Tasked with composing the music for Sonja Sohn’s much-lauded documentary, “Baltimore Rising,” Dontae Winslow tapped into memories of his life growing up here.
“I think that it was so important that I lived the life I lived growing up in Baltimore because I know the sounds of the street,” he said. “I know the sounds of the city.”
Dontae and his wife, Mashica, are the artistic power couple behind the soundtrack of “Baltimore Rising,” which officially premiered last week on HBO. The film chronicles the death of Freddie Gray, the ensuing uprising and all of the subsequent and ongoing work to reform policing in the city and repair broken bonds with neighborhoods.
Today, the Winslows live in Los Angeles with their son. When not collaborating with Mashica, Dontae is busy scoring music for the stars. Just last week, days after “Baltimore Rising” premiered, he was watching Eminem perform his new single, “Walk on Water,” with the London Symphony Orchestra on Saturday Night Live in New York, using an arrangement that Dontae composed. One week earlier, he was at the MTV Europe Music Awards in London, where Eminem and the LSO performed the same arrangement.
He’s also worked on albums for hip-hop heavyweights like Dr. Dre, Kanye West and Jay-Z, and has also found time to work as a touring trumpet player.
But before musical fame, there was Baltimore. Dontae and Mashica both grew up here, graduating from the Baltimore School for the Arts and local colleges (the Peabody Conservatory for Dontae, Morgan State University for Mashica). Afterward, they taught separately at city schools for several years before moving to Los Angeles to pursue music full-time.
Throughout their 15 years on the West Coast, the Winslows have maintained strong ties with their hometown. Last Friday, the couple helped arrange for Janet Jackson’s band and dancers to pay a visit to their high school alma mater for an afternoon of performance and instruction with hundreds of artists-in-training.
Dontae said he had “almost every experience that a kid could have” experienced in Baltimore. He lived on North Avenue, suffering abuse, avoiding the drug trade, surviving winters with no heat and summers without air conditioning, and even seeing his home raided by police at one point. He also lived in more affluent areas like Park Heights, depending on his family situation at the time.
In addition to arranging the music for scenes in “Baltimore Rising” – from the moments after Freddie Gray was killed in police custody, to the ensuing chaos of the unrest, to the pivotal sit-down between police officials and local activists – the Winslows also composed the movie’s single, “One City,” featuring Eric Dawkins.
The gospel of the song’s chorus bursts with local pride (“One city of love/One city of dreams/Many communities, come together with me) and optimism (“One purpose of hope/All wars will cease/We all need unity/Peace and equality”).
“It’s all about coming together, the humanity, the hope,” Dontae said.
The writing for “One City” was all Mashica. Dontae told her the film needed a theme song — a “’We Are the World’ for Baltimore,” he said — that he would then arrange and produce.
She went upstairs with an idea and returned in an hour. “I said, ‘Oh my god, how did you get the whole movie up in one song?’” he recalled.
Mashica said she drew inspiration from scenes featuring local activists, such as Genard “Shadow” Barr at Penn North Recovery Center and Kwame Rose, who were (and still are) seeking change even under duress and with sparse resources.
“We’re still one, we’re still there for each other, even in the worst times,” she recalled thinking at the time. “The words just started coming.”
Mashica also sang all of the background music featuring choir sounds, as when Shadow, Rose and others are sitting down with Police Commissioner Kevin Davis to air their grievances and discuss the future.
While those scenes required music with a sense of unity or inspiration, others called for something else entirely. For the flashes of the uprising, Dontae said he tapped on bottles and plastic cans. He also brought in a didgeridoo, which Sohn herself suggested, to convey an indigenous feel.
For the scenes of Baltimore in the 1940s, when jazz clubs along Pennsylvania Avenue were in full swing, he said he used his jazz background and electronic music knowledge, “to make it sound authentic to the time period of the record player, and of the language of Big Band-era jazz music.” He then brought the same chord structure to the music backing the narration of the 1970s riots, while employing an entirely different sound to highlight the unrest.
And in the moments after Gray died, Dontae used a trumpet, conveying the solemnity of a funeral — a call for everyone to stand at attention.
“Being a composer, you try to find sounds, textures and instruments that tell the storyline, but also help elevate and depict what you see on screen,” he said.
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