just — it’s almost just clouds to the sky.”

“Becoming” is now available on Netflix.

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