I SEE U, Episode 83: An Erasure of Black Excellence

Award-winning film composer and genre-defying musician, Kris Bowers, shares insight into how he’s shaped his remarkably versatile career and what steered his passion to working on his latest project, Chevalier.


Pictured Left to Right: Left - Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges from the film Chevalier, Middle- Oscar Nominated and Emmy Award winning composer Kris Bowers, Right: Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges and Joseph Prowen as Mozart from the film Chevalier


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The biographical film, Chevalier, is based on the life of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges – a Black, French composer and violinist of the 1700s. As the movie unfolds, there's an intriguing line spoken by Chevalier, in which the lead character, played by actor Kelvin Harrison Jr., states, "I realized... the more I excelled, the less I was alone." With those resounding words, combined with a riveting film score, an interesting takeaway begins to emerge: Excellence is the best deterrent to racism. Join us as host Eddie Robinson chats unguarded with the film's composer, Kris Bowers. The Emmy Award-winning musician – whose work includes the score to the Oscar-winning film, Green Book; the biographical sports movie, King Richard; and Netflix hit dramas, When They See Us, and Bridgerton – offers up a candid conversation centered around the reasons why Chevalier and the lives of so many other persons of color, along with their contributions to art and culture, are left out of the larger historical narrative. Bowers also reveals to I SEE U how he felt his career was being ‘categorized' and limited by the kinds of projects presented to him. An accomplished photographer and filmmaker himself, he also shares deep introspection surrounding his Oscar-nominated short film, A Concerto Is a Conversation, which received critical acclaim for its portrayal of race in America, as the story of the relationship with his grandfather is pieced together through music.


Full Transcript

Eddie Robinson: The movie Chevalier is based on an untold true story of Joseph Bologne, a black French, 18th century composer and virtuoso violinist. The film’s composer, Kris Bowers says during research for the movie, he was frustrated when he came across an article that called him The Black Mozart. But critics have said in many cases, It’s Mozart, who should be called the White Chevalier?

Kris Bowers: Just in general, we don’t consider what black creators are creating to be of the same caliber or level as whatever white creators have created in the same time period.

Eddie Robinson: I’m Eddie Robinson and stay tuned as we talk candidly with award-winning composer and pianist. Kris Bowers. What led him to this project in the first place as we grapple with the story of another person’s legacy diminished from history because of the color of his skin.

Eddie Robinson: Oh yeah. I feel you. We hear you. I SEE U.

Eddie Robinson: You’re listening to I SEE U. I’m your host, Eddie Robinson. Award-winning composer here. One of the most versatile artists in Hollywood right now and his scoring work can be heard across a wide range of film and television projects, including the Oscar-nominated Green Book. King Richard. Emmy-nominated When They See Us, and smash hit on Netflix. Bridgeton. The Julliard educated pianist is set to offer up to both music and movie lovers. A remarkable film from Searchlight Pictures entitled Chevalier, the Historical Drama about Joseph Bologne.

Eddie Robinson: Chevalier De Saint George, a black French classical composer, virtuoso violinist, and renowned champion fencer whose legacy many of us had not been familiar with until recently. And this amazing Los Angeles native provides the score for this film.

Eddie Robinson: He’s working on several other projects that we’re hoping he could give us some updates on, and we’re just so incredibly excited to have with us. Virtually from his home in Los Angeles, the phenomenal composer extraordinaire, Kris Bowers. Kris, thank you enormously for taking time out of your schedule to be a guest on I SEE U.

Kris Bowers: Yeah. Thank you, Eddie. I appreciate it.

Eddie Robinson: Well, Kris, I first want to find out before we get into Chevalier, yay, and some amazing projects that you’ve worked on, where are you getting your inspiration from? The works you’ve put out the features, the people you’ve worked with, Jay-Z, Kanye West, Aretha Franklin, a Tribe called Quest, Ava DuVernay.

Eddie Robinson: Saida Garrett. Time period pieces you’ve already performed at the White House for the Obama’s, and there it already feels like you’ve just tapped the surface in the journey of even more incredible work that’s on the way. Where is all of this energy and this inspiration coming from with all the diverse work that you’ve done in your portfolio?

Eddie Robinson: Where is it coming from? What’s your source of inspiration?

Kris Bowers: Yeah, I mean that’s, that’s a big, big question to start with. I feel like, I feel like it’s, I mean, when I’m working on projects or collaborating, you know, so much of the inspiration is coming from those collaborators are coming from the project.

Kris Bowers: You know, I think about a show like When They See Us, you know, my job as a composer is first and foremost an accompanist, and so I’m like watching the show without any music and I’m feeling. Incredibly palpable and visceral emotions just from the storytelling, from the acting, from the way that it’s been shot and directed.

Kris Bowers: And so, you know, so much of my process is really just trying to. React or take what that initial reaction is and find a way to re-express that through my music. So, you know, my process always is like watching or reading or absorbing whatever it is that I’m, uh, collaborating with whatever medium or material I’m collaborating with, and then spending some time just meditating on how it makes me feel, connecting to, or reminding myself of.

