The Underground Railroad is one of the most challenging, cinematic, and important TV series of the year thus far. An adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel of the same name, the Amazon series is a 10-episode journey through an era whose deep scars continue to divide our nation today: a time when slavery ruled the South and, as such, most of the United States. Young Cora attempts to escape her master and his torturous plantation via a fantastical, actual underground railroad—not simply a network of freed slaves and abolitionists, but a train that sends her to different places where freedom may or may not be possible.
It’s at times brutal, at times dreamy, and always gorgeous to look at. That comes courtesy of the eye of Barry Jenkins, the Oscar-winning director of Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk. This is his first television work, but he doesn’t sacrifice his filmmaking instincts. What he also brings to the table, most intriguingly, is a deep-rooted love for music. The Underground Railroad bears a surprising soundtrack, with each episode ending with a familiar, modern-day track to take us through the credits. It’s at once jarring and a breath of relief, just as Jenkins intended it to be.
We had a chance to talk with Jenkins about this unique quirk of the show, going song by song, episode by episode, as he explained the thinking and story behind how artists like Childish Gambino and OutKast made it into a show reckoning with events from nearly 175 years ago. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Episode 1, “Georgia”: “B.O.B.” by OutKast
Barry Jenkins: It’s interesting, because we didn’t choose them in order, and “B.O.B.” was maybe in the middle of us figuring out the needle drops. The first one was “Indiana Autumn,” the first “Indiana” episode. But I wanted something very triumphant in a certain way. The first episode is a journey. It’s an ordeal to get through. And also, the show is rooted in Georgia, and it was filmed in Georgia. We were just trying to put in songs that thematically were related to what’s happening at the end of that episode. So much of the needle drops were about this modern sort of a context, but with the lineage to the past. And for whatever reason, the lyrics jumped into my head—”a silverback orangutan, you can’t stop the train.” [I was like,] oh, the train, the train! That’s perfect. And then what was really cool was I hadn’t listened to the song in a while, and when I was putting it on, I heard the little chimes that open the song. It reminded me of being in New York, which is a place I hadn’t been in a while because of the pandemic, and sometimes when the train is approaching way far off, you hear this tingling in the tracks. And I’m going, “Oh, this is perfect.” We dropped it in, and it was like, “Yeah, shit, this is definitely the song to end the first episode.”
Allegra Frank: Hearing that song over the end credits really took me by surprise. Watching this very intense episode and understanding that it’s set during the era of slavery, and then hearing just the immediate needle drop of a modern-day hip-hop song was quite a jarring effect.
Yeah, the jarring effect was intentional. We knew we weren’t going to have needle drops in the episodes [themselves]. We wanted to have a fidelity to the experience of the characters while you’re in the story. But once you come out of it, I thought it was important to remind the audience that they were watching these things from a bit of a remove. It kind of takes you out of the world of Caesar and Cora and places you in the world in which you’re watching the show from. And in a certain way, the journey that our characters are going through, even though our world isn’t perfect and even though our rights are still under siege, it directly gave us or contributed to the life that we’re living right now.
Yet I thought it was really important to remind the audience that they also were to a certain degree removed from it, to place you back in your body and out of the body of the characters. And then within that, I thought it was really wonderful to underscore because all the needle drops are the voices of Black performers. And I think sometimes when you’re watching stories of struggle, especially if you watch them with fidelity to the time in which the struggle was taking place, it can be hard to see the benefits of that struggle or the bounty of that struggle. And I thought, “Look at all this wonderful music, all these wonderful expressions of art now that are directly created, or that are built directly under the lineage of our ancestors.”
Episode 2, “South Carolina”: “Runnin’ ” by the Pharcyde
I think this was the second [song we decided upon]. The first thing was the Groove Theory song “Hey U,” [from Episode 8], and then this one, which was so obvious to me. I think the biggest thing for me was this idea of [how Cora] thought she would take this one trip on the railroad, and she would be done. And yet of course, just like the song says, she’s running and she’s running, but she can’t keep running at a certain point. Because I think the show isn’t about her on this journey to either escape slavery for 10 episodes or to destroy slavery in 10 episodes. She’s kind of running away from dealing with the sense of abandonment from all of these different holes in her heart.
