A Literary Chameleon

Colson Whitehead ’91 has written a zombie-apocalypse novel, a coming-of-age novel set in the world of the black elite, a satiric allegory following a nomenclature consultant, a sprawling epic tracing the legend of the African American folk hero John Henry, a suite of lyrical essays in honor of New York City, and an account of drear and self-loathing in Las Vegas while losing $10,000 at the World Poker Series. That work has won him critical acclaim. He received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2002, and has been a finalist for almost every major literary award; he won the Dos Passos Prize in 2012 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2013. In an era when commercial pressure reinforces the writerly instinct to cultivate a recognizable “voice,” his astonishingly varied output, coupled with highly polished, virtuosic prose, makes Whitehead one of the most ambitious and unpredictable authors working today.

He has gained a reputation as a literary chameleon, deftly blurring the lines between literary and genre fiction, and using his uncanny abilities to inhabit and reinvent conventional frames in order to explore the themes of race, technology, history, and popular culture that continually resurface in his work. In a country where reading habits and reading publics are still more segregated than we often care to admit, his books enjoy a rare crossover appeal. His first novel, The Intuitionist, is a detective story that regularly turns up in college courses; the zombie thriller Zone One drew praise from literary critics and genre fiction fans alike; Sag Harbor, about black privileged kids coming of age in the 1980s, was a surprise bestseller.

Beyond the books, Whitehead swims effortlessly in the hyper-connected moment: he maintains an active presence on Twitter, where his sly and dyspeptic observations on the curious and the mundane have gained him a devoted following. A sampling includes sagacious tips for the aspiring writer — “Epigraphs are always better than what follows. Pick crappy epigraphs so you don’t look bad” — and riffs on Ezra Pound: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd / Petals on a wet, black bough / Probably hasn’t been gentrified though.” In the pages of The New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker, he has wryly dissected contemporary mores and the light-speed metamorphoses of language in the age of social media. In a widely shared essay from last year, he parsed the current attachment to the “tautophrase,” as in “you do you” and “it is what it is.” Or Taylor Swift’s popularization of “Haters gonna hate.” Swift makes an easy target, of course, but Whitehead takes aim at the rhetoric of those in power too, and the narcissism in our culture more generally. He’s more gadfly than moralist, but there is a Voltaire-like venom to his sarcasms. “The modern tautophrase empowers the individual,” he observes, “regardless of how shallow that individual is.”

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Why Are Whites So Angry?

Rutherford B. Hayes (James Albert Wales/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.)

The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide
By Carol Anderson
246 pp. Bloomsbury. $26.

As the Obama presidency draws to a close, it is clear that the post-racial democracy it was supposed to inaugurate has not materialized. But over the last eight years something very important has emerged in the way race gets discussed in America: the foregrounding of whiteness. From discussions of diversity on campus and white appropriation of black culture to #OscarsSoWhite, “whiteness” as a cultural and social category has become a subject for scrutiny and criticism in ways that “blackness” was in years past.

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The Time of the Assassins

The disaster ruins everything, all the while leaving everything intact. It does not touch anyone in particular; “I” am not threatened by it, but spared, left aside. It is in this way that I am threatened…

—Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster


The Bataclan is one of the oldest music venues in Paris. Situated on the Boulevard Voltaire and named after an 1855 operetta by Jacques Offenbach, it has operated as an entertainment venue more or less continuously since its opening in 1865 under the Second Empire. After a period of decline in the Sixties and Seventies it was reopened in 1983 with a particular emphasis on providing a platform for post-punk and rock on the Parisian scene. Perhaps befitting its name, onomatopoetic for a sonorous cacophony, it has long maintained a reputation for eclecticism.

Offenbach’s 1855 Ba-ta-clan is an orientalist comic operetta about a Chinese emperor whose subjects are ostensibly in a conspiracy to revolt and overthrow him. It turns out, however, that the emperor and the conspirators are all French aristocrats who share a desperate homesickness for the gay life of Paris that they enjoyed in their youth. It’s a light satire spoofing Napoleon III and the hapless members of the courtier class around him. But it also suggests a pervasive French fantasy: that cultural differences are really more like costumes, and that underneath those exotic garbs, which are amusing but insubstantial, all people want to be French — or at least to live the life of pleasure as the French conceive it. When things are set aright, as they must be at the end of any comic play, all will sing together as one. All will be dissolved in the irresistible cheer of a French republican chorus.

