Questlove on Writing Music for 'Detroit': "A Song About Fear and Sorrow Wasn't Enough" (Guest Column)

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Questlove arrives at the 57th annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles.

"It Ain't Fair" had to capture both the pain of the tragic 1967 riots at the center of the film and the hope for change, writes the star of penning the piece with his band, The Roots, for Kathryn Bigelow's drama.

It's rare to see a movie about American history that's so raw and powerful that it takes your breath away. It's even rarer when the movie's take on history also implicates the present. And it's a one-in-a-million occurrence when that movie reaches into your own life and puts a fist around your heart. That's how I felt when I first saw Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit, which was the inspiration for "It Ain't Fair," an original song The Roots wrote for the film's soundtrack.

I knew about the history surrounding Bigelow's film even before I saw it — or at least I thought I did. I knew about the 1967 Detroit riots. Most people have at least some sense of that tumultuous summer, how racial unrest raged like a forest fire through a series of American cities. But I didn’t know about the specific story at the heart of the movie, the Algiers Motel incident, in which a group of young black men at a Detroit motel were brutally beaten by police. (That’s not the full story, but you know: spoilers.)

And as it turned out, I didn’t have any idea that the Algiers Motel Incident was at least partly a story about musicians. When Kathryn screened the movie for me, I discovered that some of the young men caught up in the horrors of that July 1967 night were members of the Dramatics, a local Detroit singing group starting to make a name for themselves. During a concert scene near the beginning of the film, I got up out of my seat and found the projectionist. “Is this the Dramatics?” I asked. He nodded. 

Realizing that the Dramatics were central to the Algiers Motel incident made the movie not just a social justice story, but a musician story, which made it a story that I couldn't stop thinking about. And at the very same time I couldn't stop thinking about it — at the same time we were starting to make the song — those grim questions of police brutality and race were surfacing again, everywhere, all at once. The shooting death of Philando Castile happened just a few weeks before we went in to record. Ferguson (where Michael Brown was killed by police) and Baltimore (where Freddie Gray was killed by police) were still fresh memories, fresh wounds, as were the deaths of Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and others. And I had my own personal reservoir to draw on, too, in the form of the half-dozen times each year I get pulled over by police. It happened to me yet again this past November. Go down the wrong street late at night, after a DJ gig, and the sirens might leap up behind you. "Can I see your ID, sir?" Every time, my blood runs cold. I'm not comparing my situation to Detroit, or to any of the young men who lost their lives — shortly after I get pulled over, I usually get recognized, and I get sent on my way. But if I wasn’t on TV, I know things might come to a different end: a Dramatically differently end. 

But writing a song about fear and sorrow wasn't enough. They were only half of the picture. "It Ain’t Fair” needed to look into the darkness of American history at the same time that it illuminated a way out of that darkness. It needed to be honest about its anguish but balance that hurt with hope. My first thought about how to get that tone came from an unexpected source. A year before, I had recorded with Yoko Ono, who explained primal scream therapy to me and pointed me toward her early work with John Lennon — especially "Mother," from the Plastic Ono Band album. I listened to that song and understood it as therapy, as a way of expressing pain and rage. We're a hip-hop band, which meant that if I was thinking about anger, I was thinking about the music backdrop of Public Enemy’s "Welcome to the Terrordome": Start unthreatening, get threatening fast. That’s the arc I wanted for "It Ain’t Fair." Bilal was singing on the track, and I wanted to make sure that his vocals followed the same path — I wanted him to sing his initial verses in a smoother falsetto and became steelier and harder as he went. He was singing words written by Black Thought (Tariq Trotter), my bandmate and partner in rhyme, who rapped the rest of the lyrics. Tariq's lyrics went at racial injustice like a boxer would, jabbing, bobbing, weaving, coming in with body blows. Again, they balanced the universal and timeless (the need for love and safety, for respect) with modern touches (he refers to Twitter and to the poisoned waters of Flint). A song has to send a message, and a great song has to send several messages at once. So how do you give a full emotional account of pain and social injustice and also keep a clear head capable of finding solutions? 

In the end, maybe the most important quality of "It Ain’t Fair" is its restraint. Kathryn's movie is so raw and intense that it didn't make sense to compete with it on that score. I felt it was important not to overplay our hand. There are ways to show anger. There are ways to cry out against social ills. But you want to retain beauty and elegance and strategy while you’re doing it. You want to manage feelings. If all those emotions were contained in the song, they had to be contained by the song. That was our hope. That was how we tried to build hope. Painful emotions forced into a pleasurable shape: that’s one definition of art.