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Questlove Asked Artists To Get Political. D’Angelo Just Responded.

Author: Carimah Townes for ThinkProgress



Last September, Talib Kweli wrote a scathing letter to a Lauryn Hill fanwho berated her for not releasing music. Kweli refuted the fan’s claim that Hill owed the world more music in the same way that fans demanded more comedy from Dave Chappelle, after the comedian exited the spotlight. Kweli explained that artists have creative liberties and don’t actually owe the rest of us anything. He was absolutely right. Artists aren’t obligated to give us what we want. They are at liberty to decide what they give us, and if they want to give us anything at all.

In that vein, it was never certain that legendary neo-soul singer D’Angelo would release another album. Luckily for us, he handed us gold at a time when we needed and wanted it the most.

2014 was a particularly difficult year for many people in search of societal justice. Most recently the nation turned its eye toward theepidemic of taking black lives with impunity, and musicians have largely stayed quiet. That silence inspired Questlove to take to Instagram and call on all musicians and artists to be more politically and socially conscious in their work.

“I urge and challenge musicians and artists alike to push themselves to be a voice of the times that we live in,” he wrote. “Although I’m kinda/sorta addressing the hip hop nation I really apply this challenge to ALL artists. We need new Dylans, New Public Enemy. Nina Simones. New De La Roaches. New Ideas! …I mean real stories. Real narratives. Songs with spirit in them.”

D’Angelo took heed of Questlove’s plea in a big way last night, when he dropped a politically-charged album, Black Messiah. In doing so, he simultaneously released an album that fans have been waiting 14 years for and used his art to verbalize collective exhaustion with systematic injustice, disenchantment, and hope for a better future. It was almost as if Questlove, who collaborated with D’Angelo on the album, was foreshadowing the album’s necessity.

During an album release party, the R&B great passed out materials that explained his vision for this album. “[Black Messiah is] 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 decides 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.”

In what’s arguably the most political song on the album, ‘Charade,’ D’Angelo describes the illusion that change is possible. Instead the singer contends that society is actually resistant to change. In the chorus he says, “All we wanted was a chance to talk/’Stead we only got outlined in chalk/Feet have bled a million miles we’ve walked/Revealing at the end of the day, the charade.

Although no one demographic group is identified in the song, it’s hard not to connect the lyrics to the current criminal justice system and epidemic of police violence waged against black lives. Despite national calls for justice in the shooting death of Mike Brown, a grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson. Less than three weeks later, another grand jury decided not to indict Daniel Pantaleo in the chokehold death of Eric Garner. The very systems meant to protect citizens continuously disappoint us, as if those systems are actually constructed to give us the illusion that justice and progress are possible.

In ‘Charade,’ D’Angelo also casts light on the media’s role in undermining change. “Degradation so loud that you can’t hear the sound of our cries/ All the dreamers have gone to the side of the road which we will lay on/inundated by media, virtual mind fucks in streams.”

“Virtual mind fucks in streams” ostensibly refers to the paradox wherein media is used to learn about and digest what is happening around the world, but actually slows progress and discourages action. One of the most recent examples of this is mainstream media’s decision to show Ferguson rioters and burning buildings on loop, while ignoring the hundreds of peaceful protesters marching down the street. As people were fighting for an admirable cause, media was used to frame a different narrative and detract from the larger call for change. D’Angelo explains that ignoring people’s cries for change can result in disillusionment and passivity. The dreamers, who want something different, lay down on the side of the road instead of standing up and fighting back.

The theme of disillusionment carries into ‘Till It’s Done (Tutu),’ and simultaneously manages to tackle an unexpected topic for the crooner-turned-sex icon: climate change. For a singer most known for sexual lyrics, the subject matter came out of left field (the way this whole album did). In the song D’Angelo asks, “Carbon pollution is heating up the air/Do we really know? Do we even care?/ Acid rain dripping on our trees and in our hair/Are you there?”

Although ‘Till It’s Done’ is about global tragedies on a more macro level, he makes the environment a larger metaphor for human recklessness and our collective grief about the world. He continues, “Clock ticking backwards on things we’ve already built/Sons and fathers die, soldiers, daughters killed/Question ain’t ‘do we have resources to rebuild?/ It’s do we have the will?'

The questions are poignant, but capture the historical moment we’re in.

At the same time, D’Angelo refuses to give up entirely – a sentiment many can relate to. In ‘Prayer,’ he turns to his god for guidance, and encourages others to hope. “If you can, I know that you will make it through the Promised Land/But you gotta pray, you gotta pray, you gotta pray for redemption’….Lord keep me away from temptation/Deliver us from evil/In all this confusion around me, give me peace/ I believe that love.”

It’s that resilience that keeps people fighting in their darkest hours. Latching on to hope is what gets people out of bed in the morning, in spite of tragic circumstances.

With Black Messiah, D’Angelo gave the world a soundtrack for the events that came to define 2014. His was the best response to Questlove’s call.

DMU Timestamp: December 10, 2014 22:41

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