Creating the Voice of Sorry To Bother You

Though Sorry To Bother You sort of began life as album years ago, Riley and his band The Coup made an entirely new record for the finished film, one which creates the aural landscape of just what the characters hear and experience within the world of the movie:

“So there are two musical worlds in Sorry To Bother You. One is the score that’s made by Tune-Yards and the score is all the stuff that the characters can’t hear, right? It’s the voice of the movie in that sense. It’s commenting on something, it’s a leading you down the path. And then there’s the soundtrack, which is the stuff that the characters can hear that’s playing in the bar. It’s playing out of cars, at parties, wherever. We do break that rule once, which is with kind of the theme song of the movie, which is ‘OYAHYTT’… ‘Oh yeah, alright. Hell yeah, that’s tight.’ Which they can’t hear.”

Jazmine: I love that Boots split the soundtrack and the score into diegetic – all the audio elements that come from inside the world – and non-diegetic – the audio only the audience can hear. I feel like it gives the movie more life to know the soundtrack we’re hearing is music created in a world where that alternate Oakland exists. It just creates another layer to the film that I wasn’t expecting.

Rosie: Exactly this! The whole conversation around the soundtrack just confirmed to me how much of an experience Sorry To Bother You is. And that’s clearly intentional. There’s so much thought in everything from the direction to the message to the soundtrack. I feel like in an age of franchise blockbusters it’s incredibly rare to find such a thoughtful and thought provoking movie.

One of the most radical songs on the soundtrack, ‘Whathegirlmuthafuckinwannadoo (feat. Janelle Monáe),’ almost never was, as Boots only rediscovered the demo when he was about to throw out an old laptop:

“I found this MP3 of this song that I’d done. It was just a demo, not really even mixed. I wasn’t even done writing it, so the hook was just like, ‘This the part where we sang on top, thought it was but it ain’t gon’ stop, wanna keep her with you but the girl finna do what the girl muthafuckin’ wanna do.’ It’s just about a woman leaving her man because he’s keeping her down, you know, that relationship is not letting her grow. So Janelle Monae is singing on another song on the album, and I played [this demo] for her during the time while she was working on it. And she was like, ‘I want to sing on that.’ I was like, ‘But I don’t have the multitracks and we’ve got to turn in the album tomorrow. All I got is this MP3 that’s not even a mix. It’s just a, you know, demo made in 2003, so it’s not even quality of the stuff we have now.’ And she was like, ‘That’s cool, I’ll just sing over that.'”

Rosie: I really love this anecdote, as it highlights how special the project was, in that Boots really managed to find like-minded creators to work with. I mean, having Janelle Monae on the album at all is amazing, but to have her ask to just record over an old MP3 is such a fantastic, fun fact that gives us a feel of how much everyone on every level was into the DIY process that’s been such a big part of making Sorry To Bother You.

Jazmine: Same. I love that it’s just her matching his vocals and them harmonizing on the track. It really is a different sound than what we’re used to hearing from Monae, but her belief in the project and Boots’ open artistic flare really shine on this track. Just knowing it was a spur of the moment thing adds a very fun vibe to the song as well.

Rosie: Janelle is such a force of nature, and knowing that she was so open to collaborate and work on the film somehow makes me like it even more. How rare is it that we see lauded “indie” creative endeavors that really showcase black women’s talents? And it was even refreshing to just hear him talk about Janelle and give her the credit that she clearly deserved for her work on the album.

Boots also spoke about the eclectic soundscape of the soundtrack and how it was influenced by the responsibility that gets put on you as public figure:

“I wanted to make a movie that felt full. That felt messy, right? Felt like a collage. There’s a thing that people go to that’s kind of like this aspirational thing that sometimes exists. I’ve noticed it exists in the Black community. For instance, with our music, I’m from Oakland and it’s a relatively small town. Even though it’s in a bigger metropolitan area, it’s still only like 400,000 people. So you get known from there, and you become a representative. And when I say representative, I mean to some people it’s like you’re an elected representative–you’re supposed to represent them and it becomes, ‘Let me talk to you about how you can represent me better.’ Right? So as an artist I feel that, I understand that, and I’m glad for that. But in some of these conversations people will be like, ‘What’s that shit you make? You need to come with some clean beats.’ Right? And so clean, sparse, and all that is very much associated with success.”

Rosie: I loved hearing Boots talk about this, as it kind of goes back to what we were talking about with the Get Out comparisons. If you become successful as a black creator suddenly, you’re expected to represent every black person and all black experiences. Of course, that gets even more specific when we start to look at dealing with fame when coming from specific artist communities like the rise in Oakland filmmakers that’s hit Hollywood recently. I love his thesis that making the soundtrack messy and unexpected was a kind of retaliation against the ways people expect success to feel or sound.

Jazmine: I like that, too. I also like that Boots as a community figure takes that very seriously. He’s constantly bringing it back to Oakland and the people when he talks. Even when we went to this, Boots took the time to talk to and shake everyone’s hand and tell them that he appreciates them being there. I found it interesting how he takes on the responsibility of getting to know the community that’s building around his film, as well as the one he focuses on at home.

One of the recurring themes of the soundtrack is group vocalization, which Riley felt was vital because of the way that music can bring people together:

“I think one of the reasons I like it is that it sounds like a lot of people, right? One of the things that I think art and movements do is fight loneliness. It makes you feel connected to the moment, connected to other people. Other people might be listening to this or like it. It doesn’t feel just like a letter from your significant other to you. It feels like somebody’s yelling out at the stars and it might even feel like you yelling out at the stars.”

Jazmine: I like that he commented on how a lot of people on the track could help fans combat loneliness. It does give a richness to his music and very much mirrors the film’s unionizing theme that there’s power in numbers. One person alone often can’t effect change, but a collective can create something lasting and, in regards to Boots’ music, something fun.

