‘Genius: MLK / X’: How Score and Songs Illuminate the Work of 1960s Civil Rights Leaders

“I felt not only that it was important, but that I had an obligation to be a part of it,” says composer Terence Blanchard about writing the score for National Geographic’s “Genius: MLK / X,” the eight-part series about the lives of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

“Growing up in New Orleans, being a serious believer in the teachings of Martin Luther King, and then learning about Malcolm X, I understand how important it is for young people to know this history,” says the two-time Oscar nominee (“Da 5 Bloods,” “BlacKkKlansman”) and multiple Grammy winner.

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Music supervisor Amani (Burt Blackarach) Smith agrees. “Learning about Malcolm X and Martin Luther King when I was in high school and college completely shaped and changed how I started to approach life. But there were so many things, so many nuances, that I didn’t know. And if I didn’t know, then the public has no idea about a lot of these things.”

For Blanchard, the challenge was finding the right sound for each leader, “to create this delineation between the two camps from an early part of their lives, yet the power of their convictions is similar at certain points. I viewed both as being honorable men. Their stories are so powerful and so unique.”

Blanchard’s jazz trumpet is heard occasionally over the eight hours of “MLK / X,” but much of the score is played by strings, percussion and the occasional flute. “It was all about storytelling, allowing the story to tell me where to go,” he explains.

Asked about the most challenging scene to score, Blanchard didn’t hesitate: “The one where they meet. Here are these two very powerful figures in the African-American community, coming at these same issues from divergent points of view. There’s a tension that needs to build, but then there’s a realization for everybody watching. They are trying to resolve the same issues in our community.”

Music supervisor Smith was not only able to find songs that established the 1950s and ’60s setting for much of the drama, he also commissioned new songs from artists including Jacob Banks and Aloe Blacc. “Those two are masters at writing songs to scenes,” he says. “There is so much emotion in their voices.”

He quotes executive producer Gina Prince-Bythewood as saying, “We don’t want it to sound like a museum piece.” That, he adds, “completely opened up the ability to share this message with voices from all generations.”

He confesses to being “really passionate” about convincing Pulitzer Prize-winning musician Rhiannon Giddens (“Omar”) to write a song for the series. “The song that she wrote was used for the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, the most iconic moment in civil-rights history. She was just able to nail it.” Her gospel-flavored anthem, “Home,” is a highlight of the six-song soundtrack EP.

Blanchard loved the idea of adding contemporary performers to the soundtrack, as the issues in the series “are still issues today. Artists today have a voice and a say in how we should be attacking these issues. There are voices out there today that resonate.”

“Oftentimes I was in my studio in tears, working on these scenes,” Blanchard says. “They only thing [these men] were trying to do was to make sure that we got a fair shot at life in this country. And they were cut down in the prime of their lives. The emotion of that powered everything I created for this show.

“I was saying to myself, what is it about us that made people hate us so much that they would want to kill our leaders?”

To which Smith adds: “And why is it still happening today?”

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