Moonlight Writer Tarell Alvin McCraney Shares 10 Songs That Shaped His Life

Tarell Alvin McCraney
Courtesy of Danielle Levitt

“City Called Heaven" by St. Olaf Choir

“I heard this song in my first year of college, during winter break when everyone else had gone home. It rang out and shone a spotlight on a pain I could not gather and pull out on my own. It spoke of slave narratives and cotton fields but also of not being enough for this world and longing to be accepted, to be gathered up and taken to the next — something I had felt my whole life but could not express. The lyrics talk about hearing of a city where there is peace and the need to call that city, Heaven, one’s home.” 

“Flyin’ High (In the Friendly Sky)” by Marvin Gaye

“I heard this song very early in my life thanks to my parents, who had exquisite taste in music. It made me well up and cry, and I said to my mom, ‘I don’t understand why we would want to listen to it.’ And she said, ‘Because this man is a genius. And this is what genius music is supposed to do.’ Later I discovered that my desires, and my need for self-control, as well as the battles with addiction around me, all found a call and response in this song. It is what genius music does. It allows us a conversation that we cannot have alone to come tumbling forward — like those salty tears that welled up in my eyes the first time I listened to it.” 

“Free” by Deniece Williams

“The smell of marijuana in the air, air conditioning, and ocean breeze — this song reminds me of my neighborhood of Liberty City in Miami. The sound is both bitter and sweet, free and constrained.” 

“Hyperballad” by Bjork (Brodsky Quartet Remix)

“There are films, books, stories waiting to come spilling out of this liquid beauty. I once saw a piece choreographed to “Hyperballad” when I was in high school and cried so much out of joy and pain. I think it was the first time I had felt or sensed the sublime. I could not explain how free I felt. I thought it was the ballet, but I listened to the song again on the train and instantly the world was animated by it. The words, Bjork's voice, the strings stirring... I wept again.” 

“Rouge” by Lou Reed

“I love this song. I choreograph solos to it in all the bedrooms I stay in around the world.” 

“Paranoid Android” by Radiohead

“A masterpiece that shows us what modern-day suites should look like. It takes the angst of an ever-growing electronically dependent future and explores the nuances of that generation. The song is so hot, then so cool, then so messy and silly, and then smooth and succinct. It serves for me, always, as an example of what a large vision can accomplish.” 

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Tori Amos covering Nirvana

“A perfect example of how to take a piece of work and turn it into something entirely your own, adding your own powers to the conversation that is already there. I love the original, and will never forget the day I came home from school, and the video debuted on MTV and my mother was rocking out to it: ‘These white boys are getting down.’ I didn't want to smile, although I can today, and did at the time in my heart. I loved that song and I’m glad she did too. But the Amos cover adds another layer that is in one sense subdued and yet wild and unmanageable in pathos.” 

“I'm On My Way (Live)” by Mahalia Jackson

“Have you ever heard a live performance and felt you can see the entire concert in your mind, or at least see the performer, the way their body moves towards or away from the microphone? The live version of this song — Mahalia’s siren-like call and the piano’s rhythm — make me believe I am there, listening, amen-ing, swooning with the crowd as this vessel delivers such spirit.” 

“Sinnerman” by Nina Simone

“One, two, three. One, two, three. One, two, three. It’s a lesson in rhythm: where it can take us, where it can leave us, and how we can get back. I wrote my first play to the rhythm of this song. I just played it over and over and over, and wrote and listened and cried and prayed and... one, two, three.”

“Warda's Whorehouse” by Philip Glass and Foday Musa Suso

“I stumbled on it while researching Peter Brook, who used it for a production of Jean Genet’s The Screens, and found it intimate and haunting. Its tight musical elements hearken to something ancient, but its style is modern. It wakes in me a want for discipline, but a need for carnality.  

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