Kris Bowers: Uh, examples of my own personal life that make me feel those same ways sometimes. Also looking at pieces of music that have made me feel some of those feelings. And then starting as a jazz pianist, I then go to the piano and improvise most of the time, trying to make myself feel the way that those things are making me feel.

Kris Bowers: And once I happen upon a melody or a chord or some sort of idea that feels similar to. When I was feeling from the material, then I go back to the material and see how it’s working together. And I find that anytime that I’m playing piano and I am struck with an emotion, uh, very honestly from what I’m playing that feels connected to the material, it oftentimes will, uh, be spot on or at least close to, to working for the project.

Eddie Robinson: And that sounds so awesome to me because the beauty of I SEE U and our podcast is that I realized from the start of me putting together pitches for the show. You know, I what I, how I wanted this show to feel and the look and sound. You know, I ventured to explore audio in a way that allows guests, newsmakers musicians, such as yourself.

Eddie Robinson: To tell their stories, to tell their narratives. While an element of music is played in the background, not a form of distraction per se, but helping the guests tell their stories through emotion with, with the music, almost as if the music is a character in and of itself. In that particular segment with the guests.

Eddie Robinson: And I’ve always loved the dynamic of movies and the score, right? And so I wanted that dynamic of music and conversation embedded into our I SEE U episodes. And I’ve always told my, uh, the mantra for my staff here is audio is not meant to be heard. Audio is meant to be felt. Does that line sort of resonate with you?

Eddie Robinson: Here you are a sound designer, you know, a film scorer, I mean a composer. Does that sort of, that recipe sort of speak to you as well?

Kris Bowers: Yeah, a hundred percent. I think that’s such a beautiful way of saying it, and it’s also like amazing to hear that part of your process. I mean, for me, I started playing piano when I was a kid because my parents wanted me to, oh, and they, they, they wanted me to, before I was born.

Kris Bowers: They had this whole like, plan for,

Eddie Robinson: I heard your mother played musical pieces like piano compositions while you were in the womb.

Kris Bowers: Exactly. Exactly. Yeah.

Eddie Robinson: Amazing.

Kris Bowers: But I think that like my organic connection to the instrument came when I learned that I could, could express feeling through it when I was like, oh wow.

Kris Bowers: I am angry right now. And I don’t feel like there’s a place where I can express that anger verbally or physically or any of that. But I can play piano and play from this angry headspace. And all of a sudden after 30 minutes applying, I wasn’t angry anymore. And I was like, oh, wow. Like this thing can be a vehicle for feeling and emotion.

Kris Bowers: And just like you were saying, I feel like when I started listening to scores, I immediately recognized that I could feel the journey of the movie and the, the. Sense of adventure or whatever it was in the movie, just by listening to the music and, and having that emotional connection to music. I immediately was like, well, this is what I want to do with my life.

Kris Bowers: Just cuz I feel like that’s, uh, why I gravitate towards music so much.

Eddie Robinson: You were listening to I SEE U Eddie Robinson. We’re chatting with Emmy Award-winning composer and pianist. Kris Bowers. He’s composed of music for the film Chevalier. He’s also known for his work on films like Green Book, King Richard, and the very popular Netflix series Bridgeton.

Eddie Robinson: Give us some insight as to what it was like for you growing up in Los Angeles. I mean, in essence, you know how you were really blessed with. Having a remarkable family foundation and this West coast environment as an early backdrop for like shaping and molding your creative pursuit of music and film and television.

Kris Bowers: Yeah, I mean, like you said, I had a very strong family presence. You know, my grandfather moved out here kind of in that great migration era and he was one of 13 and many of his siblings came out here as well. And so there’s like, you know, I probably have like 50 family members in LA and, and very like, uh, intimately, no, uh, most of them just because of how much we spent time together when I was growing up.

Kris Bowers: But my parents, they really were intent on music being something that could help me achieve and succeed in, in educational spaces and in the world. I feel like. My parents didn’t necessarily, and neither of them were musicians. My dad was a drummer when he was in high school, but he didn’t pursue that as a career.

Kris Bowers: And you know, you would think that parents putting their kid or, you know, playing music or piano on, on my mom’s womb or stomach when I was in there would mean that they were like seeing me as destined to be this great musician. But I feel like a lot of it was really their idea that. Music would be my ticket to get into spaces.

Kris Bowers: Um, and so for so much of my early childhood, they scoured LA to find the best music education spaces, but also because they felt like it would put me in the best environments. Uh, it would like, you know, be something that I could use to get into. Different schools. Like I went to, uh, a middle school that had a music magnet program.

Kris Bowers: I went to a high school that was an arts high school. And so it was a really great high school, but also because you had to get accepted based on your, your, um, merit as an artist. And then it really became clear when I went to college because my parents were like, at that point, wanting me to go to a normal college to get a regular education.

Kris Bowers: And that music would just be a, um, A way to get a scholarship. Like they weren’t necessarily wanting me to major in music. They were like, yeah, like, you know, now use that as your ticket to get into a usc or like, you know, a school like that. And it was, it was only that getting into Juilliard that they, they felt like going into cons to a conservatory would be worth it.

