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Daveed Diggs On Working With ESPN, ‘Hamilton,’ And What The Warriors Mean To Oakland


Getty/Uproxx

Daveed Diggs is not afraid to try something new. The “multi-hyphenate” has starred on stage in Hamilton, appeared on television in Black-Ish and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and created music for decades.

Diggs is working with ESPN to create six different pieces of music this season, the first of which coincides with the Golden State Warriors title defense on opening night of the NBA season. Diggs is a huge Warriors fan and Oakland native, so the collaboration was an obvious one for the actor.

He chatted with us about the Warriors and what they mean to The Bay, his experience working on various projects, and the differences between art in the Obama and Trump presidencies.

Uproxx: How did you get involved with ESPN? Did they come to you and say they wanted to work with you?

Daveed Diggs: Yeah, This was maybe a year and change ago, me and Leslie Odom, Jr. did something for the ESPN Upfront in New York. We wrote a song and performed it at the UpFront and it was super fun. It was an interesting experience and I really enjoyed that collaboration. And then ESPN had been sort of approaching me for a while and we’ve been trying to figure out what a thing is that I could do kind of consistently with them and this was sort of what we landed on.

Your first project starts with the Warriors, which is a team you’re very familiar with. What was the collaboration process like for this?

Not … Yes, but I mean, in that it’s so specific, right? This is like, well we want to play this … We want to like air this before the first Warriors game of the year. You know, that was like a very specific thing for a piece of music. A very specific goal; we wanted to be like very Warriors. But you know, we sort of decided that this was what we were doing. But also sports as metaphor in rap music is so common and it’s also very common to sort of shout out players from the town that you’re from in your songs and I’m from Oakland so all of this is fairly familiar territory, I think.

As we continue with this project, we’ll get into some things that are a little less familiar, but this one was super fun. And it was just about trying to create a piece of music that really feels like Oakland but also feels like something that is for a sporting event, you know?

I was like ‘I want D-Sharp to play this at the game.’ DJ D-sharp is the DJ at the Warriors games. And I was like, if this was something he felt like he could play at the game I would be super geeked. So that was my goal in writing the song and then in creating the visuals for it, it’s just about sort of examining the things that I come up with in the song and creating like a way of accentuating that storytelling. And also I hope, we’re getting towards the final cut of it right now, but hopefully something that also represents Oakland really well.
The Warriors have such a strong connection with Oakland and the Bay area, and obviously that’s going to change in a couple years when the arena moves, but what was it like growing up with that team and seeing what they’ve sort of become today? What does it mean to the city and to you?

So much. That’s an interesting thing about sports, right? Generally speaking, there’s rarely a player on the team that’s from the city that you’re rooting for, but sports are really a thing that galvanizes communities and a thing that communities can come together to root for. And the Warriors had such a long history of having great potential and very occasionally meeting that potential. For a long time it almost felt like a training camp for other teams. Like great players would go through the Warriors and then leave, you know.

So to be in this moment right now where they’re sort of undoubtedly the team and have been for a couple of years and they’re sort of the team that everyone else has to restructure and reshape the way that they recruit and play the game in order to compete with — I think that’s great and it means a lot to us to be like Oakland. It’s changing so fast and I think for a lot of us who are from there it’s nice to have this moment where this team, who has been ours for so long, is sort of reaching their fullest potential while they are still here. They didn’t have to leave Oakland to become champions. They are still in Oakland, they are still champions. That means a lot for us, for sure.

Do you think the connection with the team will change when the team move and doesn’t play in Oakland anymore?

We’ll have to see. I don’t know the answer. We’ll see. I will certainly still root for them. They’re still like the Bay area team, and they’re still my team. But it is sad to see them go, I think, for a lot of Oakland residents. It also feels like a strange move to me, in that realistically everything in San Francisco is moving over to Oakland. Maybe that’s it: maybe it’s about space. But a big problem in Oakland right now is that everything is so expensive because all of the tech industry boom finally destroyed San Francisco so now it’s all moving over to Oakland.

So have the Warriors now being like we’re going to move to San Francisco, it’s kind of like: ‘You’re late, like you missed it. And you’re probably going to want to move right back.’ But I’m sure the facility that they’re building over there is gorgeous and all that. And it will probably be a really cool place to go to see games. So hopefully the feelings won’t be hurt so bad that we can’t still root for them, but it is I think an odd choice to leave Oakland.

And also it does sting a little because they were East Bay and the way they play feels like the East Bay, it doesn’t feel like San Francisco. You know, if you’re from there, you sort of know what that means.

So you have a Grammy and a Tony, I was wondering if this is your way of trying to diversify your chances of winning an Emmy? Was that what you were thinking here?

