EmmoLei Sankofa’s Impact on TV Soundtracks From Music and Docs to TV Series
Posted on: Dec 14, 2023
EmmoLei often works elements of morse code into her pieces and has previously worked on Emmy award-winning Lizzo’s Watch Out For the Big Grrrls, a documentary series, STARZ’s Step Up and has also created tracks for brands / musicians like Nelly, Ella Mai, Nike, Buzzfeed, Vans and Kamala Harris for the People. EmmoLei Sankofa most recently acted as the lead composer on Hulu’s The Other Black Girl, a psychological social-commentary series produced by Rashida Jones.
She spoke with Staff Me Up about her career path, inspirations and advice for people looking to break in.
How did you get started in the industry?
I went to Savannah College of Art and Design to get my master’s in sound design. At that institution, we pretty much learned everything from production sound to post-production sound. I went there with the intent to be a film composer.
I had a professor in my undergrad say to me, “Your music is really cinematic. You should investigate what being a film composer would be like or just what that could potentially mean for you.” He suggested SCAD and I went. SCAD was very collaborative in that we were literally taking classes in the same buildings and somebody was shooting a film every single weekend.
After that you went to LA?
Two of us from SCAD went out to LA kind of at the same time. We kind of trickled out months after each other, but people were shooting their own indie films in the midst of that. Some of them were also working in development as studios or as writers, or under people who were writing.
When they got on a big project, they would crew up and bring everybody on it. [It] became a system where we worked our way up. I used to go to directors first about music starting as a production sound mixer.
How did you get your first job in Hollywood?
I just started to build my network by working on projects with my peers and also leveraging professional organizations and even the Composers Diversity Collective, which kind of happened midway through my tenure in California.
When Get Out came out, I loved the score. I reached out to the composer Michael Abels because I was like, “Who did this score? This score is amazing.”
Getting my start was just a mix of strategy, intention and also being in the right place at the right time. In addition to understanding how to leverage the momentum to get to the next space and understanding,
What was the experience like being lead composer for The Other Black Girl?
That was interesting because this was my first time working on a narrative show. The music was getting cleared every time, with no notes from the show. They’re like, “You’re fine. We trust you.”
The pressure was on me to help nail the musical tone and bring the vision to life musically and score wise, because it was just me. I was engaging with the showrunners and producers. I was also engaging with the network’s feedback. That was my first time really having to navigate and incorporate different types of feedback.
I feel like having that eclectic background makes you super valuable because you understand so many different aspects of music, film and TV.
The biggest value from working on the different projects that I worked on is getting the experience of working in different collaborative environments because the workflow is not always the same from project to project.
Being able to have the muscle to flip and adjust and be adaptable to the way this team is working on this project, because even with Step Up, Lizzo and I were also doing Horror Noire, I was doing those three projects at once. I think that it kind of shook the nerves from when you get that first big project and it’s like, “Okay, you’re trying to prove yourself in this.” To having a steady flow of work and feeling like, “Okay, I can relax now.”
Do you have any upcoming projects that you can talk about that you’re excited about?
I just did Project CC that was released on Disney+. It was a part of season 2 of the Launchpad series. I was very nervous about doing a Disney project because Disney has a very strong brand.
It’s going to be more Disney than you. Is that kind of what you were thinking?
I thought that, but then I got in the mix and I was like, “there has to be a way that I blend the two.” I was able to do that. I had so much fun working with that because again, it revealed to me that maybe I can work on some bigger Disney films now and I don’t have to be so timid about it if an offer like that comes across my email.
That gave me a lot of confidence. It sounds so different from anything you’ve ever heard from me for film and TV.
And that’s how you grow.
Exactly. Getting out of your comfort zone and trying something different. You’ll see actors go into music or they’ll go from romantic comedy to drama and I feel like we want to put people in a box, but none of us want to be in a box.
It’s kind of funny, it should work both ways. Getting more experience with your craft in every avenue possible is only going to make you better.
What would your advice be for someone who wants to compose for film and TV?
Work with as many people as possible. Get your hands on as many films as possible. Because I’ve had friends reach out to me and say, “I want to get into film scoring.” I’m like, “Okay, cool. Come in the mix.” And they’re like, “Eh, I don’t know. This is hard. I can’t create on demand like this, or my brand doesn’t work like this.”
I say, “You need to see when the stakes are not high, you need to get a feel for what this is like and what this requires of you, because it’s not for everyone.” It’s not as simple as just making a tune in your bedroom where you have all the time in the world. It’s like you’re on the hook and you have to deliver.
That’s what it is, some workflows are different. When you’re working with indie productions, you might have more time. You have to understand the stakes will be high sometimes and you have to know that you can deliver. The other thing is relationships. Just building relationships with the decision-makers can go a long way.
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