Steve McQueen on His Glowing Tribute to African-American Music: ‘Singing Can Cure the Blues’
The Oscar-winning filmmaker behind ‘12 Years a Slave’ talks to Marlow Stern about his “Soundtrack of America,” why ‘Widows’ was overlooked, and collaborating with Kanye West.
On Friday, April 5, an exciting performing-arts venue in New York City called The Shed will be christened with “Soundtrack of America,” a five-night concert series “celebrating the unrivaled impact of African-American music on contemporary culture.” The series was conceived, curated and directed by the British filmmaker Steve McQueen, of 12 Years a Slave and Widows fame, with guidance from music-industry luminaries like Quincy Jones, Maureen Mahon, and No I.D.
In McQueen’s eyes, the “Soundtrack of America” pays homage to the history of African-American music in ways few other things have through a series of performances by contemporary artists that trace its history, from the blues to trap and beyond. The program took McQueen two-and-a-half years to bring to fruition.
“We consulted with experts in the field, and at a certain point I made a decision: let’s focus on up-and-coming acts,” McQueen tells The Daily Beast. “So we’re about the past and talking about the heritage, but we’re also about the here and now. The Shed is about experimenting and giving opportunities for artists to explore, and I think what we’ve done with the lineup is to hopefully do that.”
I sat down with McQueen at SIR Studios in Manhattan, where he took some time out of his busy schedule—roaming from studio to studio, playing the role of maestro—to discuss his latest ambitious endeavor, and much more.
How did you conceive of this sprawling project, “Soundtrack of America?”
I was making 12 Years a Slave, and I remembered there wasn’t an institution—a museum of significance—where I could experience African-American music, even though New Orleans is the birthplace of it. And moving on to Widows, which I made in Chicago, I would have thought I would have somewhere where I could visit in this other spot of significance in the development of African-American music, from electric blues to pop music, and there wasn’t any. Those were the seeds at first, way, way ago. And then when Alex [Poots] asked me to come up with an idea for The Shed, I had this idea of the linear—of the family tree of African-American music, and how once could replicate that within performance. We had long discussions and here we are now, on the verge of opening The Shed.
And you consulted with several experts in the field for this, including the legendary Quincy Jones.
Absolutely. And we were also dealing with academics and other people invested in the history of African-American music, as well as people like Quincy who loom large in the history of African-American music.
Why do you think there is a dearth of institutions in the U.S. dedicated to the history of African-American music?
All I can say is, if this music was invented in Europe there would be Taj Mahals made in its honor and your ears wouldn’t stop bleeding because people would keep on telling you “it started here.” So, I have no idea.
There does seem to be a degree of historical erasure when it comes to the contributions of African-American artists in music. For example, I think if you went up to ten people on the street and asked them who the “Godfather of Rock ‘n’ Roll” is, they’d probably say Elvis and not Chuck Berry. Do you think that plays into the alarming lack of these institutions dedicated to African-American music?
As far as directing this goes, how was it different from helming a film?
You’re dealing with the linear of the performance and the presentation—one act after the other, one song after the other, their chosen songs—and you’re dealing with geniuses, so it’s not about tailoring their performances as opposed to trying to present it, including what flows next and how it makes a narrative, even if it’s a disjointed one. That is what its about—friction as much as being smooth.
Did directing Kanye West’s music video for “All Day” prepare you at all for this, or pique your interest more in directing music?
Not even a little bit?
OK. I read that you’re interested in directing a musical. Is that true? And did you choose to curate and direct these musical acts for The Shed to sort of give yourself a crash course in directing musical performance?
I love to be stimulated and inspired, and I think what these acts do is actually do that. When I grew up as a child, with musicals like Singin’ in the Rain and Meet Me in St. Louis, it was wonderful and provided such a lift, such joy. Even if a narrative had a little tragedy in it, it was about how singing can cure the blues. So, we will see. One thing at a time!
Have the times played a role in this? These are dark times we’re living in right now, and like you said, music can cure the blues, so do you think that played a role in your decision to immerse yourself in music right now?
No—I think music is a constant. It wasn’t a reaction or a strategy or anything like that, it was just something that I was very much interested in and wanted to give a platform—especially young and emerging acts.
I thought Widows was one of the best films that came out last year with nary an ounce of fat on it. Why do you think it was excluded from the awards conversation? And looking at its competition, it must have been pretty infuriating for you because, I mean some of these films, like Green Book…give me a fucking break.
Sure, I was a bit disappointed. But I think people will discover it. Not all which is good is discovered immediately, and I’m hoping—and you can see from articles that have been written very recently—that it will be discovered. The fact that it was made is the most important thing. Yes, one would have liked to have gotten the pat on the back at that moment—but it’s not about that. Things are overlooked sometimes and things are discovered, and it seems like people are talking about it more now than they were when it opened, which is nice in an interesting way.
It’s a film that—unlike many of the other films in the awards conversation this past year—will stand the test of time, I think.
Yeah. And look, that’s what one is hearing—a lot. It’s just how it is. Again, we’re at a moment politically and socially where things are very different to how they were, and certain movies—and cultural moments—can be overlooked because of the times we live in. And that’s fine. That’s how it is. You move on. It’s important that it got made is the main thing. I think Viola Davis was absolutely incredible. I think Han Zimmer’s music was astounding. There’s a song on the soundtrack called “Son” and it’s incredible. The soundtrack on Widows is absolutely phenomenal. Viola Davis, Robert Duvall, Elizabeth Debicki, Daniel Kaluuya…all incredible. So, I’m very happy and very satisfied. If it was a bad film and it did well, it would have been a different situation! [Laughs] But no, you have to take things like that on the chin—not everything is going to go the way you want. And it’s all about my journey as an artist and where I want to be and what I want to do, and with Widows I made the film that I wanted to make. I’m hoping that people discover it.
Widows’ exclusion from the awards conversation seemed particularly telling given that Green Book, a retrograde handling of race-relations, won Best Picture. Have you seen it?
No, I haven’t. But I’d also like to add that Sade’s song for the film was absolutely incredible, and sometimes with cinema, it’s a situation where you hold up a mirror to the audience—the screen becomes a mirror—and sometimes what they don’t want to see is the environment they’re living in right now; they want to escape that reality they’re in. And possibly this was one of those times, and I’m hoping people can reflect back at it and take notice.
Let’s bring it back to music.
[Laughs] What were some of your biggest musical discoveries growing up? Moments that really opened your eyes?
The two big music moments were The Specials and Prince. Those were two things that were very, very important for me.
What was the first Prince song you heard or album you bought?
I went backwards! The first was 1999. I remember when that came on because they were advertising it on TV, and I bought the album. That had “Lady Cab Driver” and “Little Red Corvette” and all those great tunes, and I was like, wow. Then of course I went backwards, and after that it was Purple Rain. It was one of those moments in life where every year there would be a blood Prince album, and it was incredible! I loved him. He was an artist that was constantly experimenting and constantly pushing boundaries—not just with his music but with his appearance. And his group was diverse in many ways—straight, gay, black, white, Puerto Rican, whatever. It was incredible.