How music editor Mitsuko Alexandra Yabe helped Boots Riley and Tune-Yards create the sonic world of Sorry To Bother You
Sorry To Bother You, the directorial debut from Boots Riley of the iconic rap group The Coup, is one of the most anticipated releases of the summer. Following the anti-capitalist message of Riley’s music, the film follows Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) as he finds success at telemarketing job after accesses his “white voice.” It has been called an “outlandishly surreal, straight-up WTF movie” – and its music is just as radical as the film’s themes. Composed by Riley and Tune-Yards and edited by music editor Mitsuko Alexandra Yabe (aka Lightchild), it is like its own character in the film. Dom G. Jones speaks to the team behind the sonic world of Sorry To Bother You about community, inclusivity and the movie’s cultural magic.
“You need to scrap this sound and get a more traditional score. You need to help people along by giving them what they expect.” A very famous editor who is a cool person said this to me after seeing an early cut of Sorry To Bother You. He thought the film was already so wild. Obviously, I disagreed.
You take each scene as it comes and it’s about what energy you need to bring. I’m a giant fan of Tune-Yards, and the energy that Merrill and Mitsuko both brought to the film, their perspective, was one that was really needed. Mitsuko knows her shit. Her references and her training, she doesn’t speak under her breath. She says what needs to be said. Merrill’s vocalizations, her way of being onstage, it tells you a lot about her creative ways.
Because the movie is so crazy in many ways, it’s probably going to take people a few weeks to start talking about the music. It definitely is a big part of why the movie works. I hired the best people for the job and they happened to be women. – Boots Riley, as told to Dom G. Jones.
How did you happen to come on board the project? Did you know Boots’ work before you’d signed on?
Mitsuko Alexandra Yabe: I had a meeting at Technicolor Postworks and then I got an email from [the team behind the movie] while I was away visiting my family in Japan. I got in touch with Cinereach and from what I knew at the time, it seemed like there was some star-power and that that the film could gain traction at the festival. They sent me a cut, and I watched it on the plane ride all the way from Tokyo to New York. I fell in love with it – it was an obvious match for me. I haven’t really delved that much into rap personally, I’m more into classical, Motown, pop and R&B. I’m always about eclectic new sounds, so that kind of interested me.
Was it always your intention to work within the music industry?
Yabe: I was pre-med during all four years of college, so I was completely not a part of this world. But I’ve been playing music my whole life. Aside from studying, I was making beats to take a break from work. I was in Beverly Hills at a café, doing my physics homework and remixing Ella Fitzgerald and Rihanna on a computer and this guy comes over. He’s like “Hey, can I listen to what you’re doing?” He ended up being a songwriter who was affiliated with the Grammy network. I got invitations to events, I shadowed producers who’d worked with Justin Timberlake, Rihanna, Pharrell. I went to Burbank a lot for studio sessions. After that I was like, “Wow, this is a career!” After I moved back to New York, the post-production film business found me and it was a perfect match for my passion in music.
How was the process for you in terms of working with two very different but established musicians like Boots Riley and Tune-Yards?
Yabe: My role was more about the sound design of the music. I was brought on kind of late. Normally I would have more time to have the material and prepare it for the final mix. In terms of what was brought to the table, there were so many different elements and that’s super great. Merrill gave me a lot of different stuff, it really helped me guide the mix.
“The word ‘ally’ implies a white supremacist power dynamic and it was really interesting to be in this conversation and in the back seat. This is a beautifully black film.” – Merrill Garbus, Tune-Yards
Merrill, is this the first film you’ve ever scored?
Merrill Garbus: I’ve scored for other things, but never a film. What was incredible was to see how at the end, how you actually have to put the shit together. It’s incredible to have a movie made in Oakland that’s so deeply Oakland. I still feel honored that Boots included us. He hadn’t directed a film before, so a lot of the time he didn’t know what the answers were sometimes or what he thought the answers were would change later on. Eventually, Nate Brenner [my Tune-Yards collaborator] got more heavily involved as I realized, first of all, how much it needed to be a Tune-Yards type score. Mitsuko saved our asses. She probably taught me more in emails and phone calls back and forth in that two weeks about film scoring than I could have learned in a class.
