Who’s your favorite artist? That’s the question Dre (Dominique Fishback), a lonely young woman whose fixation on her favorite popstar turns deadly, asks throughout Donald Glover and Janine Nabers’ Amazon Prime horror series Swarm. Ni’Jah, the object of Dre’s obsession, is an unambiguous analog for Beyoncé: Ni’Jah has Houston roots and famous rapper husband; a visual aesthetic that mirrors Beyoncé’s; and songs that, as they soundtrack Dre’s murderous odyssey, continually call back to the superstar’s sound. Though Fishback animates Dre with flashes of feral intensity, the character is unnervingly opaque; Ni’Jah’s music is also, then, the primary window into Dre’s interiority.
From gentle pop ballads to braggadocious melodic rap to pulsing dance numbers, Ni’Jah’s songs jump genres the way Dre jumps state lines after catching a body. To create a slate of songs for a fictional superstar good enough to inspire obsession, it took a seasoned team with real-world success. Swarm’s executive producer Fam Udeorji—longtime Childish Gambino manager and music supervisor for Atlanta, among others—tapped Michael Uzowuru, a production heavyweight who has worked with SZA, Rosalía, Frank Ocean, and, yes, Beyoncé, on her 2019 album The Gift. Uzowuru worked with Udeorji on the score for the 2019 movie Guava Island, starring Glover and Rihanna, which primed him for the two-pronged task of composing Swarm’s foreboding score as well as the original music for Ni’Jah. Uzowuru brought in R&B singer-songwriter KIRBY, a dynamic vocalist with songwriting credits for Rihanna, Kanye West, Ariana Grande, and Beyoncé, to sing Ni’Jah’s songs.
Six of the songs were released last week in tandem with the series premiere, packaged as the Swarm EP (which includes two features from Childish Gambino). But as viewers of the show know, Ni’Jah’s discography runs much deeper than that. The B-sides include “Chiquelo,” “Hustle Like Mom,” and “Blood Mop.” The music team’s unanimous favorite is a cut called “Scam Likely,” which plays briefly in Episode Three as Dre drives through LA, and might never be released. “Some things are just for the moment,” Udeorji says, –but hopefully new members of the Swarm out there (and uh, whatever Lil Gibble’s fans call themselves) will be more forgiving than Dre.
GQ spoke to Fam, Michael, and Kirby about the making of Ni’Jah and their favorite fictional artists in film and TV.
Fam, can you talk about how you landed on Michael and Kirby for this?
Udeorji: A lot of the time, what I’m learning as a music supervisor is that there’s not a lot of diversity in sound. And I don’t mean just Black people and people of color, I’m saying in terms of sensibility. The show needed an interesting voice. Michael is great at arrangements and he has such a natural sensibility as a composer that he was always the first choice.
Uzowuru: I brought up Kirby’s name to Fam, and Fam was like, “Oh, that’s perfect.”
Udeorji: She’s very nimble. We needed somebody who was going to span across different eras and she was able to shift her voice and writing style based on this fictitious character.
Kirby: Michael and I met years ago [but we] had never sat down and worked [together] until this project. I’ve always had a lot of love and respect and I knew Michael is just so talented.
Kirby, what did they initially tell you about the project and what were your first impressions?
Kirby: They didn’t feed me too much information and because of that, I didn’t overthink it. I kept asking Fam, “Wait, so I can just do this? Are you sure?” I kept trying to make sure there wasn’t somebody else that was gonna come in and hand me a brief and say, “We need a song that sounds like it would’ve been on LEMONADE.” That shoe never dropped. They really allowed me to just be creative and sing. There were no boundaries.
What were the guiding principles for making a fake Beyoncé song?
Kirby: The first thing we did was this eerie vocal arrangement [that’s] very weird and Badu-ish. They were like, “We need this to sound dark and chaotic, like something is coming.” Michael played a bassline, which you hear in the show, and I freestyled over that. That was the first thing we did on the first day.
Uzowuru: What worked was experimentation, being open, and just throwing things at the wall. What worked was the synergy that Fam had set up with the studio, having [engineer] Riley [Mackin] around, and having fluid, open conversations with the other producers. Everybody was on the same page. That’s really hard to find sometimes, especially in film and TV.
Kirby: For me, I was able to expand on a different version of myself. [Knowing] “This isn’t Kirby the artist, this isn’t about me,” fed my soul in some ways, because I was doing things that I [wouldn’t typically do], but it was still authentic. I come from the South and I love Southern female rap, so a lot of that energy and edginess is in me, but it’s not necessarily in the music I release. I was really grateful that I could do it through the vessel that was Ni’Jah.
Stylistically, Ni’Jah’s music is all over the map. Kirby, were any of the songs or genres more challenging than others?