Kris Bowers: But, you know, I feel like, um, again, I just had like a really, a strong family core in terms of how much they sought out those opportunities and those spaces for me to be in. And my dad talked to all my teachers and basically learned how to. Read and understand music, uh, while I was learning so he could help me at home.

Kris Bowers: And my entire family was very supportive throughout that whole process.

Eddie Robinson: Yeah. And a member of your family, your grandfather For sure. I mean, I remem I saw the 2020, uh, short documentary. Um, A Concerto Is a Conversation centering on your conversations with your grandfather about personal and family history.

Eddie Robinson: And did you ever, you nominated for an Academy Award? You know, it was pretty amazing. And interestingly enough, your grandfather speaks of owning a dry cleaners in California, but he was denied alone to start up the business.

Eddie Robinson: However, when he applied through the mail, he was approved and he went on to say how he, you know, continued to manage quite a bit of his business dealings through through the mail so no one would see that he’s black. Wildly enough. Kris, my own grandfather, Ernest Nobles, who’s deceased, he also owned a string of dry cleaners from where I’m from in Macomb, Mississippi.

Eddie Robinson: He was, he was one of 11 brothers and one sister.

Kris Bowers: Wow.

Eddie Robinson: And you know, now it’s owned and operated by my uncle Michael Nobles, but they were all light skinned. Hmm. And they were able to use their military service to gain loans and other benefits to establish. Nobles Brothers Cleaners. Wow. And I just found your story. And, and I’m like, falling outta my chest. Ah, amazing. Mind blowing.

Kris Bowers: Wow.

Eddie Robinson: Um, and they used the cleaners for civil rights workers. They were very, you know, my grandmother and grandfather were huge civil rights activists. They used, uh, SNCC. Um, and see these secret NAACP sessions as hideouts from the Ku Klux Klan at the at at Nobles Cleaners.

Kris Bowers: Wow, that’s incredible.

Eddie Robinson: Um, but I just found that to be a remarkable short that you had with your grandfather. And how instrumental was he? I mean, he, he still seems to be very instrumental to you throughout the course of your career.

Kris Bowers: Yeah, hugely. I mean, him and, and my grandmother, you know, they, because when I was, uh, younger, my parents were both working pretty heavily.

Kris Bowers: My grandparents picked me up from school and dropped me off often, like almost every single day. I’d say, like, I. Most days of the week, my grandparents were the ones that would pick me up from school. And, and I would Same here. Yeah. Because parents were working. Exactly. Yeah, exactly. And, and like, you know, childcare is expensive.

Kris Bowers: Exactly. Exactly. Um, and so, um, yeah, I would go over there so often and, and do my homework at their house and eat dinner with them. And my grandma had a piano in, in the back room that I would play on. And then there’s that story in the short where my grandfather. Uh, we used, Al always went to this restaurant called Marie Calendars regularly, and my grandparents were the ones that really pushed me to, to play piano when I was there.

Kris Bowers: And one of those times that I was doing that, there was this group of black women that ran these local competitions for young black musicians, and they heard me playing and, and asked me to, um, apply one year. And I just ended up being, you know, indoctrinated into this like, Uh, amazing group of, of organizations here in LA that support young black musicians.

Kris Bowers: So, yeah, my grandfather used to always have jokingly say, call himself my manager, just because of how much he was. He was encouraging me. And also just, you know, again, my family, uh, needing the support that they needed at the time. There was so much of that education that I had was also financially supportive by my grandparents too.

Eddie Robinson: Coming up, we continue our conversation with award-winning composer Kris Bowers and what went into the score for the film Chevalier, A biographical drama based on the life of a French Caribbean violinist and composer. Of the 18th century. How did Kris get involved with this film and what frustrated him so much after doing research on Chevalier that Kris felt like he needed to be a part of this project?

Eddie Robinson: I’m Eddie Robinson. I see you. We’ll return in just a moment. We’ll be right back.

Eddie Robinson: If you’re enjoying this program, please be sure to subscribe to our podcast. I see you with Eddie Robinson. You can hear all the past episodes and be notified when new episodes are released. Also, please take a minute to give us a review or comment. We love getting feedback from our listeners.

Eddie Robinson: I’m Eddie Robinson. And you’re listening to I SEE U. We’ve been chatting with acclaimed film composer and pianist, Kris Bowers.

Eddie Robinson: His latest project is a film entitled Chevalier, A biographical drama about the biracial champion, swordsman military officer, composer, virtuoso violinist, and conductor of a leading Paris Symphony. He was one of the most popular men in 18th Century Europe. Now, if you’ve seen the Academy Award-winning film of 2018, green Book, Kris is the man who scored that movie as well.

Eddie Robinson: Not only that, Bowers served as the on-screen hand double. To Oscar winning actor Mahershala Ali in the film. Yeah. Kriswas providing the fingering for the closeup piano shots that were shown in the film. Plus, Kris spent months working with Ali as his piano instructor. Kris has done work on so many other film and TV projects, and it’s a testament to his versatility as an artist.

Eddie Robinson: The Emmy Award-winning composer chats with us virtually from his home in Pasadena, California.

Eddie Robinson: Can you describe for our audience. The Kris Bower’s sound, you know, when we hear your work, when we experience your compositions while watching a TV series or a film, how can we tell that it’s most certainly up?

