I was recently challenged by a creative educator to build a book playlist, where each song would represent the overall tone of mood of each chapter the novel. The Spook Who Sat by the Door has been top of mind given the year's events and I set out to craft the book's score.
The novel was written by Sam Greenlee and it tells the story of Dan Freeman, the first Black man to enlist in the CIA, eventually using his skills and knowledge against the American government that trained him. Taking place in the early 1970s and following the end of the Civil Rights era, Greenlee confronts the oppression and racism around him. As the novel explores themes of violence, systematic racism and exploitation one has to wonder, as scenes of police brutality replay on our phones and BLM signs hang from shop windows—has anything really changed?
While creating this playlist, I realized that Freeman was more than just a black militant that wanted revenge: he was a black man reckoning with his own identity in America, and taking justice where it seemed none would be served.
When this novel first made it to the shelves, Greenlee received endless backlash for his work, allegedly “inciting violence” and “inspiring black militance.” Despite it being a work of fiction, it was clear that the narrative truthfully reflected the racial climate in America.
Nearly 50 years ago, Ivan Dixon's 1973 recreation of the film brought even more attention to the book, re-opening the conversation about the black revolution in America. So as I was putting this piece together, I imagined to myself, if I was working with Sam Greenlee and Ivan Dixon on the movie today, what would be the soundtrack? Below is my soundtrack for The Spook Who Sat By The Door.
Listen to the playlist, The Spook, on your favorite streaming platform!
Track 1: The Story of O.J. - JAY - Z
This song is centered around Carter (Sean Carter) Summerfield's position in the board meeting. Being the only black representative in the room he is under pressure to provide insight into the black vote. The song would start playing after the introductory conversation between the Senator and the board room, where they are discussing the black vote: “'The Negroes!' exclaimed senator Hennington. 'Why, I have the best voting record on civil rights on Capitol Hill…'”
Track 2: Da Mystery of Chessboxin’ - Wutang Clan
After Dan completes a number of rigorous tests it’s obvious he did not come to the CIA academy to make friends. This song begins when Freeman starts doing research on various weapons. I thought this was a perfect song because Freeman is playing mental chess and at the same time sharpening his sword.
Track 3: Solitude - Duke Ellington
This scene takes place two weeks before Freeman is completely done with his program. “Two weeks before the scheduled ending of the training, Freeman was alone” (30). With the CIA watching his every move he has to be cautious and make sure that he covers all of his track. This would be playing during his movements around the city and transition into the interrogation between the Dahomey queen and the CIA agent.
Track 4: Stone cold - Anthony Hamilton
It’s obvious that Freeman desires more and his promotions are challenging enough but he remains resilient. This song would take place toward the end of the chapter after the luncheon.
Track 5: The Charade - D’Angelo and the Vanguard
Dan has to be cautious with everything he says and during his discussion with Joy he realizes that he does not agree with her approach to making a change in America. “I’m sorry, but I can not sacrifice my life for a cause”(51). She is more content with her comfort than making change.
Track 6: The Payback - James Brown
Now that Dan has made the agency feel comfortable about blacks in the CIA, he is prepared to make his next move. To set the scene, this song would begin to play after the general allowed him to leave the office (64).
Track 7: Super Predator - Joey Bada$$
This scene is set after Dan receives his mediocre gift from the president. This song would transition in as he gave his tie clasp to the President and would continue to play throughout the end of the chapter. This song is an ode to the man America created; we see the subtleties in his exchange with the driver, threatening to kill each other. They trained a super predator.
Track 8: King’s Dead - Jay Rock, Kendrick Lamar, Future, James Blake
Dan’s transition back to Chicago requires him to recreate his image and his lifestyle to match his surroundings. ‘King’s Dead’ foreshadows his rebirth as a general, leader, and warrior to say the least. The only difference is he has to appeal to the gang members and the social workers. At the beginning of the fight that erupts on page 87, that’s when the break of the song is playing, and Kendrick says “Red light, green light, red light, green light, they like, we like”.
