From Spirituals to Kanye West: Inside the Eclectic Music of ‘Underground’

Underground, ALDIS HODGE
WGN America

Noah, an escaped slave, runs for his life attempting to evade capture by the bounty hunters hot on his trail. Sensing they’re close, he crouches in some bushes, eager to avoid detection.

The year may be 1857, but the song playing throughout the opening sequence is Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead,” which not only lends the chase a jolt of adrenalin perfectly suited to what’s unfolding on screen, but it amplifies everything from the desperation in Noah’s eyes to his fearful pants.

In less than a few seconds, it captures and defines Underground’s most distinct feature: its music.

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“Music is a big, big part of the show conceptually,” says Laura Karpman, who serves as one of the composers on the WGN America drama along with Raphael Saadiq. “The executive producers really wanted the score and the songs to play a major narrative role in the piece. [And] they didn’t want anything to be what you would expect.”

In the case of the Kanye West track, Karpman says it was so important to the series that the creators included it in the script. “Misha [Green] and Joe [Pokaski] had to have the song. It influenced a lot of the soundtrack of the show. That breathing [in ‘Black Skinhead’] is a big part of the sound that carries on.”

Since then, the series—which follows a group of men and women as they attempt to escape from the Georgia plantation they’re forced to work on as slaves and travel to freedom—has continued to infuse its storytelling with music from the present, featuring songs from contemporary artists like The Weeknd, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals and Problem Child.

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But the soundscape of Underground isn’t just modern fare. Karpman, Saadiq and executive producer (and musical supervisor) John Legend all drew on spirituals and folk songs from the time period as well.

A scene towards the end of the pilot sees the slave characters singing at a funeral. For that, Karpman and Saadiq adapted the spiritual, “All God’s Children Got Shoes” after the producers said they wanted something “hopeful and less known.” Another example is that of Rosalee‘s theme—the music that follows her throughout the series—which Karpman says was drawn from a slave song. “I had a book of slave songs sitting on my desk and a lot of 18th century American music. For something like that I would go to that and look for something, but then make it our own.”

Legend, in particular, specifically wrote and composed a song for the series in which the lyrics are meant to serve as a map to freedom. “The show hinges on the discovery of the song,” says Karpman. “There is a lot of truth to that because a lot of the Negro spirituals were clues to the freedom train. For example, in “Swing Low Sweet Chariot Coming for to Carry Me Home,” there are clues in that song about how to get across the Ohio River.”

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“The thing about this show is it’s not a history lesson. It’s a dramatic thriller. [So] whatever [song] resonates emotionally is what’s right, whether it’s from 1920, 1980, 2016 or 1858,” says Karpman about creating a contemporary soundtrack for what is a historical series. “We are not the first people in the history of filmmaking to do this. But I think we are the first people to take a look at this period in American history that is hugely important—and we’re still feeling the ramifications of that today, unfortunately—and take it in a long form format and say, “This is America. This is our contemporary America, this is our America of the past. Take a listen. Take a look.”

Undeground airs at 10/9c on WGN America.