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Back in the Day

Photo credit: Desdemone Bardin, IAM Fête de l’Humanité, courtesy of Sebastian Bardin-Greenberg. Originally published in Freestyle (1993).

In 1988 no one in France took the hip-hop movement seriously. It was the rec-room era. JoeyStarr and Kool Shen were just two kids from Seine-Saint-Denis, the 93rd ward, a neglected tract of housing projects on the northern outskirts of Paris. One black, the other white, they shared a love and talent for breakdancing and got together practicing moves in bleak lots and house parties. They started crews and listened to Doug E. Fresh, Masta Ace, Grandmaster Flash and Marley Marl. DJs played the breaks looped over jazzy horn riffs, cats sported Kangol hats and Cosby sweaters, and they tagged the walls of the city with their calling card: NTM, an acronym for Nique Ta Mère (Fuck Your Mother). There were no labels, no official concerts or shows, and the only airplay was after midnight on Radio Nova, a station dedicated to underground and avant-garde music, created and directed by French countercultural hero Jean-François Bizot.

I was at a house party in a spacious bourgeois apartment somewhere in the 16th arrondissement when I first heard DJ Cut Killer’s track “La Haine,” better known by its infamous refrain “Nique la police” (Fuck the police). I hadn’t yet seen the film La Haine (1995), which made the song famous, and which remains arguably the most important French film of the 1990s. I was at a boum, slang for a teenage house party and a tradition of Parisian coming of age that involves a great deal of slow dancing and emotional espionage. Sophie Marceau immortalized it as a mesmerizing ingénue in the greatest French teen romance ever produced, La Boum (1980). But I wasn’t dancing with Sophie Marceau. I was dancing with Caroline. A young dude interrupted Ace of Base and popped in a cassette he had brought in his jacket pocket. The party came to a jarring halt as everyone looked at everyone else trying to figure out what to do. The shock of hearing someone actually say “fuck the police” and repeat it again and again stunned me. The owner of the tape was bragging about how he got it. How it was banned, and you could only find it “underground.” This turned out to be true, though I didn’t believe it at the time. Caroline insisted she was impressed, but her body was limp, her eyes vacant. The song made a big impression on me. Even without fully understanding everything on the record, the exhilaration of open rebellion was palpable. Over an onslaught of breaks and scratches a voice shouted: “Who protects our rights? / Fuck the justice system / The last judge I saw was as bad as the dealer on my corner / Fuck the police / Fuck the police!” KRS-One samples collided with a looping of Édith Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien.” We understood the symbolism perfectly. The difference between Sophie Marceau’s world and ours was the existence of the ghetto as an undeniable fact. The party was over.

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Why Does Ta-Nehisi Coates Say Less Than He Knows?

Ta-Nehisi Coates (Gabriella Demczuk)

When people sometimes ask me whether I consider myself black, I have to tell them that I am, and I remind them that the possibility of the question is itself the answer. To be black in the United States can involve existing in a kind of special interrogative mode, which is like standing in the long shadow of a question mark. This point is not merely an abstract analogy. The “blackness” of skin means what it does in the United States not because of melanin, but rather because of the long shadow of the slave ship and Jim Crow. It is, to borrow James Baldwin’s words, “not a human or a personal reality” but “a political reality,” defined by the decisions and actions that have formed the history of the country we live in. Conversely, when white folks stammer that “white privilege” cannot possibly apply to them, I suggest that their very insistence is one small manifestation of that privilege, namely of not having to question or be questioned, of being able to choose to lead an unexamined life in this country.

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The Protest Poets

Terrance Hayes at a Cave Canem reading at the Lensic Theater, Santa Fe, 2006 (Ben Oswest/Flickr)

Outside of poetry circles, few people have heard of the Dark Room Collective or Cave Canem, but over the last thirty years these two communities have nurtured a profound and ongoing transformation in American letters. Sharan Strange and Thomas Sayers Ellis, two black students who met at Harvard, founded Dark Room in 1987. As young fledgling poets they traveled together to New York to attend the funeral of one of their literary heroes, James Baldwin. They were inspired by the extraordinary sense of fellowship at that event and vowed to try and recreate it in their own lives.

