This week, Josh Wakely, the creator behind Netflix’s Emmy award-winning kids’ series Beat Bugs, has released his second animated show, Motown Magic, for the streaming service. The series, composed of 24, 11-minute episodes, follows 8-year-old Ben Love who brings the street-art of his Detroit-inspired city to life. Influenced by the narratives of Motown’s greatest hits, Wakely has collaborated with major contemporary artists, like Ne-Yo, Becky G, BJ The Chicago Kid, Skylar Grey and Calum Scott for the show’s soundtrack, which was concurrently released this month. Wakely reveals how his creative endeavor has brought new life to Detroit’s treasured Motown legacy and, in doing so, ushers a hybrid of old and new sounds into the 21st century.
Why did you focus your new Netflix show on the stories and hits of Motown?
Motown is quite possibly, and even statistically, the world’s most popular music catalog. Having access to the incredibly family-friendly melodies of Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross and The Supremes, Four Tops, and The Jackson 5 … it made perfect sense to create an animated, children series for that reason. Songs like “Superstition,” “Road Runner,” and “My Girl” inherently reveal large-scale social messages that can be overcome with positivity and love. To refuse the opportunity to create a piece of work that is uplifting, especially during such hard times, would be a mistake.
How does Magic Motown challenge the dated yet widely accepted stigma of Detroit – one that dubs the city as unsafe, especially for children?
I grew up in Newcastle, England, a town defined by its strength – similar to that of Detroit’s. My hometown, while largely known for coal, is a place of great love and creativity. By highlighting Motown, viewers of the show will learn how the Motor City molded America’s culture, rather than focus on of its despair. As a children’s show, I disregarded conventional settings where a show like this might take place; castles, magical lands, you name it. Rather, it’s about the gifts you can find within your imagination and the world you live in. People have been dreaming longer than I’ve been alive.
Smokey Robinson is the series’ executive pusic producer. What is the story behind his involvement?
From the beginning, I said I would only pursue this project if I had the blessing of one of the Motown elders, of which there are very few. Smokey Robinson, being of one the most prolific singers and songwriters, was at the very top of that list for me because he was involved in both the creative and business side of Motown. After listening to our tracks for the show — very diligently might I add — he said, “I’m so very glad that this work is going to continue into to other generations.” That’s all I needed to continue this endeavo. He has been very actively involved with Magic Motown ever since.
You also released the show’s soundtrack this month, which features classic hits like “ABC” and “For Once In My Life,” sung by artists such as Ne-Yo, Calum Scott, Becky G, and Trombone Shorty.
The soundtrack was about bringing together prominent contemporary artists who wanted to pay homage to this extraordinary Detroit catalog and spoke to what Motown was then, and is now. Smokey Robinson even re-recorded “My Girl,” which was a trip just to watch. Along with our Motown cast, there’s a few artists that I feel will be breaking into the industry, like Jacquez “Quizz” Swanigan. These artists were truly grateful of the privilege that came with recreating these iconic songs. It’s Motown music with a contemporary feel and it’s true to what we’re doing with the series.
Related: Respecting Aretha Franklin at the Detroit Historical Museum