Eddie Robinson: Uh, uh, this is a Kris Bower’s sound. Describe for us your design. Go.

Kris Bowers: You know, I, I don’t really know. I feel like, um, honestly, I consider myself such a student that like, It’s hard for me to articulate what my own sound would be cuz I feel like for me, I’m like, sure. Learning with every, every project that I’m working on.

Kris Bowers: But some of the things that I do prioritize, that I think will come through is melody. I feel like very, very connected to melody and, and themes and wanting that to feel really clear. Anytime that I choose to feature piano in my projects, it’s, I’d say 95% of the time me playing piano. And so, you know, that’s kind of an identifiable thing, hearing my.

Kris Bowers: Uh, hands on the, on the keys. Just in terms of like, you know, growing up as a pianist, I could always tell my favorite pianist within like, you know, five seconds of hearing them play. It’s just every touch is so unique. And then I’d say maybe, you know, harmonic and rhythmic approach. You know, I definitely, I. I’m always trying to find a way to infuse my background when it comes to like my jazz roots or the, the other styles of music that I’m into, and having that be represented both rhythmically and harmonically, while still making sure that the orchestration or whatever the instrumentation is, is, is as highly, uh, handled as possible.

Eddie Robinson: Before we get into Chevalier, what are some of your musical influences, you know, within the musical realm? Because you are all over the place in terms of versatility and uniqueness, who are your influences? Go.

Kris Bowers: See, so when I was, uh, when I was a kid, I, I grew up with like the music of my parents. My parents were like, you can either listen to, you know, something jazz or classical or you can listen to our music and my parents will listen to Earth Wind and Fire Gap band and. Stevie Wonder, Luther Vandross.

Kris Bowers: Yeah. So I feel like so much of my young life was listening to that music. And then, um, then I, as I got a little older, I got a little bit into like, like rap and stuff like that with like hip hop, but. Once I got to high school and I was like 12 when I went to high school, I was like immediately only listening to jazz.

Kris Bowers: So my favorite musicians and artists were like, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis ,Wynton Kelly and Thelonious Monk and people like that.

Kris Bowers: And then when I got to. College, I started getting more into contemporary music, so I listened a lot to like, that’s when I actually got deeper into hip hop and, and you know, nineties rap and things like that. Like Tribe Called Quest, Wu-Tang Clan

Kris Bowers: and then also got into alternative music like Radiohead and Björk and different things like that. Um, and then also I guess going back and all throughout this, listening to film composers like John Williams has always been my, my, you know, goat, essentially. In my mind

Kris Bowers: it’s Thomas Newman is a huge influence for me.

Kris Bowers: And Terrence Blanchard, I think Blanchard across his, yeah, jazz playing and his film scores.

Kris Bowers: So yeah, it was because I had such a huge mixed bag of, of influence and also. I always like approached every music that I was listening to as a student. So even if like, there have been times where I wasn’t necessarily knowledgeable about a genre, like country music, and then I was, you know, curious and then I would spend a, you know, a month just listening to like all Johnny Cash.

Eddie Robinson: Interesting.

Kris Bowers: So I kind of like go really deep with each. Artists or genre that I listen to, just to try to learn as much as I can from it. So I think that’s kind of lended itself to working across different projects because I genuinely love so many different styles of music, and that’s why I love film scoring is because you can be a chameleon in that way.

Eddie Robinson: It’s I SEE U. I’m Eddie Robinson, and we’re chatting with renowned musician, KrisPowers. He’s provided the music score for the critically acclaimed film Chevalier, the historical drama inspired by composer and violinist, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Kris is an Emmy award-winning

Eddie Robinson: composer who’s done work on so many film and TV projects, and he’s also performed and recorded with some incredible musicians like Aretha Franklin, Jay-Z. Q-Tip and Kanye West. He’s chatting with us from his home in Pasadena, California.

Eddie Robinson: Yeah, so Chevalier, how did you get connected to this particular film. It’s really amazing. I love the music that’s a part of it. The score in and of itself.

Eddie Robinson: Shout out to Kelvin Harrison, Jr. He plays the lead character Chevalier, you know, one of the great composers of the time. But love and racism would get in the way and complicate matters, you know, and we start to learn more about why. The legacy of this man has been obscured for so long. I mean, how did you get involved in this particular project, Chevalier?

Kris Bowers: Yeah, so I was sent the script just through my agency and, and Stephen Williams, the director and, and Stephanie Robinson, the writer, both were curious, uh, about me as, as a possible composer. And I just remember reading the script and immediately feeling like I need to be. A part of this for so many different reasons.

Kris Bowers: Like you said, you know, I had never heard of him before reading Interesting reading script and yeah, like I, I, when I did more research, I realized that I had seen his name before, but it was a part of an article that called him the Black Mozart.

Kris Bowers: And you know, I think I, I was so frustrated at that time that. That’s the, the headline that was remembered in my mind, not his actual name, but this idea of him being the black version of somebody who’s actually older than and also possibly had, actually had influence on. And so reading the script and, and then doing more research, I was so excited by, the story and then the way that Stephanie portrayed it in the script and how palpable these characters felt, how urgent they felt, how much it felt like I could relate to this man, even though he’s, you know, born hundreds of years before me. And I was so excited to see how I might be able to bring that to life.