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The Work of Art in the Age of Spectacular Reproduction

Protesters carry posters depicting the eyes of Eric Garner, created by the artist JR for the MIllions March in New York City, December 13, 2014. (The All-Nite Images / Creative Commons)

On December 13, 2014, ten days after a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict a New York City police officer in the killing of Eric Garner, as many as 50,000 people marched down Fifth Avenue from a rally in Washington Square Park to voice their anger, their dismay, and their resolution to end the reign of unchecked police brutality directed at black citizens. Leading the cortege was a line of protesters carrying black-and-white posters that formed a massive close-up of Eric Garner’s eyes. An image of the vigil was widely circulated by observers, the press, and organizers. It was powerful, spectral: the disembodied gaze of a dead man staring out at the city whose lawmen had needlessly and callously ended his life.

The poster assembly was the creation of a young French artist and unabashed humanitarian who goes by the moniker “JR,” and who has emerged in recent years as one of the most ambitious figures in the world of art. JR’s work blends protest and entertainment, high art and street art, the global and the local, the photograph and the guerrilla fly-poster, into one continuous and potentially open-ended project. In 2011, he was awarded a $100,000 TED prize to create his “Inside Out Project”: Participants take portraits of people in their own communities and send them to JR, who transforms them into posters and returns them to their “cocreators” for pasting on the streets, buildings, and sidewalks where they live. According to the Inside Out Project’s website, more than 230,000 posters have been printed and distributed in this way, to at least 124 countries around the world. Human faces a story tall and eyes the size of shipping containers have materialized in slums outside Nairobi and in favelas in Rio; on the Israeli separation wall in the West Bank; on buses and trucks in Sierra Leone; among peace activists in Juarez and gay-rights activists in Moscow; and on buildings in Tehran, 
Medellín, Jaipur, and the South Bronx. A poster of a young girl designed to be visible to US drone pilots was unfurled in an undisclosed location in Pakistan. At the solidarity march in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the eyes of the magazine’s murdered editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, like those of Eric Garner in New York, hovered over the crowd.

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Paul Beatty’s Savage Satire

Paul Beatty (Hannah Assouline)

Paul Beatty’s latest novel, The Sellout (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; $26), recounts the ordeals of a man who tries — and fails — to live up to his father’s, his community’s, and his country’s ideas of what it means to be black in America. But our narrator, nicknamed Sellout, does more than just fail: He threatens, as a certain saying goes, to set the race back 500 years, by landing himself a date before the US Supreme Court for owning a slave named Hominy (who refuses to work) and attempting to reinstate segregation in the deincorporated pastoral ghetto of Dickens in the greater Los Angeles area.

Beatty is smarter than most comic writers, and fearless: The Sellout at times seems to be based on a lost Dave Chappelle skit. Yet one fears that Beatty will be relegated to the Literary Negro League of comic novelists, with George Schuyler first up to bat and, awaiting their turn, Fran Ross, Cecil Brown, Ishmael Reed, William Melvin Kelley, and the recent call-ups Percival ­Everett and Mat Johnson. These writers find themselves in a perpetual search of an audience — not because of a lack of talent, but for the inexplicable reason that readers seem unwilling to have a “conversation” or “more dialogue” about race unless it is entirely sober, mostly cant, and, to judge by the state of things, perennially superficial. That’s unfortunate, because the novel has always been a good vehicle for dissecting the rhetorical essentialisms and mental shortcuts we live by.

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Selma’ Ignores the Radical Grassroots Politics of the Civil Rights Movement

There is a remarkable scene in Ava DuVernay’s ambitious new film, Selma, where Coretta Scott King (wonderfully played by Carmen Ejogo), fearing for the life of her family, describes being overcome by the “fog of death.” It’s an apt phrase, and all the more so for it’s subtle echo of the “fog of war,” that realm of deception and uncertainty that clouds our reading of human intentions under inhumane conditions. More than ever, one feels caught up in that “fog of death.” As the tragedies in New York City and Missouri among citizens and the police accumulate, and tensions escalate, so does the sense of an eerie fog of war.

For months a question mark hovered over the protests surrounding Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson and Eric Garner’s killing in New York City: Would the spontaneous and sporadic language of protest, anger, and injury become a sustained movement for equality and justice? Although the path forward remains murky and imperiled, there can no longer be any doubt: There is a social movement for racial justice in this country with a broader base and louder voice — particularly among millennials — than at any time since the late and tragic phase of the Civil Rights movement. Into this turbulence comes a film that sounds like a biopic, feels like a history lesson, and looks very much like an allegory of the present. But what exactly are the lessons today’s movement can draw from Selma?

