Created by Chris Nee and executive produced by Kenya Barris and Barack and Michelle Obama, the Netflix original series We the People is comprised of ten music videos, each their own original song performed by an incredible line-up of artists and animated in a mix of styles. Covering a range of basic U.S. civics lessons to educate young Americans about the power that each of us has within us, each three-minute short helps recontextualize what government and citizenship mean in a modern world in which the power really is with the people.
During this virtual interview with Collider, which you can both watch and read, Kyle (who co-wrote and performed the song “Link Up” for the episode entitled “Federal vs. State Power”) and episode director Tim Rauch talked about why this project appealed to them, the challenges and rewards with doing something like this, combining music and animation to give people a better understanding of government and the world they live in, and how they hope this will inspire young people to get more involved in the political process.
Collider: I absolutely loved this whole concept. I think the idea is complete genius, the artistry is absolutely beautiful, and this lineup of music artists would make one of the best concerts ever. Kyle, how did you come to this? How was this presented to you? Did you think this was just an insane idea?
KYLE: That’s really a good question. When I was initially approached by (creator) Chris [Nee] and some of the other people on the We the People team, who were in charge of making this thing happen, they came to me with the opportunity to help educate. That was how they were explaining it to me, at first. I have always wanted to help people with my music and this idea seemed really epic and the coolest way I could possibly do that. I can help educate people who may listen to me about ways they can be involved as an American citizen in their country. So, for me, it was a no-brainer when I was first approached with it. I was like, “Yes, because this will make an actual lasting imprint on any young person that needs to know what the difference between state and federal government is, the same way when I watched Schoolhouse Rock when I was a kid and I finally learned what a bill is.” For me, it was a no-brainer to jump on board being a part of this.
At the same time, could you ever have imagined that, at any point in your career, you’d get to a place where you were performing a song about federal versus state power?
KYLE: Never. That was the most rewarding part about it. I was writing a song about a topic I’ve never, ever talked about and a topic that I didn’t necessarily know that much about. That, right there, was the reason to do it. I was like, “Wow, I don’t even know that much about this, so imagine all the other kids and people out there that also need to be educated. I’m one of them.” So, I educated myself and put these lyrics into a song that is hopefully a really catchy, good song. I can blast it out to the world and hopefully a lot of other people would become educated on the topic.
Tim, what was this like for you, as far as when you got involved with it? Did you know that everyone would be doing different animation styles and did you have any idea what song you would be working with?
TIM RAUCH: Yeah, so I was supervising director across all 10 episodes, and then specifically directed this episode with Kyle. Early on, when I was brought onto the project, they were debating, “Should these all be different styles? Should it be one style?” I said, “It should be different. If you’re gonna have somebody doing folk country music, like Brandi Carlile, you’re gonna hae somebody doing show tunes, like [Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez] and Lin-Manuel [Miranda], and you’re gonna have folks like Kyle and Cordae and Janelle Monae, that’s all different kinds of music and all of those artists are gonna be pulling their own style out of the bag, so we’ve gotta liberate our directors in the same way.” A big part of what we’re trying to represent here is the diversity of what America is. We’re trying to get across the specifics of how our government works. There’s a lot of variety of voices and types of people here in this country, so part of the big piece was making sure that stylistically we’re always moving around too.
This series combines two of my favorite things, with music and animation. Tim, how challenging is it to approach capturing politics and social change with one song, having three minutes of animation? As a director, is that just completely daunting?
RAUCH: The daunting part is working with the Obamas, and working with Kyle, and working with Janelle Monae, and working with Lin-Manuel. Conveying information, I’m pretty used to. I’ve done that enough times that I’m like, “All right, I can do this.” But doing it with those folks and trying to match that level, knowing that people are gonna be watching and paying attention, you’ve gotta really put in the effort and make it something great, and then also make sure that it’s something that represents all of those partners as well.
When you guys look at past work, like Schoolhouse Rock or even Hamilton, is the trick to getting people to learn something that might seem dry, boring, or uninteresting, just making it really cool?
KYLE: A thousand percent.
RAUCH: That’s exactly it. You can’t inform people, if you don’t entertain them. You’ve gotta be fun to watch, for them to stick around to learn everything you want them to learn.
KYLE: Yeah, I agree. If you don’t have their attention, you can’t give them any information. That’s the first key part.
RAUCH: I think specifically in this song, Kyle set us up really nicely for that because the personalities were so vivid for the federal and state government, and his performance and the way the track was produced, everything was there, from an energy perspective. At that point, it’s like, “All right, can we embellish these characters with drawing, and then can we layer on the information on top?”
Kyle, what was your process for writing this song? Was it something that happened quickly for you? Does it make you more focused when you know, what you’re creating and what it’s for, or does everything slow down when you know that you’re doing a project that the Obamas are involved in?