Kirby: The hardest one for me was [the funk-disco song] “Big Worlds.” Songs like [the trap-indebted] “Agatha,” [the slow, sensual] “Hahaha,” and even the strip club song came pretty easily… I had to work past my nerves when it came to the “Sticky” verse, because of course Donald is one of my favorite artists, so I wanted to do it justice. I had to get out of my head and not think about the fact that I have a verse coming after Donald’s.
All of you have extensive real-life music industry experience, obviously. I’m curious how that perspective factored into the world-building for you, particularly in regards to fandom, fame, etc.
Uzowuru: I mean, I appreciate crazy fans. Honestly, I’m a big fan of taking it too far. I’m with all that.
Kirby: Somebody was like, “I wonder why they didn’t cast Kirby as Ni’Jah [on screen].” I don’t think we need another light-skinned superstar, and I was really glad to see that the person they decided to cast was a dark-skinned Black woman. [Ni’Jah is played by Nirene S. Brown.] I think that’s important.
In my experience as a Black woman in this industry, even as a songwriter, [I’m often expected to] be a caricature of Black women… What I respected about this experience was that it wasn’t that. It was a safe space. In creating a Black pop star, giving her versatility… I’m glad that they didn’t box in who [Ni’Jah] was. I’m even more glad that when I was writing those songs, the people giving the green light are part of culture and respected. As a Black woman, when I spoke up in those rooms and had something to say, they gave me a lot of respect and I can’t thank them enough for that.
What’s your favorite song you made for the show?
Kirby: Bar for bar, I like “Agatha.” I just like the bounce on that. There’s a song called “Scam Likely” that I think is fire. “Sticky” is so weird and cool—if I could perform a song as Ni’Jah, it would probably be something like that, because it feels so big.
Udeorji: There’s a lot of hits. I love hits! There’s like five, to me. But if I’m just talking about lyrics and melodies that I remember, it’s definitely “Scam Likely,” where she balls on people like Kevin Durant.
Uzowuru: For sure “Scam Likely.” Or I would also say “Dance,” [which is] not on the EP, but it’s in the last scene of Episode Two, where she’s stripping. That one slaps.
“Scam Likely” isn’t on the EP. Are you gonna put it on streaming?
Kirby: Fam got it somewhere, locked away.
Udeorji: That’s a deep cut. It’s in the episode. Some things are just for the moment, you know?
How many songs did you make in total?
Udeorji: A lot. [We’re] soundtracking Dre’s experience, and she loves Ni’Jah, so even if she’s just passively listening to Ni’Jah while she drives for 30 seconds, that’s a song. That happened numerous times.
Uzowuru: We made some other fake artists as well. There’s a Lil Gibble song in there.
Udeorji: There’s a Cache song at the Cache concert. There’s a fake Post Malone song when Hailey’s boyfriend is on the toilet.
Udeorji: [Laughing] There’s a fake Solange song!
Uzowuru: There’s a lot of music and cues. There’s a lot of things people might not even realize is actually going on. But that’s kind of the coolest thing, is that each time you watch, you can hear something different, or hear a new lyric, or understand how that lyric either plays with the scene or something that might have happened in real life.
Did you get any pushback about references that hit too close to home? Any angry phone calls yet?
Udeorji: Nah. I don’t think we did anything offensive. With our team overall, I don’t know, obviously there’s ways people perceive us, but nothing we do is ever malicious. Sometimes we’re just having fun, and then other times, it’s just what could carry a moment. But we didn’t do anything crazy in terms of music or lyrics or anything. And also, we not scared of nobody.
How would the story be different if Ni’Jah’s music was trash?
Uzowuru: That’d be kinda hilarious too, I’m not gonna lie. Just killing in the name of mid. I kinda like that.
Udeorji: You gotta sell the world. For me, Michael just makes good music, and then you start with a baseline of good music, and that’s what it is. At baseline level, it just has to be good enough for the world.
Who’s your favorite fictional musician from a movie or show?
Kirby: Ooh girl. The Five Heartbeats. Robert Townsend killed that..
Udeorji: Oh, I got one. I like the Willie Beamen song in, what’s the Oliver Stone joint? With Cameron Diaz? Damn, the football movie?
Any Given Sunday.
Udeorji: Yeah, when he’s like, [sings:] “My name is Willie Beamen, I keep the ladies creamin’.” It’s like, very Deion Sanders. That’s a great song.
Uzowuru: You know me, I like to keep it jovial and young, so I’mma go with The Beets in Doug. “Bangin’ on a trash can, strummin’ on the street lights,” “I need more allowance,” “Oh-ee-oh,” what?
Udeorji: Oh-ee-oh [“Killer Tofu”] was hard.