Kris Bowers: And so when they came back to LA for the post-production and were getting to the score, they reached out and asked me to come on board. And yeah, it was just such an amazing. Amazing process. And like you said, Kelvin I think does such an incredible job and Michael Abels does on-camera music and did an incredible job with that.

Kris Bowers: So I was really happy to be a part of it.

Eddie Robinson: Now, were there any issues or challenges that you personally ran into over the course of making this film?

Kris Bowers: The ones that immediately come to mind? Firstly, I was, when I first came on the film to write the music, I was like maybe five weeks into being a dad. And so,

Eddie Robinson: oh, minor detail.

Kris Bowers: Yeah, so it’s definitely like a very specific time period in terms of like, Uh, sleepless nights for, for newer reasons and, and trying to learn how to balance that and, you know, helping my wife as much as possible. As far as creatively, I think one of the biggest challenges was the sound of the score.

Kris Bowers: Stephen used to always say that he wanted to make sure that I was scoring the man, not the clothes. And what he meant by that is that when you see these costumes, you immediately think of a certain sound because of the time period. And of course his music existed in that time and Michael did such an incredible job of bringing that to life in a fresh way.

Kris Bowers: But he wanted, Steven wanted to make sure that the score. Had its own identity and felt like it was modern and, and connected us to the inside of, of this character in a way that we could really viscerally empathize with him.

Kris Bowers: And I totally got that just because reading it, I felt like I could and, and then singing the cut, I felt like I could. And so the way that I went about doing that was to do a lot of studying of his music, to get as much of his. Musical tendencies in my head and in my playing as possible. And then to create themes that I felt like were inspired by his music, and then to orchestrate and score those themes and really modern ways.

Kris Bowers: And so finding the palette, uh, was, was all about like, you know, how do I. Take only organic instruments and make them feel really modern.

Kris Bowers: And that was like, Detuning the violin and adding effects to it or you know, taking a harps accord and playing it like a percussion instrument and then turning that into this loop and doing different things like that, I feel like was what helped me find the palette, which was, um, a challenge. And then just, you know, overall, just wanting to make sure that I was.

Kris Bowers: Pacing the music with the story in the proper way. Cause I feel like Steven was really excellent and eloquent at letting me know exactly when he wanted to feel certain emotions and making sure the music was never getting too far ahead, but also was very, uh, very much right in line with, with how the story was unfolding.

Eddie Robinson: And boy was it unfolding.

Eddie Robinson: And to me, you know, this is not only a film about an untold history, it’s a film about an unknown untold history. And I found that to be fascinating for you to just say that, you know, here you are, you studied, you know, you’re in Julliard and you, you, you went through a lot of, you know, background in classical music and still you never heard of, of this man.

Eddie Robinson: And that just tells you how many stories of black artists are just erased or wiped from our history.

Kris Bowers: Yeah, exactly. I mean, even the fact that Napoleon, when he came into power, destroyed, uh, a lot of his music, you know, physically destroyed it. And I feel like, you know, the work that’s done to not only not give people the spaces or opportunities, but also to actually try to literally erase it. You know? It’s, it’s really sad that, it’s sad that that’s literally happening right now. I mean, in, in our country.

Eddie Robinson: Yes. And uh, and I even want to get your thoughts on that. I mean, in terms of classical music and the classical music industry, albeit showing strides of improvement as of late, uh, I would imagine, but does it still appear to look the other way when it comes to addressing racism and promoting certain artists of color and perhaps issues relating to certain pieces of music where inherently. Racist themes and characters in certain operas have largely gone unchecked.

Kris Bowers: Yeah. I think that’s the, that’s the tough thing is that, you know, we’re not, At least contextualizing some of those pieces that, like you said, you know, I think about it’s, it’s commented in Chevalier that the Magic Flute, you know, the, the, uh, villain in that character, there’s a theory that he was based on Chevalier and, and it’s this black Moorish character, I guess.

Kris Bowers: But he is a black man and is the villain. And I feel like, you know, for so long, even back then, we’ve, we’ve dealt with this depiction of us in a certain way that plays on people’s. Ignorances and inherent fears and biases and things like that. And so, you know, I definitely feel like at least giving people the information is so important.

Kris Bowers: And that’s definitely not done because people are fearful of dredging up these complex, uh, histories that we have. Uh, and then also, like you said, when it comes to black artists or artists of color and, and all that, I just think it’s not as, Prioritize as it should be, and also prioritize for the right reasons.

Kris Bowers: You know, I do think that ever since 2020, there’s been a lot of, you know, I can’t tell you how many, um, organizations hired diversity and inclusion, you know, executives after 2020 and, and how that became this role in all of that. But that being said, you know, I wonder how much of that was also checking the box as well.

Kris Bowers: And, and then you have to deal with people’s concern about. Audiences and them wanting to hear, you know, composers that they already know. And, and, and then also people that are very steeped in that tradition have, um, their own opinions. I was talking to this young pianist who, uh, wanted to play. Um, a compos, uh, a black composer’s piece for her piano recital, and her teacher was like, no, we don’t, that’s not serious music.

