EmmoLei Sankofa is connecting dots through sound in time as a composer, producer, musician, and artist. You may not be aware that you’ve heard her original music on Hulu's Three Ways and The Other Black Girl. Get to know the creator who’s inspiring us to dig deeper into our creative freedom. 

Since our chat, EmmoLei has moved through the industry with consistency and grace while picking up award nominations and well-deserved recognition along the way.  Including an NAACP Image Awards® nomination for Outstanding Original Score for Film/TV. As well as going on to score Disney+ Project CC. 

During our lengthy chat we covered quite a few areas of the creative process and pathways that spoke clearly to our collective values on the importance of taking risks, self advocacy, relationships, and collaboration.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Rita, #blkcreatives: I want to ask you about the relationships that you’ve cultivated during this time and how impactful that’s been for you, because it’s not just going into a room and doing your thing and leaving – you’re in communication with folks, feeling them out, learning different personalities, being able to keep people in mind for future projects, etc


EmmoLei: No matter what field you’re in, relationships are key, but especially this space. For Three Ways one of my good friends, Dominic Jones, who’s a cinematographer, put my name in the mix, and I was connected with Jamal (Dedeaux), who’s the director for Three Ways, and we started having conversations and swapping files just to see what the project was about.


When it comes to people that I’m collaborating with – like you said, it’s not a situation where I collaborate with somebody one time, and that’s the end. It’s like, no, [on to] the next project – what’s up? Kind of like how Ryan Coogler and Ludwig Göransson. In general, in this space where you are forced to collaborate with people to make the thing, relationships are key, because people grow, they expand. It’s a continuation of just growing with the people who you are next to.


Collaboration boils down to trust. 


And sometimes, especially as a Black woman, and not even just as a Black woman, I’m still emerging in this space, people are still learning who I am. Sometimes when you are collaborating with people, you have to stand up for your ideas and speak up for yourself especially when you are new or when you’re doing something that’s relatively new creatively, that people are afraid to experiment with or take a risk on. So really, with relationships, it’s a beautiful thing, and it’s an interesting ebb and flow situation with the industry being small. So you always kind of want to be who you are, whoever you are, but also understand the value of how relationships contribute to your longevity or not. And I understand that completely.


“Be who you are, whoever you are, but also understand the value of how relationships contribute to your longevity or not. ” 


I always try to align myself with not only projects that align with what I enjoy and what aligns with my moral compass and even just what I’m interested in, but also align with collaborators who are not afraid to take risks, people who speak my creative language but also challenge me in ways that stretch what I can bring to the table.


Because you also don’t want to work with people who are like, yeah, that’s great. Oh, yeah. You know what I’m saying?


Rita, #blkcreatives: If you love everything I do, then I’m not trusting you.


EmmoLei: So it’s a beautiful blend of a lot of things. When Jamal heard my music, he was like, yeah, that’s who I need. I’m grateful to him because he kind of allowed me to experiment on this particular film because this was the first comedy that I did.


And I understood because I watch a lot of comedies. I love comedy films, tv series, whatever. Musically, in my opinion, the music is either really good, or it’s this background situation where it’s like, badoon bing – there’s the joke.


I wanted to create something that added value to the work in a way that supported the narrative, but it wasn’t like this cheesy expression of the comedic moments that we’re seeing the actors play out on screen. I’m just grateful that he trusted my vision, because, again, comedies are risky – they’re hit or miss. He understood that, and he just kind of let me do my thing, and it turned out to be something that works.


Rita, #blkcreatives: During this process, were there any moments that you doubted yourself at all, or was it just, like, just seamless?


EmmoLei: Pretty seamless. At this point in my career, I really am not in a space where I’m questioning or doubting. It’s a matter of just doing the work, because at the end of the day, people know I can make the music. I’m not trying to prove that I’m just the best thing that walked, you know what I’m saying? It’s like, people already know I’m good and that I can deliver. But now it’s like, okay, let’s make something that fits this body of work, because this was another conversation. When it comes to revisions, there was a point in my life where I would take revisions personally because I’m like, ‘yo, you don’t trust what I’m trying to do?’ And that’s not the case. When you’re collaborating with somebody where it’s not your project, you are supporting their vision, right?


It’s like, what are you doing that’s adding value to this? Because, really, music is a function of design. It’s a design element. Does it work? Just like, if you have a door in the house but the handle is on the top of the door, it’s like the door doesn’t function properly because it’s not designed in a way that is easy to use, or it’s not supporting what you need to do with the door.


So when I reconfigure how I thought about my role in this type of environment, it’s like you’re an integral part, but you’re also a supporting element, and you have to move that way, and you can’t take revisions personally. You have to roll with the punches and get to a point where you’re still keeping what’s signature to you and also sharing your expertise creatively.


“You’re an integral part, but you’re also a supporting element”


But you’re also aligning with the vision of the director, the showrunner, or whoever is kind of in charge of the final say so of the full body of work. This project, for sure, was definitely very seamless. I knew immediately, once I developed the themes and the motifs, I knew immediately how things were going to connect. I was excited because I’m like, yo, this is about to be crazy because I’m a percussionist, too. I decided to go with a very percussive score, and I was intentional about that, too, because I realized I’m not really leveraging my percussive background in my work, like I need to.


And that’s very distinct, that’ll separate me from even just other composers that kind of approach music not necessarily in the same way, but just in terms of, like, strings or just traditional instruments that are used to evoke emotion. Now I’m always like, how can I take an instrument that’s really not to make you feel love and make you feel love in this moment or make you feel soft in this moment? How can I rebrand the way we interpret instruments emotionally?


And that’s kind of what I did for Three Ways. I use drums, vibraphone, even my voice.

Learn more about EmmoLei Sankofa here.

Listen to the Three Ways original soundtrack here.