‘Luke Cage’ is music to Cheo Coker’s ears

When “Luke Cage” showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker was a student at Stanford University in the early 1990s, he and some friends would DJ parties.

For those parties, they had two different sets; a “cross over crate” they thought contained music white partygoers could enjoy, and the hardcore hip hop set they saved for the black fraternities, Coker told CNN.

That was the way it went, until the night a white fraternity asked them to play their regular set.

“We were like, ‘Are you sure?'” Coker recalled, laughing.

But everyone loved it, and he and his friends never went back to segregating their music.

It’s an old story, but for Coker, it’s a current one, too — something that resembles what is happening right now on television.

His Netflix series about a reluctant black superhero with unbreakable skin is airing at a time when African American shows like “Empire,” “Power,” “Atlanta,” “Queen Sugar” and the forthcoming “Insecure” are stirring buzz, finding success and offering wider audiences different slices of the black experience.

“It’s really the first time you have black people in the mix from the very top,” Coker said. “I feel that people are getting — for the first time since the music — this look at our lives and this look at ourselves that is the same part of ourselves that we show to ourselves.”

The creator of what is expected to be one of Netflix’s biggest shows this season often interjects music into the conversation.

Coker compared making “Luke Cage” to putting together an album. Each episode is named after a song by the rap group Gang Starr. Artists of various music genres perform in the series at a nightclub featured in the show.

Composers Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad — the latter of whom is best known for his work with classic rap group A Tribe Called Quest — put together a score which utilizes everything from hip hop to a 30 piece orchestra.

Coker said he is well aware that comic book fans have been anxiously awaiting “Luke Cage” since it was first announced that the “Jessica Jones” character was getting a spinoff that would find him attempting to keep the streets of Harlem safe.

“We are kind of in this meld between the actual Marvel comics, the Marvel television universe and the Luke Cage we created to bridge between both of those,” Coker said. “Hopefully geeks like it, but if they don’t, there’s nothing I can do about that. I’m either really right or really wrong about this.”

He’s already gotten a sense of how important his words — both those that appear on the screen and those far away from it — can be in terms of shaping perceptions about the series.

When Coker said “the world is ready for a bulletproof black man” at ComicCon this summer, it sparked some serious discussion — and he’s ok with that. Coker said he does not want to shy away from publicly discussing the social relevance of the series.

While a scene showing Cage walking through a building with bullets bouncing off his body was filmed in the style of the “Terminator” movie, Coker said he couldn’t help but see the connection to his hoodie wearing superhero (the hoodie is a nod to Trayvon Martin, he said) and the high profile cases of black men being killed in police involved shootings.

But Coker doesn’t believe Cage is the first #BlacksLivesMatter superhero.

“All black literature, and pretty much every black character, has been an illustration of the merit and the importance of black lives,” Coker said. “The fact that people are awake about Luke Cage is less of an indication of ignorance than it is an indication that people are thinking more about the world in ways that they never have before.”

It was important to Coker that Luke Cage not be “a hero that happened to be black,” he said.

“The same way I’m not a showrunner that happens to be black,” he said. “It’s not the only prism through which I look at America or I look storytelling. It’s a part of me that I’m proud of, and that I lean into, but at the same time, I am very aware, open minded and look at things through different perspectives.”

The grandson of a Tuskegee airman, Coker knows that because Cage is undeniably black — in everything from his discussions of literature like Donald Goines street novels to the hip hop soundtrack which acts as his theme music — there are some who are going to be uncomfortable with how much race is infused into the series.

But just like his Stanford partygoers, Coker is betting the “Luke Cage” audience, as a whole, will be able to groove along to it.

“People I think are going to be surprised by how fun the show is,” Coker said. “It’s fun and funny, in addition to being political.”

“Luke Cage” premieres on Netflix September 30.

By Lisa Respers France