The image of a musician performing on a rooftop brings to mind mid-20th century artists who put on public shows against the wishes of local authorities and noise ordinances. Indie Rooftop isn’t that, exactly; nobody is arrested at the end of their set. But creator Jasmine Allen works hard to harness the inherent counter-culture energy via the musicians she profiles in this limited series. Each episode focuses on a different independent musician who has gained some fame, whether nationally or within their own communities. Allen interviews them about their lives, music and inspirations, intercutting in-depth conversations with live performances shot on two rooftops in downtown Chicago. It’s a great look at the craft of musicianship and what it means to “make it” in an industry where success is ultimately defined by what a performer wants out of their art.
Allen’s selection of artists emphasizes a wide variety of musical genres, and each brings their own unique backgrounds into their work. The first episode features Fana Hues, an R&B singer-songwriter who talks candidly about using art as a way of expressing herself, contrary to those who said she could never be successful as a musician. She talks about Aim for the Heart, a not-for-profit that develops curriculum around emotional literacy through art. Hues’s openness about her journey sets a tone for the rest of the series.
The second interview Is with King Quan, a Baltimore rapper whose claim to fame was performing on the Jake Paul-founded Team 10 Tour. The key to his interview is discussing the composition of raps and finding the groove to tell stories through rhythm and rhyme.
Quan is followed by Fany de la Chica, an Hispanic flamenco / pop singer-songwriter who emigrated from Spain to chase dreams in the United States. Her journey took her away from friends and family, but she’s found success in both New York City and Los Angeles. Her music incorporates aspects of her home culture even as it pushes boundaries, but it always comes from a deeply personal place.
Unfortunately, the fourth episode is marred by audio issues — which is too bad because Louis King’s interview dives deeper into Aim for the Heart and his experience working with younger kids and how their tastes inspire and influence his own work. He also dives deep into how to turn a dream into a financial reality and how hard it is to hustle your art to a crowded marketplace. While watching the show, I tested other episodes to make sure it wasn’t my system causing problems, but sure enough, it simply seems to be a production error. Chalk it up to recording interviews and music on a public rooftop, I guess.
Babyxsosa is a hip-hop artist who uses a number of different genre inspirations in her music but in interviews reveals a classic background that keeps her new work structured and grounded. Her thoughts on how playing the oboe at a young age gave her a background for writing more complex music are probably the most interesting creative contemplations over the course of the series.
Following her episode is Land is Rising, a Native American folk singer-songwriter who seems downright uncomfortable to be interviewed, contrasting with his political lyricism while performing.
Rounding out the series is an episode featuring Will Jordan, who perhaps has the most accolades of this coterie of artists. He wrote the hook on “Fly,” which was featured on Nicki Minaj’s album Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded and performed with Rihanna. Jordan’s story is sort of the quintessential independent artist tale: He was almost out of the industry, done with his dream, when he got the call that his song would be used by famous artists. But despite that success, it’s a continual struggle to find more of it while remaining true to his artistic ideals and dreams. His performances are all fantastic, too, and a great way to round out the series.
Although the seven artists featured here come from different backgrounds, Allen brings together their stories and finds a thematic coherency to her series. She emphasizes the themes of honest self-reflection and following your dream with a clear vision of what you’re working toward, and always putting the music — and its power — first. There isn’t a dull episode in the series, and the interviews and music make for a properly balanced showcase of talent. Great work all around.