I thought the Pharcyde was speaking to that in this really cool way. And also, because the thematic underpinning is this notion that for a modern audience to be so immersed in this world, I thought it was important to remind them at the end of every chapter: You are here; the characters are there. It’s OK. I know this stuff is heavy and quite immersive, but then beneath that, I just thought, visually, what was happening? Literally what Cora is doing in the last image, it just bled right into that track. A lot of this wasn’t us going to a music supervisor, going, “Well, what about this? What about that?” It was me and Joi [McMillon, one of the series’ editors] sitting there and [realizing that this reminded us of] the Pharcyde, “Runnin’.”
Episode 3, “North Carolina”: “Wholy Holy” by Marvin Gaye
The way this episode ends is pretty intense, and the content of this episode is pretty intense. … The world of “North Carolina,” there’s so much animus. There’s just so much hatred. And I always thought of Marvin Gaye as someone who spoke very clearly through the prism of Blackness, and through that prism, he oftentimes was speaking about the world at large, the world as a whole, which is like everything, all of it, all of us. This episode is almost like a shared perspective; you have the story of Cora and Grace and their perspective on how they’re going through the episode. But then you also spend this time with these abolitionists, who are torn between what they maybe should know is right, and yet what they feel they are capable of, or what they feel is possible in the world that they’re living in. And I thought that this song in particular, because a lot of this, when you have these uses, I knew maybe we’ll get the first 60 seconds of the song. So you’re looking for something where the feeling of the work is so clearly captured either immediately in the track, or just through the power of the singer’s voice. And this was one of those ones where it’s like, “Yeah, this is kind of what this episode has been about.”
Episode 4, “The Great Exodus”: “I Want to Be Ready” by the Kool Blues
This is one of the few where I didn’t choose this track. I had chosen “Silly” by Deniece Williams. And [Alex O’Flinn, the episode’s editor] had a point that there was something so anachronistic about the use. Because it starts off with this flute line, and it also takes a long time to ramp up. … And I think the lyrics go, “It’s silly of me to think that I could ever have you for my guy, how I love you,” and stuff like that. It still spoke to this fractured relationship between father and son, but the tone of the song, just the sound of the song, it’s so counter to what’s happening in the episode that I said to Alex, “If you could suggest some alternates, I’ll take a listen to them.”
This was a song I actually hadn’t heard before, “I want to be ready when the hurt comes my way.” I thought it was really beautiful. And this one was tricky, because it’s still Black folks singing through the prism of Blackness, and yet this episode is kind of centered on this very fragile, neurotic, white masculinity in these father-son dynamics. The great spirits are centered on a prism of Blackness, but the episode itself is decentered from that.
But there’s some days where I do wish I stuck with Deniece Williams’ “Silly,” only because of that feeling you got from “B.O.B.”—you’d have got the same feeling from this song, undoubtedly. But then it’s like, what’s the point here? Is it to elicit that feeling? Or is it really to have the art support the themes of the show? And so that was why we went with “I Want to be Ready.”
I kind of want the director’s cut of those ending credits now, where you use “Silly.”
I know. When we put the show out on Blu-ray, maybe I’ll switch it back to the Deniece Williams, because it was dope. It was just different. It worked, but it was different.
Episode 5, “Tennessee—Exodus”: “Down by the Riverside” by Calvin Leon Smith
I guess it kind of makes sense this one doesn’t have a [proper] needle drop, because this episode wasn’t planned to be a stand-alone episode. We filmed “Tennessee” as just one episode, but Calvin does such a great job with Jasper that we began to alter the way we filmed his scenes. It was just very clear that whatever he was doing, it was so real, so vibrant. It was so powerful that he was taking the story away from Cora and Ridgeway, especially. It just revealed itself that this character now had created an episode for himself. And so, as Joi and I were in the edit, it just became clear to me very quickly that this one would not have a needle drop.
And that episode, that’s the heaviest one for me. People talk about “Georgia” or about Mabel in “Indiana Winter.” This is the one that’s hardest for me. I just think that [it’s because of] the dignity and the grace and just the strength in what Calvin did with this character. He took the episode and he also took the needle drop, because at the very end of this episode [you see and hear him,] and then the next episode also opens on his image as well. There was just something so lasting about his performance that I was like, “Yeah, I don’t want to hear anybody else’s voice but this.”