Kris Bowers: We don’t need to do that. And, you know, I think that there’s, there’s so much, um, of that still going on that it’s gonna take a, a while to, to reverse some of those things.

Eddie Robinson: Coming up, we chat more with acclaimed composer Kris Bowers will go even deeper and have an interesting conversation. About his relationship with jazz and how racial attitudes would influence how jazz was received by elites compared to classical music. Why was jazz music considered to be a low brow cultural art form?

Eddie Robinson: And then later we’ll take a quick peek at future projects he’s currently working on and what we can expect to see and hear from his own film production studio. I’m Eddie Robinson. Our final segment of I SEE U comes your way right after this. We’ll be back in just a moment.

Eddie Robinson: If you’re enjoying this program, please be sure to subscribe to our podcast. I see you with Eddie Robinson. You can hear all the past episodes and be notified when new episodes are released. Also, please take a minute to give us a review or comment. We love getting feedback from our listeners.

Eddie Robinson: You are listening to I SEE U. I’m your host, Eddie Robinson, acclaimed composer and pianist. Kris Bowers is here with us. The versatile musician has composed scores for films, video games, TV series, and documentaries, including. Work on the Netflix series Bridgeton, the film, green Book, king Richard, Ava DuVernay’s, Netflix miniseries When They See Us, and his latest project, the film entitled Chevalier.

Eddie Robinson: You’ve gone through Julliard and the many experiences I’m sure you went through as a student, you know, picking up your masters, traveling all over the world, collaborating, performing, you know, you’ve done film scoring, the whole thing. Kris, could you share with us an experience, perhaps two, I mean, a moment.

Eddie Robinson: That perhaps no one really knows about that. It makes you feel some kind of way, a real intense sort of incident, racist incident that you’ve tried and tried and tried with all your might to remove from your mind. And perhaps it gives you motivation. Perhaps it gives you this spirit of will and determination to make it through it all, but is there an incident that’s been embedded in your mind that you just can’t seem to let go of?

Kris Bowers: You know, I think that too from when I was, when I was a bit younger, they definitely come into mind are, are my own piano teacher when I was studying both classical and jazz piano. You know, I thought it was interesting that she was always saying things that that made me feel like jazz music was, again, not a very serious music.

Kris Bowers: And she would ask me questions like, you know, next semester are you going to be taking jazz lessons as well. Are you just gonna focus on piano lessons? And I was like, well, does jazz lessons not mean piano lessons? Cuz I thought I was playing piano in all of it. And I think that like another moment that also stands out to me is when I was younger, a friend of mine who was, I considered a really close friend, I remember at some point saying to me like, ah man, I love when you get angry because you just get real black and you say like, Look at this, that blah, blah, blah.

Kris Bowers: And I never really, I never really used that word very often. I, I actually kind of almost never used that word. Yes. And, and when I was in middle school and, and even elementary school actually, and, and in into high school, I used that word a lot more than I I do now. And that moment was a moment that always stands out to me because it really illuminated code switching and, and where you can be vulnerable and comfortable with your blackness and, and how. You know, my expression of of that side of myself or that side of my culture, or my relationship with culture was perversely, you know, admired by this other classmate of mine and who wasn’t black. And so, you know, it just kind of, that moment definitely stands out to me as a moment where all of a sudden I was like, oh, I’m, I’m not gonna, I’m gonna be very mindful of that code switching because I don’t want anybody to be. Uh, and getting, getting enjoyment or entertainment off of, you know, me thinking that I can just be myself in a certain moment, if that makes sense.

Eddie Robinson: Sure, absolutely. And the, the film speaks volumes to me, you know, as the film offers up this voice that incorporates elements of my own story and how it’s so important that we realize the choices we make.

Eddie Robinson: You know, I don’t wanna give too much away of the movie here, but I admire what this man stood for and his courage and. You know, he stood his ground defiant, resolute in those choices that he would make. And I really love the story of Chevalier.

Eddie Robinson: This is an audio piece from actress Aunjanue Ellis. Aunjanue was a guest on our show a while back, and she basically sort of told it like it was and told it like it is and put PBS on blast.

Eddie Robinson: Um, basically after, you know, she, she’s offering up her opinion and feedback. About one of the more popular shows that’s a part of the PBS lineup called Masterpiece, the British Drama Series. And you know, you’re again, familiar with period pieces, especially as it relates to Chevalier and Bridgeton, you know, and, and the work there.

Eddie Robinson: But it takes somewhat of a modern spin on high society London. Sure, sure. But, um, I want, I wanna play this clip for you and get your thoughts after we play it for you. So here’s Aunjanue Ellis on I SEE U.

Eddie Robinson: Did this notion ever run through your mind? You know, this perspective of race and culture as it relates to period dramas.

Kris Bowers: You know, I think, you know, it’s interesting with period dramas, I, I, the thing that I immediately comes to me is up to me, or for me is, is just the relationship between, uh, my own relationship between classical and, and jazz and how much, you know, there is this aspect of wanting to hide my relationship with jazz music because of how much it’s considered to be this lower quote unquote art form, you know, and, and when.

