As he wrote the song “It Ain’t Fair” for the Kathryn Bigelow-directed period drama Detroit – about the 1967 12th Street Riots – The Roots frontman Questlove had a message for people complacent with the status quo. That message was one of anger and discontent.
Featuring singer-songwriter Bilal, the song not only underscores the odious event that took place 50 years ago at the Algiers Motel, which left three black men dead at the hands of law enforcers, but also the perpetual injustices that continue to run rampant in contemporary society.
With its Motown-like sound of the ’60s, and incendiary lyrics, the track highlights the songwriter’s impassioned cry for awareness.
How did you get involved in Detroit?
I got the call from Kathryn to watch the film and she purposely didn’t set up the film for me. She just wanted me to watch it cold and then call her back when I saw it to give my feelings on it. It’s a very unusual conversation. When we talked, she was like, “So what were your feelings?” And I said, “I’m mad as hell, man, and I don’t know what to do.” It was a very hard, very uncomfortable watch because it’s still going on.
[Through the song] I knew who I wanted to talk to. I wanted to speak to those that know the truth but don’t want to leave their comfort zone. To really speak out against it, not even as a plea but just to show emotions.
I knew Kathryn would like me to coddle and soothe people, but I had to get these emotions out and let her know that, while some people are going to be riddled with guilt and want comfort, a lot of us are going to be mad as f*ck.
I told her, “I want you to trust me on this. The song’s going to be seven minutes and I’m going to do something that black people don’t get a chance to do, which is express emotions.” I saw this as a chance to really show three-dimensional emotions that can appeal.
That’s why I chose Bilal to sing it, because I feel like he expresses anger and compassion in one fell swoop. It starts off soft but just ends angry as hell.
What was the process of putting the song together?
[The time period] is 1967 so I wanted to record either at Dap King, Dap Tone Studios or Diamond Mine, where they made the Amy Winehouse record and all the stuff that sounds like it came from the ’60s.
You’re on that vintage equipment and you’re trying to create a song that expresses all this anger and rage, but because you’re on time period-sensitive material, you can’t play loud. I had to play the softest I ever played but still have the song express emotions.
Also, because the [equipment] was made in the ’50s and ’60s, this was the first time that The Roots had to record a song in front of each other simultaneously, at the same time.
To have a 10-piece horn section and all of us playing at the perfect tone, we had to do two hours in a row. It was hard because once you play a song for two hours, you’re numb to it. You’ve got to take time to take a break and then come back fresh. It was hard but I think we nabbed it.
There have been some critics taking issue to the telling of this story through non-black lenses.
I’ve wrestled with this issue and initially I wasn’t going to do it.
I knew nothing about [the Algiers Motel incident]. I went backwards because I’m friends with George Clinton and his people. The Parliaments were actually part of the concert that night, and he had his take on the story as well. It’s the timing of the story that affected me the way it did, and not knowing that the story even existed.
I decided at that moment not to separate myself from it. Someone’s going to see this film, and I want this song and all of its rage to be imprinted in their minds.
There’s always talk about how art can lead to meaningful conversations about race relations and injustices. Do you feel movies like Detroit can lead to progressive movements?
The reason why I did [the song] is because it’s still happening today. I read a review where the writer felt Detroit was more an emotional snuffle. I myself know that. I told a few friends, especially my black friends, “If you’re the type that gets emotionally caught up in a film, I’m telling you now: There’s no hero, there’s no resolution.”
There’s going to be an amount of frustration that you’re going to feel that’s not going to be resolved. But I also know on the other side of the coin, there are white people that are still getting a wake-up call of the events that have happened to people in the last 400 years.
I feel like this current administration that we’re in right now, people are now knowing an inkling of what we’ve been going through for life. For those that are shocked, for those that “can’t believe this is happening,” that’s who I’m trying to reach. Those that feel comfortable. Those that know better and don’t say it, that’s who I’m trying to reach.