How Supermodel Donyale Luna & Composer Kelly Mac Pave the Way for Black Female Artists

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

We recently spoke with Kelly Mac, the exceptionally talented Black female composer who has orchestrated the captivating soundscape of HBO's recent documentary, "Donyale Luna: Supermodel." This extraordinary documentary, which premiered on MAX September 13, delves into the life and legacy of Donyale Luna, the trailblazing Black model who shattered barriers in the '60s and '70s. Donyale's historic presence on the covers of Harper's Bazaar in 1965 and British Vogue in 1966 marked a pivotal moment in fashion history, challenging norms during a time when the industry rarely embraced Black women, particularly those who did not pass as white.
In a parallel journey, Kelly is making her own groundbreaking strides, championing diversity in an industry where representation is scarce. Her impressive body of work, including compositions for the BET+ comedy film "Block Party" and the ongoing Essence Magazine docuseries "Time of Essence" on OWN, highlights her prowess in storytelling through music. As the CEO and Founder of Kelly Mac Music, she's not only paving the way but also creating opportunities for diverse talent across the media landscape, specializing in original music composition, music supervision, songwriting, and licensing. 

PH: Kelly, first of all, congratulations on your remarkable work on the documentary, "Donyale Luna: Supermodel." Can you tell us about your experience scoring music for a project that pays homage to such an iconic figure in the fashion world?

Kelly Mac: Thank you! It was an honor for my team and I to help bring this story to life. Donayle Luna had a very unique and avant garde spirit. She faced a lot of backlash throughout her life growing up, as well as when she became a pioneering fashion model. She creates a fantasy world as a way to escape from her pain, so it was our job to help paint the picture of this world with the score.  

At first, we created lots of sketches and went over them with the director, Nailah Jefferson, to nail down a creative direction. Nailah tends to love a lot of rich orchestral scores; meanwhile, my team and I live in the world of pop record production. Nailah was great to work with and highly encouraged us to bring our natural artistic sensibility to the score, and we ultimately found a hybrid approach that was cinematic yet contemporary and fresh.  

PH: Donyale Luna was a trailblazer in the fashion industry, breaking down barriers for Black models. In what ways did her story and legacy inspire your music composition for this documentary?

Kelly Mac: There’s a lot of empowering moments in Donyale’s life that we were inspired by. For example, when David Bailey photographs Donyale for Vogue for the first time, it’s a moment that feels powerful and grand. It highlights Black excellence as we see a Black woman in the highest of publications. We switched from minor to major keys to give a feeling of grandeur and elegance, and repetitive percussive drum hits that feel fanfare-like and celebratory.  The musical sound palette we landed on is pretty contemporary, but its relevance feels appropriate as we’re still seeking more representation today. 

At the same time, there are a lot of darker moments in Donyale’s story, as she experienced constant backlash throughout her life and moved from city to city to try and escape her past. To convey this, we used arpeggiated melodies layered on top of atmospheric beds to paint the picture of running, all the while being engulfed in her dream-like world. As her story goes on, there are moments where the melodies become more dissonant or there’s a dissonant synth drone that evolves into the cue to evoke the feeling of her world disintegrating. 

PH: Both Donyale Luna and yourself have been pioneers in your respective fields as Black women. How do you see your journey as a composer paralleling Donyale Luna's journey as a Black model in the '60s and '70s?

Kelly Mac: Donyale represents and gives permission to be whoever you want to be. As noted in the film, her simply existing in these historically and predominantly white spaces was a revolutionary act in and of itself. That’s what my team and I aim to represent; I hope we can serve as a permission slip to aspiring Black women; and inspire studios and directors to be more inclusive. 

PH: The documentary highlights Donyale Luna's historic magazine covers. Can you share how you incorporated the essence of those times into the music, capturing the era's mood and atmosphere?

Kelly Mac: We referenced a lot of music from the ‘60s and ‘70s and were inspired by the rhythm sections and sonic palettes of Motown. We created a sultry and gritty cue for the point in the film where Donyale moves to New York City. We also created an energetic British rock cue that embodies the invigorating energy of London in the ‘60s. We used the sound of the British Invasion as inspiration while also infusing drum samples to give it a modern touch.