Kris Bowers: And very much. In fact, it requires so much more of a mastery of music to be able to play jazz. Like I remember being at Julliard and finding it fascinating that I taught ear training while I was there, and I found it fascinating that these incredible classical musicians that could probably play me under the table in terms of their technical ability couldn’t like tell me what note I was playing.

Kris Bowers: They couldn’t tell me what key we were in. They couldn’t tell me. Much about the context of the music because all they knew how to do was look at some notes and play them incredibly well. But they couldn’t tell you. They couldn’t infer much information from that material and they definitely couldn’t improvise, or a lot of them couldn’t do these things.

Kris Bowers: And so for me it felt like so frustrating that, you know, I had spent so much time having people talk about jazz as this, like, you know, playing around kind of music and this like not serious kind of music when it requires having this incredibly deep mastery of music theory and harmony and all of that stuff to be able to literally make up, you know, masterpieces on the spot and, and in the film scoring world, so much of my early career, I had so many people telling me that, you know, they didn’t have any jazz scores.

Kris Bowers: So they, they didn’t have anything for me, even though I could do much more than that. But then what’s ironic about that is that they would say that, but then. They would say, oh, we have this thing that needs a hip hop score. Can Kris do it? Even though at the time I didn’t really have very much to show for my, my history and like hip hop music, so obviously it was just cuz I’m a black composer and so, you know, there was so much time that I spent almost hiding that to demonstrate that, oh, I can write orchestral music or I can, you know, do these other things that, that feel like are more.

Kris Bowers: Acceptable or more exciting or whatever it is, are not, not going to pigeonhole me essentially. And for so long it made me feel really frustrated with like this music that I had a deep love for, have a deep love for that’s created by black people. That is such an incredible expression of their pain and, and you know, expression and all that kinda stuff and feeling.

Kris Bowers: And it wasn’t until recently that I felt like I could start to. Lean on that again, so that, you know, I didn’t feel like people were going to count that against me. Um, so hearing her say that, I definitely think often about just how much, just in general, we, we kind of don’t consider what black creators are creating to be of the same caliber or level as, as whatever white creators have created in, in the same time periods.

Kris Bowers: And so I think that existed in, you know, these earlier time periods and still exists today.

Eddie Robinson: I am Eddie Robinson, and this is I SEE U. We’ve been chatting with renowned composer and pianist, Kris Bowers. In addition to the musical ventures that are in the works, you are also an accomplished photographer. And a filmmaker, I’ve heard you, you know, you’ve got multiple projects in development through your Et Al Studios productions.

Eddie Robinson: Uh, can you share more about this venture, the upcoming features on the horizon? What’s going on there?

Kris Bowers: Yeah, so Et Al Studios is, uh, a company that I, a studio that I started with my wife. And, you know, a lot of it came from just our deep desire to be a bigger part of telling stories that we really cared about and felt were really important.

Kris Bowers: And, and the name Et Al, you know, means and others. And, and so it’s really just about telling, uh, the other stories that. Aren’t told as often, and for both of us wanting to make sure that each of those stories is told in a incredibly collaborative way across the board and across across disciplines. And so right now I’m working on, uh, another short with my co-director Ben Proudfoot, who I worked on concertos conversation with.

Kris Bowers: We’re working on another short right now about the repair shop in LA. It’s the last repair shop in the country that repairs instruments for public schools. And so there’s, you know, 560,000 students I think in LAUSD and all of them that play music. All those instruments get prepared by this one repair shop, and it’s the only one of its kind in the, in the country, and just how important it is that.

Kris Bowers: Institutions like that exist so that these kids can have working instruments so that, you know, kids like myself can, can grow up with an outlet to be able to express themselves and then hopefully turn that into anything, whether that’s just a hobby or, or a career. And then my wife and I are working on different projects as well.

Kris Bowers: Like I have a couple of shorts that I’m. Working on right now that she’s helping me produce and she’s working on something about motherhood.

Eddie Robinson: Huh.

Kris Bowers: And so re really, right now it’s just, uh, a handful of, of short films and, and looking to kind of build from there.

Eddie Robinson: Single dad-dum.

Kris Bowers: Yes. Yeah. That’s definitely, that’s such a story that we don’t, we don’t know very much about at all.

Eddie Robinson: I gotta send you a pitch.

Kris Bowers: Yeah. Seriously.

Eddie Robinson: Done.

Kris Bowers: Yeah.

Eddie Robinson: Um, but look, uh, the year 2024, I mean, it looks to be insane for you. Kris Bowers. I mean, with upcoming scoring projects, from what I told by your people, I mean, they’re telling me about a, you know, Disney’s Haunted Mansion. There’s something going on with an upcoming Bob Marley biopic.

Kris Bowers: Mm-hmm.

Eddie Robinson: There’s Queen Charlotte, the Bridgeton spinoff, you know, the. What’s going on, man? Do you have time to be even be a father happening? Good grief.

Kris Bowers: I mean, luckily my, uh, my studio is in, in our basement, so I literally

Eddie Robinson: Oh, it’s perfect.

Kris Bowers: Yeah. Anytime. Nighttime is my, my dad duty time. So like

Eddie Robinson: nighttime is the right time.