What he did, I felt like it was so important that this is one of the few times where I didn’t want the audience to have the breath, to have the exhale of knowing, “I am here, these characters are there.” This is a point where a lot of people pause the show, and they maybe take a week off from it. Some people pause here and don’t come back to it. But there were men and women like Jasper, who their form of protest, their form of fighting back, was to repossess their bodies. And so it felt important that his repossession was so powerful that there was no needle drop that could come after him.
I was just reading an Episode 5 recap that did literally say, “I had to take a week off after this episode.”
Yeah, yeah. This is the one. And I think part of that is I try not to call myself an artist, and that the shit I do is art, and stuff like that. But I do love when things happen. This episode wasn’t planned. It kind of just happened through being open to what Calvin was doing and the way the world of the story wanted to reveal itself.
Episode 6, “Tennessee—Proverbs”: “Money Trees” by Kendrick Lamar feat. Jay Rock
This is my favorite needle drop. Just because, I mean, look: You can’t be super serious about every damn thing. And you have to find places to find joy in the creation of this work, as heavy as it may be. I love Kendrick. I love the song. I never in a million years thought there would be a context for it. What happens at the end of this episode doesn’t happen in the book between Homer, Mack, and Ridgeway. We already felt like we had sort of destabilized the expectations of what this narrative can be. And again, so much of the needle drops for me was about this lineage from the horrors that our ancestors endured, the strength they had to overcome so much, and the privilege, the right, the freedom we have to use our voices to create language, to express ourselves, both in their image and in the images they’ve allowed us to create of ourselves.
I wanted to have hip-hop on this. Kendrick is probably my favorite rapper right now. And this track, man, the way it opens, I was like, “Ah, shit, we got to do this.” And the first time we put it in, I was like, “Yeah, that shit is going to work.” I also wanted this track to be a bit of a loving send-off to Mack, who was a character in the book that we’ve expanded [for the show]. And if there’s any magic in the show, it’s really Mack, what he does with the match and the well. And “everybody’s going to respect the shooter, but the one in front of the gun lives forever.” So it was a love letter to Mack is what that use was.
Episode 7, “Fanny Briggs”: “I Wanna Be Where You Are” by Michael Jackson
It’s a super short episode. It’s like a fable almost. I was looking for a child’s voice, and in my childhood, this was the child’s voice that was most prominent of all. The opening chime is so lovely, and then I also thought too, this character isn’t in the book. And then at the conclusion of “North Carolina” you assume you know what’s happened to this character. And so this was just tongue in cheek, you know, “Could it be I stayed away too long?” This one, there’s no theme. It’s all text, text, text, text. And then Grace, as Fanny Briggs, is lamenting about Cora—”I want to be where you are.” It just seemed like a very simple way to connect these two characters.
And also, I’m often trying to read the waves of the audience’s experience of the show. At this point, the audience needs a breather. They need a smile, they need to add a little bit of something. The episode is short and sweet. There’s some heavy stuff in it, but it moves. Our girl gets out, we thought she was gone, she’s alive. And it just felt like that is the last song anybody’s expecting to hear in this show. I hope it put a smile on your face. That’s why we chose it.
Episode 8, “Indiana Autumn”: “Hey U” by Groove Theory
This was the first one [we chose]. … I went to high school in the mid-’90s and there was the song by Groove Theory, the song that’s popular was a song called “Tell Me.” But the song I always liked, my favorite on the album, because back then you bought whole albums, you didn’t buy singles—it was “Hey U.”
I remember this phone ringing at the start of it, and the sound design of it just being so rich. And somehow I was looking at Thuso [Mbedu, who plays Cora, in the editing room], and I heard this phone ring. And so I said to Alex, “Hey, drop that in.” And he was like, “Yeah, well there’s a phone ringing.” I was like, “I know, it’s weird, right?” Because again, this is the first needle drop, and I’m trying to explore, can this help the audience decompress? Can it help them process what they’ve seen? They’re in it, but now they’re back in their bodies. And the minute that phone started ringing when it cuts to black, it was like, “Oh, shit, it definitely can.”
And the other really lovely part about it was I’m watching these images of a Black woman in the 1850s who’s trying to reconcile this really knotty heartache. She just had this vision of dancing with her first love in this beautiful rotunda, and now she walks into the cabin of the man she won’t allow to love her or herself to love. She’s all torn up. And then here’s this woman in 1995 singing about basically the same damn thing: “Hey, you, I hope you know what I’ve been going through. I wonder if you’re going through it too.” I thought, this is perfect. That was when it really connected that this could work, that it could be more than just the decompression for the show. It can be a direct connection between us and them, because our ancestors undoubtedly dealt with these same things, even within the horrors they were living within. They still had attractions, and they still tried to forge these bonds of love, both familial and romantic.