PH: Diversity and representation in the entertainment industry have become increasingly important topics. What challenges have you faced as a Black female composer, and how do you see the industry evolving in terms of supporting and promoting diverse talent?

Kelly Mac: A lot of the challenges I faced came early on in my career. When I first started producing records, I’d go into studio sessions with a bunch of guys and everyone thought I was the singer. I automatically felt judged and underrated because no one believed that I’d be producing the session. It’s gotten better now that we’ve seen producers and composers who are women and people of color getting more representation. Behind the scenes, I’ve seen a lot more companies trying to be more aware of these unconscious biases and putting more women and people of color on projects. But we still have a long way to go. 

PH: You've composed music for projects like "Block Party" and "Time of Essence," both of which have important cultural significance. How do you approach scoring for projects that tackle important themes like Juneteenth and Essence Magazine's legacy?

Kelly Mac: The approach is usually pretty natural because they represent my lived experience. A lot of times, these types of projects are looking for music that resonates with Black people and Black culture, which is exactly the kind of music my team at Kelly Mac Music and I love and are inspired by. Our approach is essentially to infuse our artistic sensibilities and natural instincts into the cues with the goal of creating an authentic score. 

PH: Your company, Kelly Mac Music, represents diverse talent in the music industry. Can you tell us more about the mission and goals of your company and how it contributes to the broader conversation about diversity and inclusion in media?

Kelly Mac: Our goal is to be a top tier company that creates high end modern music for media - high end meaning maintaining a standard of excellence for our music and over-delivering for our clients. We aim to work within our wheelhouse of creating modern artistic work and partner with creatives who tell compelling stories, and we accomplish this by working with a diverse team who are all artists in their own right and bring a unique point of view. We’re constantly scouting new talent and we are beginning to give mentoring opportunities to female composers and people of color who are looking to get into this space.  

PH: As the CEO and Founder of Kelly Mac Music, you are also a business owner in a field where Black women are underrepresented. Can you share some insights into your journey as an entrepreneur and the challenges you've encountered in this space?

Kelly Mac: Being an entrepreneur, especially in the music industry, can be challenging. There are lots of peaks, valleys, and plateaus. You have to put in a lot of work in the beginning to get things off the ground and don’t immediately see the payoffs of your input. However, if you stay consistent and stick with it long enough, you’ll gain traction. I think it’s important to remain adaptable in order to navigate the ups and downs and to be so passionate about what you’re doing that you couldn’t imagine doing anything else. 

PH: Let's talk about the broader entrepreneurial landscape. Statistically, the number of Black women-owned businesses is quite low compared to the population percentage. What advice would you give to aspiring Black female entrepreneurs looking to break into the industry?

Kelly Mac: My advice is normally to find a niche and choose a lane that you can excel at. You want to become an expert in a specialized niche so you can differentiate yourself. Think of one platform, one product or service, and one avatar. Stay consistent and provide as much value as you can there. Also, never look at being Black or female as a disadvantage just because your field has been predominantly white or male. If you’re in a saturated market, you should see it as an advantageous thing that allows you to stand out. 

PH: Looking ahead, what do you hope to achieve in your career as a composer and as the leader of Kelly Mac Music? Are there any exciting upcoming projects you can share with us?

Kelly Mac: Our aim is to become a top-tier company doing major studio films, TV projects, and commercials. We want to align with filmmakers and studios who are telling compelling stories, whether that’s narrative, drama, comedy, or doc. We hope to infuse edge and artistry into our work, blend the worlds of contemporary modern music and media, and become a leader in this space. We also hope to serve the music industry in general by releasing authentic music that helps push culture forward. 

We recently contributed to the “Time of Essence” docuseries on OWN, which is currently streaming on Max. We have another film coming out with Nailah Jefferson and we’re in talks for many big projects that we’re excited about. 

PH: Finally, can you reflect on the impact of your work and the legacy you hope to leave, both as a composer and as an advocate for diversity and representation in the media industry?

Kelly Mac: I hope that the kind of music we’re creating is pushing the world of film score into a more forward-thinking and artistic space. I hope that what we’re doing also serves as a permission slip to women and people of color who want to break into creating music for media and inspires the directors and studios to be conscious and inclusive. 

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