Audio Logs: Where Are All the Black Videogame Composers?L to R: film composers Terence Blanchard, Quincy Jones, Kris Bowers. Photos by Getty. Games Features game soundtracks
This industry is fucked. Despite constantly stealing from Black creativity, even an in-depth search for game soundtracks by Black composers turned up next to nothing. That shit needs to stop.
I have no soundtracks for you this week.
There were ones on my mind. I have fledgling drafts. Tracks that are joyful and chaotic flitting through my head, still.
But it feels weird to talk about them. Feels wrong. While many of us mourned Black lives, or voiced anger and outrage over generations of police violence and white supremacy in all levels of our society. While people were marching and protesting and weathering the continued abuses of the state. While political leaders chastised and did little to help, and often inflamed the matter. It’s something I’ve been wrestling with all weekend. What to do for this column?
At first I was going to just skip it. Hold this space. Let it be silent while far more important (and overdue) conversations took hold and continued through the week.
I thought about giving this space over to a Black writer, but this column is presently a barely paid labor of love on my part. And I don’t have the money to pay a Black writer to do the work (for me). And asking for those efforts right now, on short notice, is too great an ask for any of the writers I know who are busy with their lives, their work, their own feelings during this moment.
I have a column, and that comes with it freedoms not afforded to other writers: I get to write about videogame soundtracks every week, pretty much however I want to. But, it also comes with a responsibility. I have a regular space to talk about things on a larger stage. To signal boost. What good is that if I don’t use it as best I can?
So, I decided I’d highlight videogame soundtracks specifically by Black composers. Not much, I know, but it was something. At least that was what I hoped.
Except, I couldn’t find any. Not one.
I went through lists of Black games people. I went through lists of composers. I went through AAA, AA, A, Big Indies, Small Indies. And what I found were games with licensed music.
Grand Theft Auto, Tony Hawk…
The best I could find was 50 Cent’s Bulletproof (2005). Oh, and the sequel, Blood in the Sand (2009).
I asked friends more deeply entrenched in the industry. They had nothing. One told me a story about a talented musician who wanted to compose and never got a shot. Eventually, that musician ended up elsewhere in games, having ostensibly given up on that dream.
We don’t often think of composers’ names unless they become major videogame rock stars. I have a column, and half the time I don’t know who composed the music for a game until I look it up. I assumed that eventually, I’d stumble across some soundtrack that was made by a Black composer, and didn’t just steal heavily from Black musical innovations.
It shouldn’t have taken the events of the past week to prompt me to dig into this. This is my failure. It’s something (among other things) I have to work on.
That’s on me.
But that my searching came up completely empty? That’s a systemic problem. That’s a massive failure of an entire multi-billion dollar industry, that is all too willing to take from Black people, to steal from Black culture, repackage these ideas (usually poorly), and then take money from Black gamers for the privilege of engaging with this medium, while rarely (and usually with massive stipulations) allowing them entry.
It’s fucked up.
I went through hundreds upon hundreds of composers, I cross-referenced, and pulled on colleagues, and didn’t find a single Black person? I checked lists of Black People In Games and came up with a lot of interesting people in production, development, marketing, community outreach, but not one composer.
And once I excluded Japanese game composers, the results I found were all desperately white.
I repeatedly found one highly-lauded and well-paid sexual predator, but not a single Black person.
It’s extremely fucked up.
I know for a fact there are Black musicians who would love to compose game soundtracks, some who have pursued this career path, others who just don’t believe they’d ever be given a shot or were shot down and turned to engineering, production, or became session musicians—who pursued music elsewhere.
So where are the Black game composers? Why are these game companies reverting to white guys to create Acid House, Fake Reggae, and Hip Hop inspired beats? Why are all the sweeping fantasy soundtracks, the James Horner Cinematic Bullshit, the gritty industrial scores almost universally done by white men? Is it because they don’t think Black composers are capable of doing a better job at orchestrating booming brass and drums, the swirl of strings, or “Urban Noise?”
If that’s the case, please look at the history of Black musicianship and come back to me. You’ll find that Black composers have had to abandon more than White composers ever learned.
Of course, these are all rhetorical questions. We know the answers. We’ve /known/ them.
This industry is dominated by white men, like most industries. We know meritocracy is a lie, that opportunity is racialized. That People of Color, particularly Black people, undervalue our capabilities because we’ve been shown so frequently that we are undervalued. That it’s an industry all too willing to stripmine Black culture and labor for what they want, while forcefully excluding those creators.
Is this post going to change anything? I don’t know. Probably not. Is it even worth encouraging Black people to enter an industry whose very framework excludes and diminishes their work? That has no real interest in radically altering itself to provide entry points for Black creatives, and certainly no commitment to changing things so it isn’t a hostile environment. I don’t know. This industry sucks, and I know many of my colleagues are reluctant to encourage anyone stepping into it with the way things are, until things massively change.
Few are hopeful.
Many leave, will leave, or have left.
But I hope it can start one more thread of this ongoing conversation. I hope other people writing about games will take it and run with it. I can hope the games industry will at least try to suck less.
So here’s what I want to do. And it’s a big ask. I know, and I’m sorry.
I want to use this space to highlight Black composers who are already in games and under and unheard, and the ones who, knowing it’s rough out here, still want to break in.
I know this is an extremely tough time, that it’s been a tough time, and will continue to be excruciating. I know it’s not going to be easy to get this message and respond to it, to pull samples. I know bandwidth is limited. And I know you shouldn’t have to do any of this anyway.
But I want to try, and I can’t do it alone.
Next week, I’ll return to the column I was going to write because I want to give you time. But the week after, I want to showcase Black game composers. To make a document that is not easily ignored, that can be thrown in the face of anyone who says they’re just not seeing Black musicians and composers who want to make games.
Are you a Black composer working in games?
Are you a Black composer who wants to work in games?
Do you have published titles or did spec work you want more people to know about?
Let me know. Send me your links, your SoundClouds, your websites.
This especially goes for non-Black people too. If you know a Black composer who wants to make game soundtracks or already does? Let me know.
And I’m going to do better about searching and reaching out too.
I’d like to get as many responses as I can by Tuesday, June 16th.
And of course, after this column, recommendations for Black composers will be ongoing.
My DMs are open (@dialacina), they’ll stay open.
Audio Logs is Dia Lacina’s weekly non-linear, non-hierarchical aural odyssey through gaming’s great soundtracks.