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Back To Our Future: An Open Letter to D’Angelo

Black Messiah is a hell of a name for an album. It can be easily misunderstood. Many will think it’s about religion. Some will jump to the conclusion that I’m calling myself a Black Messiah. For me, the title is about all of us. It’s about the world. It’s about an idea we can all aspire to. We should all aspire to be a Black Messiah. 

It’s about people rising up in Ferguson and in Egypt and in Occupy Wall Street and in every place where a community has had enough and decided to make change happen. It’s not about praising one charismatic leader but celebrating thousands of them. Not every song on this album is politically charged (though many are), but calling this album Black Messiah creates a landscape where these songs can live to the fullest. Black Messiah is not one man. It’s a feeling that, collectively, we are all that leader.

—D’Angelo, Black Messiah, Liner Notes 

For the longest time I contemplated writing D’Angelo a letter. It wasn’t going to be a real letter that I would put in the mailbox and send to Richmond, or New York City, or London or wherever the man might have vanished to. What I envisioned was something more like a James Baldwin essay, an open letter where the prose discovers something about the world, answers a set of questions posed by its very appearance. I wanted to write D’Angelo a letter from a region of my mind. But now in lieu of that lost letter to an uncertain future, I can address his prodigal return in the present. 

If you never listened to Voodoo, or Brown Sugar, and didn’t spend a significant portion of your life thinking about your place in the world, sexually, racially, lyrically — that holy trinity of black music — then you won’t necessarily understand the overwrought emotion that the sudden unannounced appearance of the first new album by D’Angelo in 14 years might arouse. But there are a lot of folks out there who have been waiting, or forgot they were waiting for this moment, and for everyone else now is the perfect time to discover why people have been holding out hope for so long. 

 To situate things one has to recall that in a generation in which black music was defined (often in conflicting ways) by a dialectical tension between hip-hop and R&B, with myriad generational and intra-cultural implications, D’Angelo was a rare point of consensus. In the 1990s Brown Sugar was one of the few albums that fans of 2Pac and Toni Braxton could instantly agree on. And it went beyond the music. It was him — it was us. Maybe because he had the swagger of Pac without the rap sheet, this radiant self-possession, a slim cross on his chest, those neat cornrows and buttersoft leather jackets; and yet he could sing like Smokey Robinson, and carried about him everywhere the endearingly hushed softness of a choirboy. He was synthesis and expression, and Brown Sugar seemed to embody a set of collective fantasies that we were all having, but given the ruggedness — remember the ruggedness! — of the era, would never dare to express out loud. I’m talking about those of us who were caught out in that New Jack Swing moment when Teddy Riley somehow pulled everything together, and we thought — in a brief brightly colored MTV thought bubble — that we might actually get through the 90s with a smile, a hi-top fade, hammer pants and a keytar. When New Edition came through puberty as BBD, roller-rinks were hot, Brandy was down, Latifah was Queen, Lauryn was the most beautiful woman you had ever seen, Motown Philly was back again, Arsenio was on, and you made mixtapes recorded off FM radio, lovingly labeled in wildstyle Sharpie. 

…Dear D,

What happened in that last decade of the millennium? So many things came together. So many things fell apart. Walter Benjamin, writing in the last days of his own life, as the Gestapo closed in, prophesized that in the hour of danger, the angel of history with the disaster of the past blowing his wings forward would teach us how to look upon the past with the necessary perspective, “to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.” Is that why we still think Tupac is alive somewhere?…

Remember Shakur: black Icarus, Negro Monte Cristo, how a nation of millions could not hold him back? Icon, actor, ballet dancer, musician, poet, son of the revolution, soldier, hustler, comedian, sex symbol, sex offender, gangster, prisoner, gothic avenger, Patrick Henry, Thug Lifer. Remember the last photograph? Las Vegas. His last image in life, caught in surveillance, a visible trace of malaise in his eyes, like he knows, and he’s reluctant, but he’s weary most of all. Who has failed him? Was it us? The money dangled in the light of a jail cell? Death Row — a prophetic phrase hanging like a vulture in the high desert breeze, the car pulled up to a stoplight on the strip, the American night filled with Egyptian names viciously illuminated, the wail of the ambulance come to remove the ark, the body, whose prophecy is completed. Dead at 25. Biggie dead within a year, only 24. Two years later Big L who once asked on a record, “how will I make it?” and answered, “I won’t, that’s how,” shot to death in a drive-by in Harlem. 24 years old. A partial list. Looking at those Harlem slums fifty years earlier, Baldwin asked a crucial question. “Something in me wondered,” he said, “what will happen to all that beauty?”