I love that Boots’ ethos is one of true inclusivity. He doesn’t shy away from the topics of gentrification and race.
Garbus: For me, I’m learning to complicate the word “ally”. It implies a white supremacist power dynamic. It was interesting with this movie to be included and to find our place as the white musicians scoring it. It was really interesting to be in this conversation and in the back seat. This is a beautifully black film.
There are a lot of different sounds working within the film, both diegetic and nondiegetic. Mitsuko, how did you manage to keep the music well balanced?
Yabe: I had to understand the mind and the world of what was going on. The biggest thing was that, because both score and source included vocals, it was my task to parse through where things lived in the cut. There’s so many elements to filmmaking, with questions of budget, time, logistics, and politics… it constrains how creative one can be or one is allowed to be. That’s one of the success points of Sorry To Bother You. Boots had talked to Merrill way in advance and sometimes music and sound is left to the very last moment in post-production. Obviously Boots having a music background, record producing, and performing- that adds to the perspective of you’re putting on a show. It’s all about attention and where we want the audience’s attention to go, and music is always that glue, that special bonding factor, the emotional string of where the scene is going. No one should be so distracted by the music that they don’t know what’s happening.
Once you become more successful, take a look around you and see who’s around you: do they even represent the community you’re from? – music editor Mitsuko Alexandra Yabe
The music can definitely be considered its own character within the film, but was there a particular character or theme that resonated with you the most?
Yabe: The concept of selling out, the reality is the further you get in your world of success, whatever “success” means in society – you meet more people, you do more things, and inevitably you’re going to surround yourself with people who’ve been doing more of that thing for longer than you. Talent-wise, it’s almost a natural progression to sell out in some way because you have to compromise in order to go in deeper into the direction, especially if it involves people. It speaks to the industry, it speaks to capitalism. Once you become more successful, take a look around you and see who’s around you: do they even represent the community you’re from?
In your artist statement, you said that you are creating work and exploring mixed-identity representation in the human psyche and spiritualism. What does this mean to you?
Yabe: The reason why I wanted to become a doctor in the first place was because I wanted to heal people. Health and healing are actually not the same thing. Healing is a process, it’s a journey. I’m not really just about the end product of health. What better way to promote the process of healing than art and media? In this digital age, media can be a poison or a medicine. I don’t have to be a surgeon with a scalpel in my hands to heal people. I can heal people through storytelling. In this divided world, what’s more needed is human connection. Empathy.
You can definitely reach audiences faster with media, especially social media. Social media isn’t going anywhere any time soon, so using it consciously is really important.
Yabe: As a mixed, queer woman, growing up I never saw a complete representation of someone who looks like me or speaks the same languages as me. We can tell our own stories without having to rely on someone higher up. This whole desire to do that came from a place of not having that when I was younger. I was born in New York but when I was four I moved to Japan with my mom, who is Japanese. I didn’t even know I was a person of color when I was younger, I thought I was purely Japanese.
When did that sense of identity shift for you?
Yabe: It wasn’t bullying necessarily, but someone asked me why I was darker skinned. And I didn’t have an answer for them. I didn’t live with my father, so I had no reference. I had no way of explaining. Even when I go back now, they don’t assume I speak Japanese. Being from the diaspora in places where it’s a homogenous country. It was tough, but in retrospect I’m kind of glad because it made me a kinder person. I care a lot about multicultural exchange. You can’t read books about culture, you have to experience it for yourself. Film is the closest thing we have aside from first person. If I can make someone change their heart or mind. At the end of the day, prosperity and fame—it’s more about prosperity and a dream. If we can still prioritize human connection and what really matters in life, that would be my dream.
Yabe is set to perform at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ on September 23 for the Lions of Justice Youth Festival. Her music editing can also be found in The First Purge, which is in theaters now. Sorry To Bother You is currently in select theaters.
Dom G. Jones is an American filmmaker and writer. She engages audiences in questions of selfhood, spirituality, and everything in between.