KYLE: Yeah, everything definitely slows down, especially for this specific song. Usually, as a songwriter, I’m always trying to be honest, speak my truth, and also just make something fun. With this one, it was a little more challenging because I had to make sure that what I was saying was correct, accurate information because we’re really using this to educate people. If I’m in there saying things that may or may not be true, then it defeats the entire purpose of making the record. So, for this, things slowed way down. I was like, “Oh, my God, Barack and Michelle are gonna listen to this and they have good taste in music. And on top of that, hopefully a bunch of kids around the world and our country will watch these and learn about our government. So, let me just make sure that what I’m saying is true.” There was a lot of self-education that went into it.
How did you know when you were done with the song? Do you know when a song is done, or are you the type of artist who always wishes you could just keep working on something?
KYLE: I always wish I could keep working on something, but I knew this was done, after I listened to the entire song. It was a give and take of adding all the information, and then adding really catchy lyrics too. There was a point that I had a lyric that said, “As long as we have our independence to keep all of our individual people protected, it don’t matter what state you rest in. Deep down, we’re still all connected. Let’s link up.” I was like, “Yeah, that’s catchy and it’s explaining the story.” That was really what I was aiming for, finding a bunch of lyrics throughout the song that were catchy, attention grabbing, and felt good to listen to, but also were speaking to what it means to be an individual from California. We want things to go this way, as opposed to an individual from a state like Utah, or something. They wanna live their life a certain way, but we all are contributing to the bigger pot of being one country. So, after I could work in some lyrics like that, I was like, “Okay, I’m good with this.”
Tim, as supervising director on this entire project, what was it like to hear these songs come in, to see the animation that was being done on everything, and to see how it all came together and what the finished product looks like?
RAUCH: It was unreal. There were so many times I’d be driving in my car, home from work or out and about, and I would just crank Andra Day’s song about the courts up and just be like, “Yeah!” These tracks are really good. It’s just a lot of fun. On my end of things, I was just sitting there and these songs fell into my lap because I wasn’t part of that process. Every time was like, “Wow, that’s another great track.” I was so excited to get started and work with the teams to turn it into something visual as well. It was just really, really thrilling
To go from a list of subjects to the songs that would accompany that list of subjects, was it ever really surprising or shocking that these were really great songs about the craziest subjects?
RAUCH: Yeah, it is pretty surprising. I don’t write music. I don’t make music. Chris refers to it as their superpower, and I have to agree. It’s not a process that I can carry on myself. So, when they’re able to take something like federal versus state and make a dope track, or the balance of powers, it’s really impressive to condense all of the information and still have something that has personality and life and that you feel like you could hear on the radio. That takes some doing.
Kyle, I’ve always been a fan of music my entire life. There are certain albums where I remember my life before that album came out and my life after that album came out, but songwriting is always one of those really elusive things that you can’t ever really explain. Does songwriting feel like a superpower to you?
KYLE: Yeah, definitely. And I’ve gotta say, what Tim does is a superpower too. The characters from Tim’s video is how I pictured them in my head and we never talked about it once. I view songwriting as a superpower because nothing pierces somebody heart like music. Music goes right into the person that you are and directly makes a change on you, right then and there. When you hear a life-changing album, like you said about your life before an album and after it, it will change you. It will add something to your DNA and who you are, as a person. So, being able to make this song specifically, if this song can hit somebody that same way, but it also breaks down the importance of our government, to me that is astonishing, if I pulled that off. All of the other artists on here all made amazing songs. It definitely feels like a superpower.
Could you ever see any situation, especially now that concerts are coming back, that you would perform the song live in one of your shows?
KYLE: Oh, my God, without a doubt. I will literally put on my professor suit jacket, break out a whiteboard on stage, and start breaking down the difference between state and federal government. Honestly, all fo the other artists that worked on this are so cool. If I could do a show with H.E.R. or Janelle Monae, or anybody like that, that would be incredible.
What do you guys hope that lending your voice and your artistry will do, especially for young people? Do you hope that not only will they get to hear some catchy tunes and see some great visuals, but maybe they’ll actually understand some of this stuff, in a way that they didn’t before?
RAUCH: Yeah, I hope that more and more people get engaged in the political process because I really believe that our democracy benefits from everybody being involved, and that’s everything from voting and running for office to volunteering and serving your community. A big focus for Barack, the president, on this project was, “Let’s hit that age group that is just about to start voting and that is just about to start really feeling their political power, and educate them so that when they’re 18, they’re ready to vote and they wanna do it. When they’re ready to get out there with a clipboard and sign people up for this, that, and the other thing, they know that there’s power in that and they have the ability to make a difference.” I hope that this generation watches it and feels empowered, and that they push forward in that way, and I hope it’s still relevant 20 or 30 years from now.
We the People is available to stream on Netflix on July 4th. Watch the interview below:
Well, this is no laughing matter.
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