(laughs) No. You know it’s funny. I don’t do anything for awards. I think that’s a bad reason to do anything. But I hadn’t even thought about that, that was a possible thing. But no really, I think it’s a cool idea. It was a weird one at first and it took us a long time to figure out what we could do. But the team that’s working on it is so committed to really supporting the music. And the music, like the sound for this song, was created by William Hutson and Johnathan Snipes of Clipping, of my band. So this is a team I work with a lot.

And we’re also all producing the music for this new sitcom that I’m an executive producer of called The Mayor. Johnathan is scoring that and we’re creating all the original music and that stuff is up on iTunes every Friday. So we’re putting out a ton of music that is designed for these very specific moments. I also have a film coming out that we’re making all the music for. So it’s kind of like part of what we do these days. And we have a great shorthand and understand how to work with each other really well and really fast.

And for things that are really specific, and so this was kind of another opportunity to flex that muscle. And I watch ESPN. There’s not a lot of things that I watch that are contemporary and in real time. It’s not like I watch TV. I stream everything these days. But I have the watch ESPN app on my TV right now. Sports are really the only thing I care about watching in real time. And as far as networks go, like ESPN is really the only one I watch with any consistency. So it’s not like it’s a product I don’t believe in.

So I’m happy that I think we found something — it’s an experiment you know — but I think we found something that’s really cool and I’m excited to figure out what the next one is and just sort of dive into that.

I wanted to ask about The Mayor because I saw that you were an EP for it. You’ve been on two TV shows in particular that have really distinct voices — Black-ish and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Do you think The Mayor is another opportunity to have a very unique perspective and offer something new to people that are watching ABC in prime time?

I hope so, I hope so. Making a TV show for a network, turns out is, and I didn’t know any of this before, is a very complicated thing. And it involves a lot of moving pieces and a lot of people and a lot of things would have to get approved. And so what I’m really proud of this team for is that, I think, we’ve managed to hold on through all of these rounds of like insane notes and totally like weird things that you have to go through to get a TV show on air.

Like, I think we managed to hold on to the original idea, which was to create a show about a political outsider that is positive, and that really points out the similarities between people and that also has a really great sense of place.

And that’s … the thing that’s sort of important for me, set in a fictional Northern California town. But I’m hoping that it feels like Northern California, that’s kind of what I decided that was my job, right? So I sort of have my eye on that. That’s why I’m so involved in the music, is trying to hopefully make it sound and feel that way. Because you know Hanging with Mister Cooper was set in Oakland, right? That was the last sitcom I can think of that was set in that part of the world. As with everything I do, it’s sort of about trying to turn eyes to that part of the world.

But I also think that along with that stuff, we have this incredible cast and a lot of them are voices that nobody’s heard from before. And Brandon Michael Hall I think is immediately, like, so charismatic and such a star, but also Marsel Spears and Bernard David Jones are incredible talents and I hope that we turn on a lot of eyes on that. And then you Yvette Nicole Brown obviously is one of the greatest, I think, comedy actors of all time. She’s so, so good. And just to be the heart of the show and the funniest thing in the show all at the same, it’s pretty phenomenal watching her work.

Your career has been so interesting, because you’ve done so many different things. How do you decide to take on different mediums with music and acting and producing? Do you think a lot of people have a hard time understanding how to gain experience in different fields like that and feel confident in what they’re doing?

For me, and I think it’s actually like it is for most artists that you’ve never heard of, but this is just what you do. You always do a million different things. I’ve been making music for as long, if not longer, than I’ve been acting. And the people who I made music with, like if you’re writing songs with somebody who is also sort of an artistic person — I came out of this community of poetry writers in the Bay area and like a lot of them now work in the TV industry writing for TV shows or writing films. I still collaborate with all the same people, so of course we’re also writing films because we’ve been doing that since we were teenagers too. Nobody was ever going to make them when we were doing it.

As an artist I think a lot of times the world or the industry kind of wiggles you into whatever your box is. So you start out trying everything because that’s the only way to survive and to eat, and so you’re trying everything and you also genuinely are interested in a lot of things. No one’s like just trying to do drama, you know. I don’t know any actor whose like, “Yeah, no. What I do is straight hour-long dramas, that is the only thing I ever want to do in my life.”

But I think you’re doing a lot of things and whatever is the thing you are noticed for, people then are starting to call you more and more for that thing and either you fight against that or you roll with it. I’m sort of fortunate in a couple of ways: one was that nobody really noticed me until I was in my thirties, which means I know myself pretty well. And I think about this all time. If I had this kind of attention when I was 18, or when I was 25 even or when I was hoping for this kind of attention, I would have imploded probably and I would have had a career that’s very different than the one I’m sort of having right now and am pretty excited about and happy with.

Now I sort of know who I am and I know the things I like to do and so after Hamilton I got a lot of calls for musicals and I said no to all of them. I never was trying to do a musical in the first place. Hamilton was an anomaly for me. It’s the only musical I’ve ever done. But it also was a thing that I did with my friends and it combined a lot of these things that are in my wheelhouse anyway. It was rapping. It was acting. It was stage acting. They’re all things I’m like very comfortable with.

