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“IT’S ABOUT US”: THE MAKING OF JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH: THE INSPIRED ALBUM

Interview by Miles Marshall Lewis

The new Warner Bros. Pictures feature Judas and the Black Messiah (in theaters and on HBO Max) trains a lens on Fred Hampton—chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party and deputy chairman of the national BPP—his relationship with a traitorous, conflicted FBI informant and the charismatic young leader’s assassination in 1969 at the hands of law enforcement, in conjunction with the FBI.

Inspired by the halcyon days of chart-topping Black film soundtracks, two veteran record execs—RCA SVP Marketing Archie Davis and SVP A&R Aaron “Dash” Sherrod teamed up with executive producer Hit-Boy to create a contemporary musical complement to the film for the House of Nipper.

Boasting contributions from H.E.R., Nas, Rakim, a dream alliance of Jay-Z and the late Nipsey Hussle (on the standout “What It Feels Like”), among others, the album is composed of songs that, though not actually heard in the film, together make a powerful statement of their own.

We asked Sherrod and Davis, who is also the CEO of creative agency/production house Six Course Inc., about the process of creating Judas and the Black Messiah: The Inspired Album.

First things first: How did you get Rakim?
Archie Davis: That was a passionate and heartfelt request from Mama Akua [Njeri], Chairman Fred Hampton’s widow, and Fred Hampton Jr. Rakim is a close friend of the family. So they put me in contact with him. From our first conversation, he was saying, “I’m honored to contribute. I hope you’re pleased with what I deliver.” And I’m like, “You a god MC!”

What insights did Akua Njeri and Fred Hampton Jr. offer?
Aaron “Dash” Sherrod: In those immediate conversations, it was about empathy, understanding, education and learning, which applied to the whole project, not just the music. I needed the deeper understanding of their perspectives to be able to carry the responsibility of a project like this, and I’m grateful that they really respected and trusted our vision.

Soundtracks were essential to the success of so many Black films. Why do you think they’ve largely disappeared?
Davis: I don’t think they did disappear. It’s just that you’ve gotta have the right blend of the movie being beautiful and the people doing the project being intentional. It has to be cohesive. That’s what I feel is missing from some other soundtracks. Sometimes people just throw songs together rather than trying to make a focused body of work. This project, as they laid it out for us, gave us the groundwork to put together a project with impact.

Even back in the day, though, there were cohesive soundtracks—Boomerang was L.A. and Babyface; Death Row was at the helm on Above the Rim; more recently, with Black Panther, it was TDE [Top Dawg Entertainment]. We kinda used that same approach and made it more than just a marketing tool; we wanted to make the album as impactful as the movie. We were very intentional.

What were some of the other soundtracks that inspired your approach?
Sherrod: Waiting to Exhale, Poetic Justice, Slam…

Davis: American Gangster, Deep Cover, Juice, Jason’s Lyric, Boyz n the Hood, Menace II Society and Next Friday, with Aaliyah. The Soul Food soundtrack, too.

Sherrod: All those projects were cohesive, and it felt like everybody wanted to share what the movies meant to them. I think that’s how we attacked it, too. We wanted to make an album that’s not about politics; it’s about us, as far as Black artists and Black culture and what that sounds and feels like in 2021.

Davis: It’s not just an album; it’s a statement about what we’ve been going through all these years. Art imitating life.

Why was it important to make the music contemporary instead of using the sounds of the period?
Sherrod: Chairman Fred Hampton was assassinated at 21. We wanted to embody what a 21-year-old in this day and age would be listening to when they get into their car. What motivates them to deliver a speech or even live everyday life? We wanted to make sure to say that even though the story happened many years ago, what would that be right now?

If they’re 21 years old, you’ve got artists like G Herbo, who’s 19, and Polo G, who’s 22, and H.E.R., who’s 23. These young people are so important to the culture; they have a voice, an influence. We wanted to show that and at the same time put them on a platform where you could hear a Black Thought, a Nas. Because even though there’s an age gap, it’s the same message.

Davis: And if you think about the entry points for communication and education with this project, I think our including all these perspectives gives us access to a wider net of people who may not have known who Chairman Fred Hampton was. But when you hear Polo G say “Chi-Town leader like Fred Hampton,” it might expand your perspective a little bit.

We also wanted to do something that felt timeless, like that Nip and Hov record. That wasn’t just working on a song; it was working on some art. We’re honored that we had that on this project.

Sherrod: Or a hot, young artist like Polo G—to have a Fred Hampton speech before his song opening your eyes. Now you’re looking on Twitter and seeing these young kids talking about Chairman Fred Hampton. That’s amazing. They’re informing themselves about the Black Panthers and actually reading and doing their research. You can’t buy that. That’s more important than anything, and that’s what we set out to do.

Going back to what you were saying about the album being cohesive, did that hold true behind the scenes as well?
Davis: When you’re doing soundtracks, it can be kinda hard getting artists from different labels on one project, and the artists themselves actually helped fight to put their records on here. Having Hit-Boy with Nas and all these people at the top of their game not only putting their best in but making sure this project got to the masses means so much. For them to be selfless, understanding, to fight for this—that’s amazing. It feels like something we all did as a culture. It’s about unity between Black creatives. 

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