3 Questions With Tamar-kali, Film Composer Extraordinaire

By Sameer Rao Apr 13, 2018

A photograph of Tamar-kali should accompany any future dictionary definitions of #BlackGirlsRock. Armed with creative roots in punk rock, hip hop, classical music and her mother’s Gullah culture, the Brooklyn native has transcended stylistic barriers throughout her career.

After stints fronting underground bands like Song of Seven and working with Fishbone and Outkast, the classically-trained vocalist began her solo career in the late ’90s. She achieved prominence as a singer and multi-instrumentalist in New York, and later organized tributes to Nina Simone through the Black Rock Coalition. Her local renown turned into national attention when she was featured in "Afro-Punk," the 2003 documentary about Black artists in regional punk and hardcore scenes that eventually became a movement and festival. She captured her varied musical background and Black feminist politics in her solo releases, including her 2010 full-length album, "Black Bottom."

Tamar-kali has since empoyed her talents in the world of film composition, scoring Dee Rees‘ movie, "Mudbound," after contributing songs to Rees’ previous films, "Pariah" and "Bessie." You can experience her latest score in "Come Sunday," a biopic about Bishop Carlton Pearson, which premieres on Netflix today (April 13). 

Colorlines spoke to Tamar-kali about her musical upbringing, film scores and representing for Black women. 

Describe how you got involved with punk rock and your experiences as a Black woman in a genre that, despite its Black roots, is often associated with Whiteness.

Music was always a part of my life, and when I was in high school, New York was known for culture clash, if you want to call it that. Hip hop and punk rock were happening in the same spaces. It had that whole "alternative" stamp, which included a couple of [genres]. I started really getting into punk rock and hardcore at a time when I was starting to question authority, asking real questions about our government and history as a nation, my history, where I came from, how my people got here. Hardcore was a great conduit to those emotions because they’re really difficult and intense. The music could accompany them, and I could work out those aggressions in the mosh pit. 

The thing is, the New York scene was pretty diverse. You might be one of a few Black people in the audience at a national touring act’s show, but in terms of the scene itself, you had bands like Absolution, Burn, Orange 9mm, Bushmon—it was immersive. There were a lot of Asian and Latino kids. A lot of times, the lingering issue for me was gender, and not race. I used to dress in a very masculine fashion because I had boy envy, there was a sense of freedom I saw guys having in the pit. I wasn’t relegated to anything, but I couldn’t get that kind of fellowship with them in general. My pushback came when I got with other sisters, who were writers and players in the rock scene, and we formed a collective, Sista Grrrl. That helped me find like-minded women who weren’t there to support the boys, but to be part of the community. 

How did you transition from that background to scoring films?

I’m a film score composer because of Dee Rees. I was asked to lend music to the soundtrack for "Pariah," as she was looking for diegetic music—music that would exist in the film’s world. Her cinematographer, Bradford Young, suggested my work. It then parlayed into a cameo appearance, performing in the film as myself and doing a song over the ending credits. That was really exciting for me, especially because that film is iconic for queer youth trying to discover themselves. 

Dee got familiar with my work from there, especially stuff I’ve done with a string ensemble, as well as a historical show that involves blues.  She told me she was doing a biopic on Bessie Smith for HBO, and wanted me to write the score. I had such faith in her vision that I said, "Absolutely!" even though I’d never written a film score before. I didn’t get that job, but I did sing on the soundtrack, and with her next project, "Mudbound," she just made it happen. ["Come Sunday" director Joshua Marston] had seen "Mudbound," and was interested in working with me through that. 

With these scores, you’re now creating in another world traditionally dominated by White men. Do you see the pipelines for Black women in these major-budget creative fields growing? 

I’m a newborn baby in this regard, so I need to gain enough experience, in composing and moving through this world, in order to expand on that with any real understanding. I love that little old me can even be a spark for conversations around more equitable representation. That’s amazing. At the same time, I’m still trying to get my bearings. One thing I find important: This is a wonderful moment for [people in power in this industry] to take a beat and realize that their motivation, if it’s not to exclude, has an impact if they aren’t informed enough to make a more equitable choice.