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'We The People' Creator On Making A Kids' Show About American Democracy


It's the Fourth of July. You may be headed to a barbecue, watching a parade or maybe reflecting on what's great about this country, like the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution. But how are younger generations learning about those rights and freedoms and the fact that our more perfect union is still imperfect? Enter "We The People," a new series from Netflix that's meant to educate kids about the workings of American democracy from the Bill of Rights to how the court system works. And these are far from some of the stodgy educational videos you might recall.


ANDRA DAY: (Singing) The system we share was supposed to be fair. Criminal or a civil affair, appellate or supreme, the court meets the need.

MCCAMMON: That's singer Andra Day's take on the judiciary. The series of original music videos features an all-star musical lineup that includes Janelle Monae, Brandi Carlile and Lin-Manuel Miranda alongside stunning images from up-and-coming animators. And while the series may be meant for a younger audience, there are lots of lessons in there for grown-ups, too. Joining us now is Chris Nee, the creator of "We The People," which, by the way, is executive produced by former president and first lady Barack and Michelle Obama. Chris Nee, welcome.

CHRIS NEE: Thank you. It is so great to be here.

MCCAMMON: So you've created and written lots of other kids television, including the hit Disney show "Doc McStuffins." What made you want to create a series focused on civic education?

NEE: I think really, if you look at the whole career that I've put together, I'm always trying to find a way in my day job to help myself sleep better at night. So whatever is keeping me up is the thing that I'm going to go see if I can figure out a show that will feel like it's engaging in that conversation. And like so many people the last few years, it has felt like we have lost having a common conversation, a common language to talk about what it is to be American, what it is to talk about civics, what it is to be engaged in our country in a healthy way. And so "We The People" was the answer to that.

MCCAMMON: And how did you decide to do this in a music video format?

NEE: I was really looking to see what felt like the most impactful way to talk about this. And of course, animation is a very long process, and it felt like we needed it sooner than later. So the idea of doing 10 short animated sort of music videos felt like the fastest way for us to get there. But it also, of course, is inspired by "Schoolhouse Rock." I'm of a generation that - we grew up with that. And I know what it is for something like "Schoolhouse Rock" or "Free To Be... You And Me" to be stuck in your head and in your heart.

MCCAMMON: Yeah, it's hard not to draw comparisons to "Schoolhouse Rock" for those reasons. And yet this series feels very updated. I mean, the the animation is fresh. The music is contemporary. How did you go about deciding, you know, which artists to use in this series?

NEE: President Obama was the one who said, let's really shoot for the stars. Let's age this up from where the "Schoolhouse Rock" demo is. Let's go for 14 to 18. We're in a moment where animation is cool, No. 1. And No. 2, those are the kids who are looking around this world right now and wondering what they are being handed in so many different areas.

But the second we age the project up, you suddenly have to basically make sure that you are passing the BS factor, so to speak, right? And so that's the moment where we decided to go out to ten top-level musicians and ask them to write a song. I mean, asking Cordae to write a song about taxes is a little bit of an insane ask. And also, it means that the song that we got back was so authentic, so jam-packed with information but also really from a perspective that we needed.


CORDAE: (Rapping) You see; 9% of taxes help provide for the poor, but 15 goes to defense and supplying the war. Now, if you ask me, I say that the numbers are shrewd but we agree that with no military, we're screwed, for real. I'll drop a little knowledge for whatever it's worth. Only 2% went to medical research.

MCCAMMON: Now, the series does touch on some controversial issues, maybe not surprisingly since it's about government. I'm thinking of the Bill of Rights episode where you talk about the Second Amendment and you point out that guns are very different today than they were at the time of the nation's founding and the episode about taxes where, you know, kids learn about how military spending compares to other things like scientific research. You touch on these debates, but then you kind of move on quickly. I wonder how you thought about the best way to approach these controversial issues.

NEE: Our goal from beginning to end was to remind us that, first and foremost, civics is a non-partisan conversation. It is about the actual mechanics of how governance works. And so we were trying to both let the artists who were involved have some control of the things that they felt were important to speak about. But also, everything was being run through both university professors and also through a group of people through the Obamas' team who were looking to make sure that we were really giving voice to all sides. So if you look at the Second Amendment, we state what the amendment is. And we actually have exactly the same amount of time between the two characters who are raising their opinions. And that's also voiced in the song that there are different ways to look at this.

So we're trying to make sure that it is a bipartisan project that's letting you know what the issues are. And look; at the end of the day, my goal, more than anything else, is to activate anyone who feels helpless in this country or who has a direction they wish the country were going in. It doesn't matter to me what that direction is. I want you to know that you can affect it. You can get involved, and you can change where we're headed.


HER: (Singing) If I'm just one person, will my voice even stand out? Can I make a difference if I don't even know how?

MCCAMMON: That's Chris Nee. She's the creator of the new series "We The People," which is fittingly out today on Netflix. Thanks so much.

NEE: Oh, thank you for having me. We're hoping that everybody watches and gets involved.


HER: (Singing) Change, change, change. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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