Rosie: This spoke to me on such a profound level. It seems simplistic, but art really can make you feel like a part of something, especially when you’re depressed or isolated. It also made a lot of sense to me because the film really moved me as someone who believes in unionizing and workers’ rights. So even on that minor level, it made me feel like there were other people out there who care about that stuff, which felt huge.

Activism and Organization in Sorry To Bother You

A lot of focus has been put on the spate of fantastic films coming out of Oakland and many people want to know why. For Riley, that’s still a question he’s trying to answer for himself:

“Honestly, I’m still trying to figure it out. I think everybody is just like, ‘What’s the deal with Oakland creativity right now? How’s that evolving? What is making it happen?’ I don’t know. I think it’s a confluence of things. I was able to get this happening because first, just over the last 20 years, Oakland was a hotbed for music and for independent people kind of hustling and making things happen. While at the same time, you know, some things like blew up commercially. So all that time you’ve got random things happening and people are intertwined.”

He continued:

“But the thing is, people have been making movies in Oakland for a long time. Honestly, a lot of them have been bad, but people have been figuring out how to get resources and get out there. We don’t have the industry here, so people are just figuring it out for themselves, and sometimes imitating whatever they see. There hasn’t been a group – at least among people of color, Black folks – to kinda like hone that and make that happen.”

Jazmine: With the internet and the fact that cameras on phones keep getting better and better, plus free editing software, I think that filmmaking has become more accessible to those marginalized people who economically were not able to participate. With that comes an avalanche of new talent and diverse voices, and just as we’re seeing with Oakland, more and more marginalized communities will be able to gain the access to tell their own stories.

Rosie: It’s so exciting to see the democratization of filmmaking in that way. Also – as ridiculous and ignorant as it is that it takes this – the success of films like Get Out and Sorry To Bother You will mean studios are more willing to commit money to projects by marginalized creators. So hopefully that support will begin to be there. I loved that Boots didn’t have some concrete answer for this. To be honest, throughout the entire event he was really clear that he wasn’t interested in creating sound bites or easy answers, and that’s such a good, honest, and rare way to look at promoting a film.

Jazmine: Yeah, he seemed like he wants the film to speak for itself. He’s very vocal about the process and things behind the scenes, but when it comes to promoting the film he refuses to play the game and I really admire that. The movie honestly sells itself.

When it comes to how we can keep supporting young creatives in Oakland, Riley had some great ideas:

“I do know that if we want to keep it going in the Bay Area, we’re gonna have to get cheaper rent. The thing is that to have a real artist scene, you have to have cheap rent. Otherwise, for people to stay there they’re going to have to work 16 hours a day at wherever. Or you get people that have some talent and then they have to use it for somebody else, and all they’re doing is making commercials or something like that. So the future of the Oakland film scene depends on that.”

Jazmine: This is what Sorry To Bother You is about. The theme of falling into indentured servitude just to have basic living necessities. Boots definitely has a point here that in order for those to live and create art, we first have to make it so our basic needs are met and that we’re able to have time to live.

Rosie: It’s one of the things that stood out strongest to me about the film. It’s inarguably a dystopian landscape, but one that looks exactly like ours because guess what? For a lot of people, we’re already there. No living wages, people living in extreme poverty, children in cages… There’s a lot wrong with our society as it is, and Boots does a great job of creating something that seems familiar but also absurd. It makes us question just how much we would put up with/ignore the most horrible things that are done to the marginalized.

Jazmine: When I saw WorryFree first show up in the movie I wasn’t shocked. I just thought, “This is something a lot of people would sign up for today, right now,” which is so shitty. Boots’ absurd borders on the devastating truth and that’s why Sorry To Bother You is such a good movie, that teetering he does with comedy and the truth.

People want easy answers to how we can help stop gentrification or support marginalized communities, and as Sorry To Bother You showcases, Riley believes in direct action:

“Well, there has to be a movement that happens in that case, that could make an initiative that calls for real world control. Often initiatives that have come up have been mitigated by people worrying about what the public will accept. And so they’ve been kinda halfway, like rent control. We need some real rent control, and even then you if you lock the pricing right now they’re still real expensive. But five years from now, if they’re locked in as they are now, that won’t seem as expensive. But to even get there, there needs to be stuff like eviction defense where groups of folks – and this is something that happens!–where groups of folks help someone who’s being evicted to just move their furniture in back in when the police are trying to move them out.”

He continued:

“It brings awareness to that and makes folks want to get an initiative like rent control out there and promote it. That’s it, really, if we’re just talking about how do we in any place make sure there’s a scene where people are able to create and just experiment and try things. Because when things are so desperate, what happens is people have to think commercially. And so they make choices that are corny because they’re based on what they think is sold and not based on what they think is better!”

Rosie: I love how unapologetic the film is, from it’s representation of unionizing and direct action to Boots’ vision to the soundtrack. Nothing about Sorry To Bother You ever panders or attempts to make the audience comfortable. It’s just a film that a director made because he wanted to tell a story in a particular way. It’s funny, the term auteur is so often thrown around, and is usually the domain of white men, but look at the definition: “a filmmaker whose personal influence and artistic control over a movie are so great that the filmmaker is regarded as the author of the movie.” He has already established himself without question as an auteur.

Jazmine: I love that this movie is uniquely his own vision. Boots was so adamant about preserving his vision of the film and soundtrack that we got something we’ve never seen before. Honestly, that’s what happens when the artist gets full creative freedom and isn’t forced by a giant studio to make something that appeals to the masses. I really hope this film brings a chance for more creators of color to put their ideas on the big screen.

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