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Kamasi Washington on Writing a Score Worthy of Michelle Obama

“I thought, ‘If Michelle was going to write a song, what would it sound like?’ ” saxophonist says of music he wrote for new ‘Becoming’ doc

"She’s a down-to-earth, brilliant queen who lives next door," says Kamasi Washington of Michelle Obama, whose new Netflix doc he scored.


During the past few years, Kamasi Washington has found himself in places a jazz musician never would have expected to be. With the release of his aptly named 2015 triple LP, The Epic, the L.A. saxophonist and bandleader was deemed the genre’s next big thing. So there he was, in the studio with Kendrick Lamar and St. Vincent, or sharing a bill with Lamar and D’Angelo at a festival in Australia. Not to mention the time Herbie Hancock previewed some of his upcoming album for Washington. “He was like, ‘Check this one out,’ ” Washington says. “To have Herbie Hancock press ‘play’ for me is the type of thing that went beyond the dreams I ever had as a kid.”

This year marks another didn’t-see-that-coming milestone for Washington. The 39-year-old wrote and, with his band, performed the score for Becoming, the Michelle Obama documentary currently airing on Netflix. The soundtrack, out today, is another musical change-up for Washington. Coming after ambitious, genre-stuffed undertakings like The Epic and 2018’s Heaven and Earth, the 15 brief tracks on Becoming take in meditative piano pieces, rhythmic rumble, and light, breezy themes that recall Seventies orchestral disco.

Washington was approached about writing the score by the film’s director, Nadia Hallgren. After watching a rough cut, Washington, who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, signed on. “I always thought Michelle Obama was an amazing person when I would watch her interviews,” he recalls, “but the chance to hear her talking about her way of thinking about life — and saying what’s important and not — was really cool, so I was definitely interested in doing it.”

The work itself turned out to be far more intense than he’d imagined. Washington had only a few short weeks to compose and record the music, which he began writing while on a jazz cruise in January. For starters, Washington scanned the Obamas’ individual playlists to get a sense of what music they gravitated toward. “They like a certain kind of Motown-ish soul and R&B,” he says. “It’s hard to put into words, but there was a feel I could hear in the music they’re into.”

In the course of those few weeks, Washington conceived interludes that played off that sense of their taste, along with the moods of particular scenes. “Song for Fraser,” which accompanies reflections on Michelle Obama’s deceased father, is pensive and pretty. “Provocation,” heard in the segment of Becoming that addresses the often racist backlash to Barack’s election, is dark and brooding. “The idea that a person will hate you because of the way you look, that’s a harsh reality, so that piece is meant to be reflective of the thoughts behind that kind of thinking,” he says. “That’s why I put a contrapuntal movement in it. As an African American you read about and see those things, and they cause a rush of all kinds of thoughts.”

On the other end of the musical dial, “Becoming,” which is essentially the film’s theme song, is lush, hopeful, and Seventies-soul retro, complete with wah-wah guitar. “Nadia asked me to write a song that would capture what the movie was saying about Michelle Obama,” he says. “She’s a down-to-earth, brilliant queen who lives next door. She’s aware of who she is and what she has done, but she’s also aware of the people around her. So I tried to give that song a sense of depth and lightness. I thought, ‘If Michelle was going to write a song, what would it sound like?’ ”

Washington never met Michelle or Barack Obama during the creation of the score (and has yet to encounter them since he wrapped up his work), but he would receive notes passed down from the higher-ups. He says the couple loved “Becoming” “right out of the box,” although he would also hear feedback from them about “tone and color” in certain scenes, and adjust pieces accordingly. “There was a point where someone said, ‘There’s a note from Barack Obama,’ and it was, ‘OK, I guess I can’t argue back!’ ” Washington says, and laughs. “Music can push the watcher of a movie in one direction or another, and that wasn’t what I was trying to do. The music should be like a raft that carries along with the flow of the film.”

Washington, who had just finished a tour the night that live performances were shuttered due to COVID-19, was hoping to start a new album, but those plans are naturally on hold. He’s writing new material — on piano, not sax — but with so many recording studios temporarily closed, he’s not sure when he’ll get to put those ideas on tape or how they’ll eventually sound. “I’m hearing it in my head,” he says. “My normal approach to making a record is to write a bunch of songs and go in and record them. And as we start to play them, momentum will start to develop and ideas will start to show up.”

In the meantime, he’s watching all the movies in his collection, pondering a graphic novel, and reveling in plenty of live music — albeit on film. Going down the YouTube rabbit hole, he’s repeatedly watched a late-Seventies live show by funk icon Bootsy Collins and his Rubber Band (“my soundtrack for chilling out”), as well as concerts by James Brown, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Leonard Bernstein (conducting Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring). “I’m listening to a lot of live recordings maybe because I miss playing live,” he admits. “I don’t think I’ve gone this long without playing music with people, ever. So I’m curating my own little festivals.”

You would think the time at home would allow Washington to process the experiences he’s had over the years, which include smoking a joint with Snoop Dogg (in whose band Washington once played), playing Coachella, and taping a live performance for last month’s series finale of Homeland, where Claire Danes’ Carrie Mathison was a fan of Washington’s cinematic jazz. Has he processed all those experiences yet? “Well,” he says with a pause, “I guess I haven’t started to look back like that yet. I haven’t gotten to that place yet.”

Asked why he thinks he’s been so in-demand, Washington demurs. “It’s impossible to answer that, at least right now,” he says. “I don’t think any one person is the ‘future of jazz.’ I took it that they were saying I’m doing well and the music is doing well and I’m helping jazz. As a musician, we’re always working, and sometimes the world is watching what you’re doing.”