So people were able to see just from that, I think, that I’m sort of this kind of multi-hyphenate, and then also I just said no to the things that were the same. Like, I wasn’t going to do a musical next. And I think that kind of taking the first year after that to be really rigorous about the projects that I chose and making sure that they were very different, and having a team that was willing to help me do that, I think has been really useful because, at least right now, I’m able to do a lot of different things. We’ll see. This business is so funny and I never trust that anything will continue. I’m like ‘My phone could stop ringing tomorrow’ and that will also be very familiar.

There are two fairly famous YouTube videos that seem to loop the Hamilton experience together: The first one where Lin Manuel-Miranda performs at the White House when it’s just a mixtape concept. And then there’s this sort of a triumphant moment at the end of the Obama Administration where you come in and perform with the cast of the musical. You were involved pretty early in the process of Hamilton coming together. What was it like seeing that happen? Because I remember watching that first video with Lin and he’s nervous and the audience laughs and it’s kind of terrifying to watch that first video knowing things could have gone so differently for him.

It’s kind of amazing. You know I had used that video to teach in classes. The video came out in 2012, I was still teaching like middle school poetry classes. And I remember using that video, being like, ‘Oh, thanks Lin this is actually really useful.’ It was a good lesson. And then like the next year we started working on that show.

But being at the White House was this totally crazy experience. Like, knowing that it had sort of come full-circle. That like really the White House, in the room we were performing, was really where this started. That was the only song Lin had, there wasn’t anything else for the show, he had this one song.

And being back there and being with that First Family and them having had seen the show already, like it’s a crazy thing. Every time you meet the President or the First Lady you’re in a receiving line. That’s how it works. So we were all there and they would say all of our names before we said them. They knew us all by name. It was the most sort of compassionate and gracious thing I’ve seen because you know, I mean, that’s Barack Obama, that’s the President of the United States. This is Michelle Obama, she was there. They have so much going on. The fact that they would just take the time to learn our names is staggering.

And that whole day being there. We spent the whole afternoon working with kids, doing workshops with the inner city kids they had brought to the White House. So we’re in the White House, like teaching kids. They had given us pretty much like free rein of the White House. We’re running all over the place. Shooting like little videos for you know our little digital Ham for Ham lotteries and stuff. I mean like, really just incredibly gracious and the doors were open and then we got to perform for them.

One of the greatest moments I’ve ever had in my career was watching, just standing on the side and seeing Chris Jackson standing directly in front of Barack Obama singing One Last Time under a portrait of George Washington, who he is portraying. Singing this song that is about the thing that makes American democracy different than anything else. This decision, that Washington made, that the President needs to step down.

It was an incredible moment. And so that whole day is something I will never forget. It was really special and you know the show was literally and figuratively a product of his presidency. I don’t think it could have existed at any other time and it also came into being because they co-signed it.

We now live in a world where the President is publicly criticizing people of color for a wide variety of things, including protesting silently at football games. Mike Pence has walked out of an NFL game and had an incident at a Hamilton performance. That happened after you left the show, but it’s created a different atmosphere for art and entertainment. Does it change the way that you value your work?

I think there’s a sense of urgency behind it. I think, look, the President has made it abundantly clear that he does not value people of color or their contributions to this country. He doesn’t. You know, if you weren’t convinced of that before Charlottesville, like post-Charlottesville, in my opinion, there’s no question. Given that, I think creating art in this time is even more important. It’s like the space that we have where we can discuss these things.

This is crazy to me, but it is such a political thing right now just to create art that’s unashamedly smart. Where like questioning authority or doing things a different way or where every character is an intelligent character, is valued? That all of a sudden is a political act. What this administration is doing is devaluing education, it’s devaluing research, it’s ignoring facts, it is yelling and screaming at anybody who actively researches something. Who will go up and look at the history of a thing and combat whatever is being thrown at us with facts and precedents? And they ignore that.

So one of the more political things that I think you can do is do something really smart. And that is something that I think artists have always been challenged with and I think now a lot of us feel even more galvanized to keep doing that. And keep making things that are interesting and complicated and that are unafraid to hold this country responsible and accountable for the choices that we are making. And the sort of deep-seated racism that exists. The deep-seated sexism and homophobia that exist.

We spent a long time sort of pretending that we were past that, and you can’t do that anymore. But maybe the positive of it is that we have to actually deal with it. And I think as artists creating space for metaphor, or creating space where there’s a little bit of distance between the audience and the thing that they’re watching, it allows people to process things like that. You can listen to a piece of music and feel affected by it differently than having the experience yourself because you get that little bit of distance, but also music is something that is inherently emotional. So it allows you to emotionally connect to an experience without you having had it. And I think that becomes even more important in these times.

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