Awards Daily TV speaks with composer Kurt Farquhar about his work on Black Lightning – The CW’s newest addition to their wildly successful DC television universe.
In a period when the superhero genre has saturated pop culture Black Lightning is the unique example of the genre that has found a different way. The show engages difficult, socially relevant topics like police brutality, the Black Lives Matter movement, and gang violence. Two weeks ago Black Lightning debuted to the best premiere ratings for the CW in the past two years as well as a perfect 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes.
Composer Kurt Farquhar’s career as a composer for television began in the nineties with shows like Sister Sister, Smart Guy, Moesha, The Parkers, as well as The King of Queens. His professional relationship with Samil & Mara Brock Akil, the creators of Black Lightning, began all the way back with Girlfriends and continued through The Game and Being Mary Jane.
Speaking with Awards Daily TV Kurt touches on why this is such a monumental moment in his career and why Black Lightening is resonating so strongly with audiences and critics.
What first inspired you to work on Black Lightning?
I’ve worked with Salim and Mara Brock Akil for many years going all the way back to Girlfriends, The Game, and Being Mary Jane. I heard they were interested in this Black Lightning and I knew immediately that I wanted to work with them because I have been very excited about the idea of working on a superhero type of show. Hopefully I bring a unique and different sound to the genre and I’m excited for everyone to see it.
Were you a fan of the original comics?
I knew of the comics beforehand but I cannot tell a lie and say I grew up on them! By the time they came out I wasn’t just a kid anymore.
What has it been like receiving such an overwhelmingly positive reaction from fans and critics?
It is amazing. There is nothing I can say to explain the strength and power of this show. I think it’s going to hit a lot of people in different way. I’m really excited to be reading the great reviews that have come out because a lot of them are bolstering the exact same things we’ve been saying in the studio. I’m seeing people saying some of the exact same things I have been saying.
I feel like I am just a regular guy from Chicago. I still feel my mid-western roots and am the every guy. Sometimes I call myself just some blue collar worker in the entertainment industry. This show from the moment I saw it I just knew it was something special and that they were writing something that was going to touch everyone’s hearts. It’s going to make them feel, think, get mad, and I knew I had to be a part of it.
Black Lightning is the newest installment in the CW’s massive DC Television Universe. When you started working on the show did you try to stay in the same soundscape of the other shows or did you go in a different direction?
I’m a big fan of Blake Neely (composer of Arrow, The Flash, Riverdale) and I think he is just brilliant. It’s hard not to be influenced by all of his great work but we definitely aimed to create something different. Salim and I had a conversation very early on and we knew that the other shows wouldn’t be where we took our beats from and instead aimed to expand the universe even further. When you look at Black Lightning you realize it’s a totally different look, it has a pretty sharp edge to it. It manages to be very sweet and warm and then takes a left hand turn and it’s as if you were in The Wire. It’s intense that way.
In creating the score for Black Lightning did you draw inspiration from anything specific?
I’m combining elements of trap hip-hop, orchestral scoring, and a liberal use of live voice. I’m a big fan of creating edgy sounds and sampling all kinds of weird stuff so throughout the show there is a lot of melodic content but I also made sure to play with edgy gritty sounds. The score should feel modern and at the same time and have elements of what people have come to know as the anthemic superhero sound.
What were some of the unique challenges of working on Black Lightning?
One of the most substantive challenges is how wide the show swings. There are these sweet moments watching Jefferson Pierce as the principal of the school and interacting with his daughters that makes the show feel like any regular family drama. Then the show takes a hard left turn into a darkness that has this edge on the level of The Wire. So how do you make all of those elements seem like they are from the same voice? I began the Jefferson/Black Lightning theme as a piano theme so it feels at home when it’s in the warmer periods. When the show gets darker you’re still hearing that melodic content but now there is an edge.
Another one of the more interesting sounds is what we do with Tobias Whale, the leader of The 100. His sound is so exotic and different, a lot of the sounds you here under him are things you would never normally hear on a network television show.
How is Black Lightning different than your work on your other projects throughout your career?
I’ve had a lengthy career and a lot of it has been in the comedy world with shows like Moesha, King of Queens, and Girlfriends. Lately I’ve become more known for dramas like Being Mary Jane and The Quad. Those are all emotional, smaller, and even ethereal scores. I like them a lot. I find myself using those elements sometimes in Black Lightning because of that live swing that the show has. What we’re doing with Black Lightening takes that all to the next step, it doesn’t feel or sound like anything else on television. It has its own voice.
I also have a great collaboration with Kier Lehman, the music supervisor. He is such a genius and along with Salim and Mara they have chosen a ton of interesting songs. There is almost constant music going on throughout the show. That makes my job interesting because instead of writing the beginning of a score I’m weaving and coming up out of a song put in by Kier. I had to make it feel natural for the audience so that there wasn’t a clear answer of where the song ended and the score began and vice versa.
Do you have a favorite scene or moment so far?
This one is so hard! With my other projects I can come up with an answer but for Black Lightning it changes every ten seconds.
The opening scene in the premiere is brilliantly written. Jefferson gets pulled over by the police and his daughters are in the car with him. The officers have him bent over the car and his daughters want to film everything with their phones and there is an overlying fear that someone will be shot. It was such a tense and real moment. I completely agree with those girls but as a father with more experience I know one slight move and it could all go wrong in a way where somebody doesn’t walk away. The indignity of it all. Salim has talked about this in interviews that this particular scene was actually taken from something that has actually happened to him. That is a very powerful scene and I can’t wait for everyone to see it.
I’m also a big fan of the scene where we see one of the major elements of his powers come to fruition. His girls have been taken and he is at the police station arguing with them to take action. He then leaves and is standing there in anger, turns to his wife and goes “I’m going to get our girls.” The way he says that and where he goes is pretty deep.
Why do you think this is the perfect time for Black Lightning to come to television?
With everything that is going on in the world. The writers are drawing from real experiences and stories that audiences can relate to. I think one of the amazing elements of the writing is that they’re not pointing fingers. They aren’t trying to say this one is right and that one is wrong and instead are showing that just like in real life there are a lot of different points of view. People can see the same situation and then experience it differently. Our team is open to multiple points of view and it makes it all the more complex.
From a composer standpoint my job is to tell people how to feel through music and that writing makes my job so much more complex. I don’t have a blanket right and wrong to work with and I leave certain things ambiguous. As an African-American I experience some of the scenes I am working with a little differently which adds an extra texture and insight. Because of all that I think the show will be around for a long time. They have so many great stories to tell.
I will humbly say that people will be talking about this show in every aspect, including the music. What Kier and I are able to do is special. We’ve worked together on a number of projects most notably Being Mary Jane which was known for its music. Expect that on steroids. This is a show worth showing up for. I have rarely worked on a show where everything came together this well. The cast is stunning. The mind-numbingly brilliant main cast. On top of that the guest actors in every role are swinging for the fences. The entire team from set to makeup to the visual effects, it all comes together.
Speaking of guest stars Jill Scott will make an appearance in the first season. Can we expect any surprises with her music?
That has not occurred as of yet. It has been attempted but who knows it could happen. Let me tell you though, you are going to be so scared of Jill in this role! It’s an intense role and this character for her is going to be monumental. It’s quite something and not a lot of people will be expecting it. She is absolutely amazing in the role. She brings a certain realness and gravitas times ten.
In addition to Black Lightning are you currently working on any other projects?
The second season of The Quad premieres this week. I’m also working on a court room procedural called In Contempt that premieres in April.
Black Lightning currently airs Tuesdays on The CW.