D’Angelo has released his first album in 14 years. This is a phrase you will hear repeated again and again this week, and for very good reason. D’Angelo’s release of Black Messiah is exactly what America – and Black America in particular – needed in this hour. The reason is simple: As Fela Kuti said 30 years ago “music is the weapon” and few people wield its power with as much skill and authenticity as D’Angelo.
When I was in the Bahamas on vacation last year, Marshall and I took a tour around the island with a cabbie. He drove us to a number of the forts, to the 66 steps known as the Queen’s Staircase (an escape route hewn from fossilized coral for the rich planters by their black slaves), and to the wealthy estates and ghettos that exist side-by-side on the island. As he gave us a history of the island and the slave trade as it operated there, we compared notes. Our guide talked about what it meant for his ancestors to have overcome slavery in the Bahamas, Marshall gave his perspective as a descendant of American slave and I gave mine as a descendant of Africans who had endured the horrors of colonization. The history was similar and the outcomes not that different. Our race had achieved many fine accomplishments and suffered several failures that had set us back. Nevertheless, we still thrive.
“They are actually doing a study on how Black people survived the Middle Passages, slavery and segregation,” our cabbie said in conversation. “They say there is no way Black people should have been able to survive the type things that were done to them. No human being should have been.”
I know what he meant. He was talking about the seasoning camps where Africans were whipped, sodomized and tortured into subjection; about the selling off children, mothers and fathers and systematic separating of our families; about the hatred for our own selves that sown into our psyche by our captors. When the Arawaks – a tribe of Native Americans – encountered the Europeans who promptly set about enslaving them, they chose mass suicide over bondage with throngs of people ingesting poison and flinging themselves from cliffs, plunging to their deaths. Entire ethnicities were destroyed. By rights, we Africans in the Diaspora were entitled to the same release only death could bring, but we chose to live. African culture in its root form saved Africans from the sadistic manifestations of the European imagination, and there was one weapon in our arsenal that they never had the foresight to take from us: music and song.
When the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade was at its height, European traders and White American planters immediately and systematically robbed Africans of our identity; stripping us of our names, prohibiting the use of our mother tongue, and robbing us of the honor of styling our hair, the crowning glory for both men and women in that era. I don’t know if it was an oversight on their part, but they let us keep our food and song. Fish and grits and drums have sustained us on both sides of the Atlantic for centuries!
Africans in the Diaspora and on the Continent have used song and instrumentation the way much of humanity has. We used it to convey sorrow, mirth and encouragement. But we have also used them as a medium to convey messages and a call to arms. In time, certain songs like Go Down Moses and Steal Away were banned on plantations because they were signals for escapees to make their move. We used songs and hymns as strength to march during the Civil Rights era, and in Ghana – as I’m sure is the case in all independence seeking African countries – there were war songs with call and response formats to fortify the steadfast marches for independence.
In the summer of 2014, we saw some of the worst police brutality meted out against people of color than we have in years. An FBI statistic revealed that a person of color was killed every 28 hours by law enforcement officers. The tragedy is that many of these civilians were unarmed and not in the throes of any activity that should warrant death. These statistics mirror the rate at which Black men, women AND children were lynched in this country in the Reconstruction through Jim Crow eras. But where was our art? Where were our songs to serve as a balm to our pain? My parents had James Brown and Marvin Gaye to tell them to be Black and Proud and to ask What’s Goin’ On… we had the recurring tragedy that is Chris Brown to release an album and Kim Kardashian’s oily ass crack meant to serve as our sepulcher for our pain. Humph. So yes, D’Angelo’s arrival with Black Messiah is absolutely apropos and incredibly timely.
I have not heard the album yet, but the title alone has got me feeling all kinds of giddy. Plus it’s D’Angelo. Who can doubt his ability to deliver us? He’s a minister and high priest who lifts souls and drops panties. He is at once sensuous and serious. He explains without explaining the rage one feels in the face of betrayal and despair of receiving white chalk lines instead of justice. I haven’t the faintest idea what the subject matter of the album is at this moment (I will by week’s end, however!), but I like many other people around the world who have suffered grief wrought from death, loss and misfortune- or have kinship with people who have had to withstand these things- have felt a sudden burden be lifted off of us with just the news that D’Angelo’s album has dropped. D’Angelo’s music is for a certain generation; and that’s the generation who is out marching in the streets, who have birthed sons and daughters who are now of the “acceptable” age to serve as bullet fodder for a blood thirsty, militarized police force sanctioned to kill by local government and pardoned by a justice system created to protect them, and who – like our fore bearers – need a familiar voice to give us strength through melody to carry us through these dark times. We needed a lullaby, a lyric and war cry to tell us it will be all right.
Thank you for coming back in this hour, D’Angelo, when we needed you.