Kris Bowers: Yeah.

Eddie Robinson: From, and did I read, are you affiliated with the upcoming Color Purple Film project That’s based on the musical

Kris Bowers: Yeah, exactly. With, uh, Blitz Bazawule, yeah. And, um, he did an incredible job with that.

Eddie Robinson: Wow. It’s already done.

Kris Bowers: Yeah, we literally just finished post, I think like two weeks ago or something like that, and it comes out later this year. But we just finished

Eddie Robinson: Nuggets, go.

Eddie Robinson: So, so phenomenal. Kris, I’m, it’s amazing speaking with, I’m so really grateful that you had, um, an opportunity to come by and speak to the show. This question is our last question. We always ask our guests this question and. And I want you to be as vulnerable as you possibly can of all that you’ve accomplished as renowned composer, the multiple projects you’ve been affiliated with in the past, the present, and those upcoming features in the future with your unique ability of telling narratives and stories through various mediums.

Eddie Robinson: Kris Bowers, what lessons have you learned about yourself thus far?

Kris Bowers: Hmm. I think, uh, a few that stand out, one that came from that, that film I did with my grandfather. What’s so interesting about that is that, you know, the setup for that conversation was literally my co-director and I talking about, What’s on my mind in that moment.

Kris Bowers: So there was no pre-organized, uh, idea of what that conversation was going to be. It was literally just like, Kris, just talk to your grandfather about what you’re thinking about right now. And I, at the time was feeling such a crippling thought and feeling of, uh, of imposter syndrome. And I thought to myself, well, this.

Kris Bowers: Man who’s from the south that grew up on a farm that barely finished high school, that hitchhiked here, and you know, a few years later after having only a few dollars, ended up having this business and a family must have had moments of imposter syndrome and. I kept asking him questions to try to get him to say that that’s what he was feeling at any point in time.

Kris Bowers: And at some point, it’s not in the film, but at some point he kind of got frustrated with me and he was like, why would I, why would I think that? He’s like, why would I think that in my own mind, like the world is already doubting me. Like why would I generate those types of thoughts in my own mind, uh, to, to, uh, tell myself that I can’t do something and.

Kris Bowers: I think for me, it didn’t really dawn on me until that moment that it sounds really simple, but like these thoughts are generated from my own mind, even though they might come from external things and like, you know, systemic issues or my own family history or any of that kind of stuff.

Eddie Robinson: Generational.

Kris Bowers: Exactly. Generational. But I think that ultimately it’s really fascinating to recognize, like I’ve been getting much more into meditation just to like, Acknowledge these thoughts or like see these thoughts come up and interact with them if I want to, but also recognize that I don’t have to or like any of these things.

Kris Bowers: And so I think learning how my mind works and where these thoughts are coming from, when those thoughts come up, how they’re, how they’re trying to get in the way, or also like understanding what are they trying to really say underneath whatever that thought is. I think that’s been a, a really big thing.

Kris Bowers: And I, I’d say maybe a second thing is just. How much I need, you know, things outside of, of my career. You know, I think that like so much of my life I was like, I don’t care about anything else other than, than music or my career or being the best musician or being the best composer. And it wasn’t really until, you know, getting married and having a wife and now having a daughter and having a family that I remember.

Kris Bowers: I was working on, I’m writing the music to this Marv or Marvel show, and I was working on it literally when my wife went into labor and instantly. I sent him an email and I was like, my wife went into labor. I’m sorry. I have to go. I’ll see you guys in five weeks. And there was no feeling. Usually I would have a feeling of like, oh no, like I have to, I have to finish and I have to do a good job, and all this stuff.

Kris Bowers: And I just instantly was like,

Eddie Robinson: wow,

Kris Bowers: no. Like this is, this is not as important as my family and, and how much I, I. Need to prioritize those things and, and seeing how much like our time together and, you know, we go on walks every day, how much those types of things just enrich my mentality and my artistry and, you know, feeds into that I think has been something I’ve, I’ve really only embraced in the last like, you know, I’d say five, six years,

Eddie Robinson: Award-winning composer. Kris Bowers, thank you so much for being authentic. Thank you so much for being a guest on I SEE U. We really appreciate this.

Kris Bowers: Yeah, thank you Eddie. Really appreciate you having me.

Eddie Robinson: Our team includes Technical director, Todd Hulsalnder, producer Laura Walker, editors Mark De Claudio, and Jonmitchell Goode. I SEE U is a production of Houston Public Media. Follow us on Instagram and Twitter. And subscribe to our podcast wherever you listen and download your favorite shows. I’m your host and executive producer, Eddie Robinson, and I feel you. We hear you. I SEE U. Thanks so much for listening. Until next time.


This article is part of the I SEE U with Eddie Robinson podcast

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Eddie Robinson

Eddie Robinson

Executive Producer & Host, I SEE U

A native of Mississippi, Eddie started his radio career as a 10th grader, working as a music jock for a 100,000-Watt (Pop) FM station and a Country AM station simultaneously. While Mississippi Governor Ray Mabus had nominated him for the U.S. Naval Academy in 1991, Eddie had an extreme passion...

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