Morgan Rhodes: Black Musicâs Newest Tastemaker

Mover and shaker Morgan Rhodes of "The Listening Station"

An all-too-familiar feeling reverberated deeply with women across the globe recently as the universal languages of destructive heartbreak and empowering sisterhood radiated brilliantly in The Door, a short film directed by Ava DuVernay for the Women’s Tales series of Prada subsidiary Miu Miu. Starring Gabrielle Union, Alfre Woodard, Goapele, Adepero Oduye and Emayatzy Corinealdi, the film’s striking imagery is faultlessly complemented by the film’s sonic poignancy, which was skillfully crafted by Morgan Rhodes, the woman responsible for selecting all of the great sounds featured in the film as its music supervisor. “I’m just blessed to have been apart of this project,” said Rhodes.

She recounts getting her toes wet in music supervision before she even knew what the term meant. “I had a SkyPager and I’d always be like, ‘I have to have the perfect song right now’ because you only had a minute and a half [answering service message] and had to make it count,” joked Rhodes. “Sometimes I would say a little something, sometimes I would let the music speak for itself.”

After graduating from Clark Atlanta University, Rhodes held a number of jobs until she landed her own radio program, called “The Playground,” in 2007. After that was cancelled, Rhodes floated around until she received a call from a Los Angeles radio station asking her to guest-host. “I think it was an audition, but I wasn’t aware of it,” said Rhodes. During this audition process, a stroke of luck connected her with director Ava DuVernay—the first Black woman ever to win the Best Director prize at the Sundance Film Festival—for their very first collaboration.

“Ava happened to be listening to the station during a day that I was guest-hosting and she hit me up on Twitter,” said Rhodes. “She said, ‘I’m going to be shooting another feature, would you be interested in music supervising?’ ” Despite no prior music supervision experience (save for those SkyPager voicemail messages), Rhodes accepted the offer and created the beautiful soundtrack for DuVernay’s indie hit, Middle of Nowhere, which earned her the African-American Film Critics Association award for Best Music earlier this month.

Currently, Rhodes is music programmer and host of “The Listening Station” on KPFK-FM 90.7 in North Hollywood. “I play underground Black music and underground music in general of all genres,” said Rhodes. “I gravitate towards sounds I like, but my interest is really piqued if it’s a Black girl playing straight-ahead guitar or she’s producing her own beats. Then I love it because I want to put it in front of the masses and say, ‘How about that song?’ or ‘How about that girl’s from Compton?’ or ‘How about that girl went to Howard ?’ ”

There are Black folks making extraordinary, experimental music. I don’t mind looking for it for you if you don’t want to look for it. The joy is being able to play it for you.

Discovering these great sounds to play on-air is a process Rhodes looks forward to each week. “People who play vinyl talk about crate-digging. I do that same thing digitally,” said Rhodes. “I pore through iTunes, Bandcamp, music blogs, and I can usually tell if I love a record within the first 15 seconds.”

A tastemaker in Black music, when Rhodes speaks tunes, she does so effortlessly, fluently and with an agenda to educate. “I like to play dance music because, just like all other music, dance music is Black music,” said Rhodes. “Techno started in Detroit with three Black men called the Belleville Three. Chicago started house music as an outgrowth of disco. Broken beat started in West London—there’s a lot of Black faces behind that movement. I love to have those conversations and play that music to remind people that somebody else might be taking the credit for it, but it all started with us.”

“I like to play stuff that makes people ask me, ‘Is that somebody Black?,’ because I like to answer yes,” Rhodes added. “I feel like it’s a part of my purpose as a music programmer and a music supervisor to make sure the history of music is still at the forefront of Black consciousness, and that we get to claim that as our own, because it is our own.”

She described her penchant for playing independent artists as an honor, liking it to a “precious gem” in her hands that she doesn’t want to drop.

“These are artists who are really trying to push their music forward in an industry that doesn’t recognize them because they don’t know what to call them or don’t know how to market them,” said Rhodes. “There are Black folks making extraordinary, experimental music. I don’t mind looking for it for you if you don’t want to look for it. The joy is being able to play it for you.”

Marissa Wallace is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist who delves into the multifaceted and rich fabric of Black arts and culture. Follow her happenings on Twitter @MarsWall_ for more.