…Dear D,

You know Langston’s poem — I can remember the whole feeling of it, like I was going to blush ‚when we had to read it in my high school English class and I felt all the eyes in the room turning on me, and what was I to say, what special thing was I supposed to do, or perform, not equipped like you to take on the flow, (it feels like a flow of blood) when you know you are at the center of a stage, and the gaze of the many is upon you, beckoning but as if with a question and all you have before you are the lines:

  The Night is beautiful,

           So are the faces of my people

How to tell them in that moment what it’s like when Magic makes a no-look pass, or Jordan pulls up with his tongue wagging, when Iverson breaks into a crossover and Curry drops the three, that feeling Hurston called “Cosmic Zora,” the grain of Maya Angelou’s voice when she says, “Yes,” the way Obama at a press conference will swipe a question down out of the ether, turn it like a prism in the air in front of a gaggle of white reporters, and answer in a way that makes three or four moves in the space they had imagined one, not even breaking a sweat…the way seconds later on the feed there are the faces of your people, beautiful… wanted, bludgeoned, asphyxiated, rioting, protesting school closings, selling car insurance, mom-in-chief, ghostriding a foreign on a set with smoke flares, choosing a better Cable option, twerking, giving back to the Community, flawless, filling the penitentiaries, chalk and casings on the South Side, protesting failing schools, holding the camera up to the wound, chalk and casings in the Bronx, holding the camera up to the wound, the body in a doomed struggle against a script so familiar it is almost rehearsal, holding the camera up, then exeunt — crackle of radio, alarms of emergency that arrive only to confirm      a body waiting    witnesses      silence and its agon.…

See, in order to place this you have to go back and remember how hard it was to maintain a mindscape, a haven for a certain kind of old-school thoroughness that wouldn’t come off as corny in the Timberland roughneck reign (but also neo-corporate Fubu and Rocawear slickness) of the new era, in other words a track on the mixtape that — no matter who you made it for — was guaranteed to connect. And that counted for a lot. After all, with Voodoo D’Angelo could have capitalized and turned out a commercially minded R&B crossover. He was primed for mainstream success. But he chose to go another route. The years he spent hanging in New York City with The Ummah, that truly luminary set including Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Bob Power, J Dilla, Raphael Saadiq, Premier, and Questlove, freed him up to make something no one had really heard before. Somehow on Voodoo he had sponged it all in: the clutch jazzy sample, the boudoir bohemian vamp, the street suave afterhours playa’s game, as nimble at crooning behind a Method Man verse as whispering vintage Roberta Flack, the whole thing liquid and simmering, an extended hymn to intoxicating presence, a dope sound. 

Listening to tracks like “One Mo’ Gin,” “The Line,” and “Chicken Grease,” you can hear all the key ingredients of that special recipe. The way the arrangements are textured but stripped down, like the Delphonics are playing underwater in the room next door, allowing Bootsy worthy bass to guide you upward to the ambient afro-stereo molasses built around D’Angelo’s husky falsetto which he loves self-harmonizing to, always a little behind the beat, in eccentric orbit, so that the lyrics are always swallowed back into the groove, stirred back into the mix. 

All that Prince, all that yowling-into-a-moan-into-a-woozy-note-that’s not-quite-crooning either — suspended like a drop of sweat, a vocal lineage straight out of James Brown, well it’s no accident: D’Angelo always claimed him as a musical idol. Sometimes you hear it in the hints of Jesse Johnson’s guitar, like on the heaving, electrified cover of “She’s Always in My Hair.” Like Prince, he exudes an un-bracketed and unclassifiable sexuality — though his own inflection is homey and rounded where Prince tends to the flamboyant and angular. D’Angelo grew up a preacher’s kid in his father’s Pentecostal church in Richmond, Virginia, and I have often wondered if the intense inwardness of his erotic charge is not exactly what the clash between a musical awakening to Prince and the law of the Father in a Southern church ought to produce. The flashpoint of glory where the sacred tips over into the secular. This is the kind of music that does things for people, a strong medicine that works you down, that produces space for self-knowledge. Voodoo was one of those life-raft albums, a record that I give credit to for helping me get through college. It was also — and still is — a kind of password between post-millennial afronauts, one that sets conversations you’ve been wanting to have flowing, that makes people close their eyes a bit with a smile, just by bringing it up. 