Track 9: Thinking of a Master Plan - YZ
Toward the middle of page 93, we see that Dan is managing to keep his cover on both fronts. Between his working with the Social Welfare Agency and training the Cobras, his plan is coming together. The song would begin to play as “They moved toward the poolroom, walking slowly through the warm streets” (101). In this chapter, we see how Dan becomes more open to the Cobras and expresses why it’s so important to fight back.
Track 10: W.O.L.V.E.S. - Krumbsnatcha & M.O.P
The pack was coming together! Dan was spending most of his time with his three lieutenants preparing them with enough information to build a network and inspire others to do the same work. This song would start at the beginning of the chapter and play as Dan and Stud talk about the possibility of exposure. The song would end as he finishes this line, “‘I am the Man and you do what I say, but when they get to me, don’t look back, dig? No tears, no flowers, just fucking with whitey”’(107). Dan establishes his dominance as the Alpha wolf, the leader of the pack and explains that they will have to become the leaders when he can no longer lead. Each verse matches the energy that Dan has at this moment.
Track 11: The Blacker the Berry- Kendrick Lamar
I imagined this song playing in the background as Dan is talking to Willie, the song would transition after “He roughed Willie’s curly hair” at 4:33 (129). During his conversation Dan is battling rage, fear, doubt all while attempting to relate with Willie. Dan sits there searching for his soul in a cup of coffee, the play on imagery, questioning his own identity, his blackness, his internal compass.
Track 12: Smooth Criminal - Michael Jackson
This would be playing while Pretty Willie robs the bank and transitions out at, “In fifteen minutes Freeman was home sipping twelve-year-old scotch, waiting for the bathtub to fill with very hot water” (143).
Track 13: Cops Shot the Kid - Nas & Ye
This scene would be set at the beginning of the chapter, the song would start right after the narrator describes the tensions, “The city lay gasping like a big beast. Tempers shortened, and the ghetto lay like a bomb waiting to explode” (147).
Track 14: Zombie - Fela Kuti
Riots have broken out all over the city and Dawson and Freeman are trying to manage damage control. While the city is in a blaze, Freeman is able to move freely throughout the riots and behind police lines. This song would be playing at the beginning of this chapter and throughout, to represent the controlled chaos. Freeman is in control here.
Track 15: Fleurette Africaine - Duke Ellington
Dan starts to realize how his mask is beginning to crack and he can’t control it. This song would be playing during the board meeting until he gets home and makes himself dinner, “He had never thought that he would enjoy what he would do and now that the time had arrived, he knew that he would not enjoy it at all” (187).
Track 16: Mercy Mercy Me - Marvin Gaye
This song would be playing after Dan and Stud have one of their last conversations. He’s walking back home, “the streets are beautiful in the faint light from the dark street lamps and the apartment windows, the trees and the grass a translucent green” (198). The song starts out beautifully but ends in an ominous feeling with the chord progression and swaying voices.
Track 17: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised - Gil Scott-Heron
This is one of the most climactic moments of the book. After they successfully kidnap Colonel Evans, the song begins to play with an aerial shot of the two attack teams leaving the scene unscathed.
Track 18: Don’t Worry - Curtis Mayfield
The city is a war zone! Dan and the Cobras are moving tactically through the city to acquire more information about the National Guard. The National Guard is meant to restore order, and whilst state officials would most likely reassure the public and say “Don’t worry,” they are in fact worried.
Track 19: Game Ain’t Based On Sympathy - Rick Ross
I imagined this playing toward the middle of the chapter, “‘I’ll be damned...the Dahomey Queen”(231). Dan always kept his cool with the Dahomey queen but at this moment, while things were getting out of control, he was still able to rap serious information while Sonny Stitt was playing in the background. I feel Ross recreates the same vibe with this song in particular.
Track 20: Murder to Excellence - Jay-Z & Kanye West
I chose this song to highlight the duality between Dawson and Freeman which also plays between Jay & Ye. Dawson & Freeman both have two different approaches but end up bringing each other down in the pursuit of justice. The song would begin to play when Dawson arrives at Freeman’s flat “‘Freeze Freebee’”(240).
Written by Kheperah Ray