[This song] just opened up the flood gates for all the others that came. We were editing all the episodes at the same time. And I’d say at this point, maybe of the 10 episodes, they were all at least 80 percent done. So they were at a point where you weren’t trying to figure out the episode itself, you were refining them all. And what that does is it creates a clock, because now you have to start mixing all the episodes. You’re either going to do this or you’re not going to do this. It was great, because once we made the decision on this one, then it was like this fun game where we would look at all the episodes, like, “Oh, what can go here and what can go there?”
Episode 9, “Indiana Winter”: “This Is America” by Childish Gambino
This was the last one to go in. Part of it was it’s the most recent of all these songs, and as a piece of visual media, it’s got the most defined identity. When people think of the song, they tend to think of the video first, and then they think of the song. There’s already imagery associated with this work. We edited the show and put the song in, and right away I knew, OK, this works. The reason why I wanted to use it is because, again, this conversation between us and them, between modern day African Americans and the enslaved Africans who were brought here and subjected to the brutality of the institution of American slavery.
Ridgeway is kind of a stand-in for the historical record that we’ve all been given. I’ve been talking about the difference between facts and the history that we have been presented. We consider them to be facts, because someone said this thing happened, and usually they have power and authority, so we accept it. Truth is much more elusive. Men like Ridgeway kept telling us the “facts” of what America is, and how it came to be. And I just love that here was this guy [Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino], my peer, someone my age, whose point wasn’t to create a rebuttal, but in a way he kind of has created a rebuttal. “This is America.” I knew how that episode was going to end. [Ridgeway] was going to be running his damn mouth until the last moment. And after all that talking, Donald Glover, Childish Gambino, has the last word.
Now, the same way I’m talking to you about it, I had to have many conversations with Donald about it, because it’s a very pointed use, and the song is already a work of art that stands on its own. Yet this idea of the lineage, the connection between someone who looked like Donald in 1855, having no recourse to rebut what someone who looks like Ridgeway is saying in 1855, and now, today, there’s this video with Donald dancing with children on top of a car and all the different images in that episode–I thought there was just something so powerful about the juxtaposition of those two things.
Episode 10, “Mabel”: “How I Got Over” by Mahalia Jackson
I think gospel played such an important role in the struggle for freedom and the endurance that our ancestors had to have cultivated in order to get to the point where you and I can have this conversation. I knew I wanted to end the show with Mahalia Jackson, but I’ll give Joi credit. My choice was the song called “Come Sunday,” which is a very heavy Mahalia Jackson song. It was a very mournful lament. I said to Joi, “You know, I think I want ‘Come Sunday,’ ” and she goes, “Why do you want that?” And I go, “I need to have Mahalia Jackson’s voice out of respect to African American culture, to the role gospel has played in fortifying us with so many of these movements, it kind of has to be gospel.” And she said, “Well, just give me a beat.” So she went digging and she found “How I Got Over,” which is the same voice, and it’s the same story form, but it’s a much different feeling. And I do think it speaks to the place I felt Cora had arrived at, and where I hope the audience had arrived at too, watching the show. So shout out to Joi McMillon for getting on the Mahalia train, by showing me “How I Got Over.”
OK, last question: You mentioned before that you wanted “Silly” in Episode 4, but if there’s one other song that you could have included in the show, what would it be?
I’ll take the moment to shout out Solange. I have this tendency to create work as Solange is creating albums. Moonlight was finished, but to me, it heavily conjoined with A Seat at the Table, the “chopped and screwed” take that was put out for that. When I Got Home[—the chopped and screwed version of the album—]was what I was listening to the most as we were shooting the show and as we were editing it. And so a lot of especially the teasers I put out, those were initially edited to this chop-and-screw tape of Solange’s When I Got Home. I think even the idea of this modern context of modern Black artists singing their art into existence, that began [for me] with Solange’s When I Got Home, chopped and screwed by the Chopstars. If there was a song that would be added somewhere in here, it would absolutely be one of her tracks. I’ve been looking for a way to thank her for the way her work continues to fortify mine. And this show wouldn’t be the same without her.