In the hour of the die-in, Ferguson on fire, interstates shut down by chains of willing bodies, in the hour of unending police shootings, and inevitable police acquittals, of “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” and “Black Lives Matter,” D’Angelo’s Black Messiah dropped seemingly out of the ether, a flash of black hope in the hour of chaos. The decision to put the record to wax in the winter of 2014 invests the record with inevitable historical resonance. The fists in the air on Black Messiah’s cover art, like the red, white and black flag on Sly Stone’s touchstone 1971, There’s a Riot Goin’ On, speak directly in the language of the black freedom struggle. 

Yet as the liner notes attest, the political vision of the album is internationalist in scope. D’Angelo’s sweeping triangulation of Ferguson, the Arab Spring (Egypt), and Occupy Wall Street, speaks to the interlocking diaspora of democratic aspiration that continues to define the politics of our time. In his acceptance speech at the Oscars for the song “Glory,” Common made the same move, connecting Selma to the Southside of Chicago, the Charlie Hebdo solidarity rallies in France, and the movement for democracy in Hong Kong. That songs in the key of black American life willingly accept these wider commitments and explicitly advocate for them, is a fact that deserves more attention than it often receives. 

Black Messiah takes solidarity seriously. If you want an index check Fred Hampton in full jeremiad sampled on “1000 Deaths”: “they’re a bunch of megalomaniac war-mongers… and we’ve got to fight ‘em, we’ve got to struggle with ‘em to make ‘em understand what we mean!” The voice of Fred “To Die for the People” Hampton, a Black Panther famously assassinated by police in Chicago on a record called Black Messiah, released in response to a spate of highly mediatized police killings, is about as bold a political statement as anyone — let alone an R&B artist — can make. D’Angelo is tapping into the function of black music as a site of resistance in American life, including its insistence on alternative futures and lifestyles directed from below and not imposed from above. 

He is not alone in sensing a sea-change. In fact, it’s possible at the dawn of 2015 to begin to distinguish the outlines of a new aesthetic in black music that is looking back to the late 60s and 70s to repurpose a latent counter-cultural energy that got sapped away in the Reagonnomic “Get rich or die trying” fantasies that pervaded so much of hip-hop and R&B in the new millennium. It may be that Black Messiah heralds not just the return of D’Angelo but the hinge opening the door to a new school of funk-fugitives with one foot in the analog past and another in the digital future. You can see this in the rising stars of hip-hop, artists like Joey Bada$$, or Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, which  connects Pac and the sounds of the 70s to a new insurgent sensibility. You hear similar strains in Janelle Monae but also in more underground currents like Flying Lotus and Shabazz Palaces. They are all pointing towards a freer mode of black vanguard expression, a focus on minor key sensibilities — including unpleasant ones like melancholia — that go under the skin, that are willing to explore black interiority and deliver it raw, unreconstructed, unpolished for smooth consumption. 

On Black Messiah tracks like “Really Love” and “Another Life” reverberate with the lushness of early Curtis Mayfield simmering like a background radiation of remembrance, informing a return to a political moment thought to be past, but that in D’Angelo’s interpolation is a messianic collective energy just on the cusp breaking through. The chugging locomotive tracks “Charade” and “1000 Deaths”, interspersed with off-tempo soul-claps and peaking under an onslaught of ghosting Hendrix cries, form a soundtrack for marching, for marches past and present, from Selma to Montgomery, from Harlem to the Brooklyn Bridge, and from Ferguson to Jefferson City. But the energy of irrepressible black life and affirmative black love saturates every inch of the album. Each track speaks plainly to the unquenchable, unmistakable sweetness of black life. 

D’Angelo’s proud insistence on the analog “no digital” production subtends what we might call the album’s “analog politics,” the orchestra of the grassroots, the kinfolk just kickin’ it power of the black undercommons, of black life in situ, already organized in its own laid-back fashion, a model of everyday resistance by everyday people, by any means necessary, yes, but also by all means available, including whatever’s cooking in the kitchen right now, including love in all its forms. Which explains why so many of the tracks on this album, and really throughout D’Angelo’s discography, are always on the threshold of the instrumental, of the Quiet Storm erotic whisper, dense with atmosphere, soaked in vernacular funk, or as D puts it: “being care free and lucid, just natural, you know, just chillin.” It’s why the tracks always feel occasional, attached to spaces of casual assembly, conceived out of moments of gathering, summer block parties, backyard cookouts and stoops. Sure, you can float around your apartment all day to the record, but what you really want to do is call up whoever matters in your life and fill the room to capacity, get the house to sway together like a church on Sunday. 

The grammar of hashtags is necessarily reductive. We know black lives matter, and anybody who doesn’t agree isn’t going to be converted. The thing to grasp, as D’Angelo says in his notes, is that we should all be aspiring to lead lives that require us to expand solidarity and demand dignity. Not out of obscurantist racial identification, but for the happiness of human mutuality, the sensuous, even sacred joy, that comes with everyday people being together rather than apart. To think about blackness as a kind of categorical imperative, a duty first to ourselves and therefore to all, to expand the reach of freedom from domination, to understand blackness as a way of being in the world that necessitates a political project, that orients our expression inevitably towards a confrontation with injustice. It is also to understand that black humanism, with black music at its core, is the foundation that has cracked open a hollow American democracy by force and continuous resistance, and that remembering and carrying on the burden of that struggle continues to be the only hope for making this country a place worth living in, a nation with something to offer other than the cold hand of business ruling over a glass-tower gentry, a pauperized and fearful suburban petty bourgeoisie, and underneath it all the abyss of the black gulag archipelago. 

…Dear D,

Let’s talk for a minute about the Spanish Joint. About nights in Richmond and nights in Havana, and what they both know about New Orleans. About Africa. How America’s greatest music comes out of her greatest slave ports. How there’s this thing in your music that Fred Moten would call its “surplus lyricism,” a saturation of sweetness so thick it threatens to curdle the notes, and maybe it does, the way Cootie kept Duke’s elegance just ratchet enough to keep folks from sitting through a concert comfortably….

It’s a false track, of course, when you let things get too abstract. The greatness of D’Angelo can be appreciated aside from the struggle for racial justice in America. But concretely, the texture of his music is intensely embodied, and the troubled history of the representation of black bodies is inseparable from the force of the music he makes, just as the thirst for dignity is central to the protest movement against police brutality. It’s worth insisting on this point, because one of the subplots embedded in D’Angelo’s greater narrative is that of an artist wrestling with his own over-representation — with the abjection of his body. 

The attempt to canonize D’Angelo as a sex symbol only ever made sense to his label. He was comfortable in his skin, no doubt, but anyone could see he was shy, even introverted, the sensitive son of a preacher with small town roots. The infamous video for the single “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” that essentially consisted of three minutes of a periscope trained on his midsection was successful for a minute in selling records, but the objectification and scrutinizing of his body for sexual gratification was obviously damaging. It was an important part of what sent him into reclusion. People laughed about it, but in the accounts that trickled down the grapevine there was reason to be concerned. For a number of years it seemed like D’Angelo might not be able to make it back, that we might lose him to his demons, that he might go the way of David Ruffin. 

Among other things to praise on Black Messiah is a protest of self-love. In a touching note we shouldn’t overlook D cracks wise: “So if you’re wondering / about the shape I’m in / I hope it ain’t my abdomen / that you’re referring to.” What’s true of our mistake is also true of our body politic at large. Self-love is something we can work on and recover no matter how badly we’ve been bruised. Sometimes it’s just that you have to go back to find your way forward. The testament of love is what survives us, what the future looks back to remember in the imperiled hour: 

…Dear D,

Man, where you been all these years? Promise to tell me sometime about it. It’s all good though. Your record is everything it’s supposed to be. It’s a point of light. Shining. We hear you and we’re going back. And we’re gonna take the country back too. Fela Kuti said, “music is the weapon of the future.” Sometimes digging in the crates is where you find the new salvo. But we need you now for real. So do your thing. Be our bridge over troubled water. Till it’s done. Ta-Nehisi speaks of “the beautiful struggle.” I feel like you think it that way too. You sing it that way. Your music gives us a glimpse of the world we want to live in all the time, of another life. It reminds us how beautiful the struggle can sound.