The beautiful humanity of D’Angelo and the world that doesn’t deserve him
In light of new documentary Devil's Pie, Reba Maybury reflects on the emotional, musical and sexual complexities of D'Angelo.
“The last pure singer on earth” – Questlove
In an age of relentless speed and surface, there is an undeniable grace to D’Angelo taking fourteen years to release his third album, 2014’s Black Messiah, after his seminal sophomore LP Voodoo. Devil’s Pie: D’Angelo is the new documentary marking the musician’s incredible return. Written and directed by Dutch filmmaker Carine Bijlsma, the film shines light on an artist who is famously private, offering some insight into his struggles and complexities.
During his hiatus, D’Angelo’s disappearance was often sensationalised by the media. Having faced problems with addiction and arrests, his story has been turned into a joke, ridiculed and moralistically judged. Some would even consider that, for a long time, he was forgotten. But, the real tragedy is that it overshadowed his immense musical genius. Bijlsma’s documentary, which was seven years in the making, celebrates D’Angelo’s profound musical abilities.
The main themes of the film can be categorised into three matters. We see how black talent is all too often sexually objectified. Then, the documentary transcends to show the ruthless of capitalism exemplified in the coldness of the music industries. Finally we learn about religion and substance abuse, used as both as traps for guilt and behavioural control. The themes are never forced on D’Angelo, instead they surface when he feels ready to speak about them.
Bijlsma recalls how she worked to D’Angelo’s beat for the making of the documentary, slowly and organically. “The making of the documentary was never really discussed, as strange as that sounds, it was always something we were just doing,” she says. “The trust was instant, it was more a matter of not breaking the trust rather than getting the trust.”
A musician herself, Bijlsma had developed a curiosity about D’Angelo on the eve of his comeback, and she began to reach out with a sincere proposal for the film. “I found the email of Kendra Foster, one of his vocalists, and sent her the letter that I’d originally tried to give D’Angelo at his show in 2012,” Bijlsma says. “She replied to me and told me that he liked my proposal and that he thought I really got it and that he’d be in touch, however in D’Angelo time that took five months!”. With D’Angelo’s trust gained, he welcomed her on tour to film much of the material herself.
In one of the most intimate and poignant scenes, we see co-founder of the Black Panthers, Bobby Seale, and political activist and comedian David Chapelle embrace D’Angelo in his dressing room after his first performance since Black Messiah’s release. All three of these men are of inexplicable integrity, all having been served a formation of America at its worst. There’s an exquisitely tender respect to this scene that shows the veins of three major players in African American history uniting with an altruism and support, which is rarely represented within the media.
Archival footage shows a fresh-faced D’Angelo, pre-fame, in his families’ church in Virginia, singing gospel at the piano. We hear of his struggles from his family putting on pressure for him playing the ‘devil’s music.’ This is summised towards the end of the documentary with a wonderfully clarifying scene where D’Angelo proclaims “Fuck religion, religion ain’t got shit to do with god.”
One of D’Angelo’s most common yet damning stereotypes is that from his iconic music video for Untitled (How Does It Feel?). There was no sleaze to the video, but instead a dynamic sex appeal. The song ponders his partners’ pleasure and not his own, while simultaneously creating a gaping space for erotic potential and elusive sensitivity. The video shows him naked, with the camera never going below his waist. I remember that as a teenager I was told that he was getting head during the filming, and I was transfixed. It was about what was not shown.
At one point in Devil’s Pie, D’Angelo’s hair stylist recalls how they would cut strips into the back of his vests during the Voodoo tour when he performed so when he went into the crowd, the audience of screaming women could literally rip his shirt off his body without strangling him. Questlove, one of D’Angelo’s closet friends and most articulate commentators on the documentary, reminisces that during their two-and-a-half hour long complex shows, the sound of the band would be drained out by women chanting ‘take it off’.
Regardless of the infamous video; the song is lingering, it creeps up the body much like an orgasm unfurls into a slow burning ecstasy. This is the kind of sexuality D’Angelo should be associated with, a deeply intellectually stimulating one that rejects the pornographic, but lingers in endless possibilities of the erotic as a connecting yet autonomous power, not a superficial sensationalism. The emission of sexual expression can still impact others to the point of obliteration.
When a clip from the music video for Untitled played at the screening of Devil’s Pie at London’s Southbank Centre, much of the audience began laughing. Three men wearing shirts and shorts sitting next to me began to chortle loudly and all I could think of us was how starved we are in contemporary culture of sexy men. The laughing seemed more like people’s shamed convulsion of awkwardness. Nothing about the video is funny, but it turned D’Angelo into a caricature. And this reaction is what dimmed D’Angelo’s talent even further from view. Shame still kills. People’s sex lives are more stunted than many would like to acknowledge. Personal shame should never inflict anyone else, but sadly this is a currency the world runs on.
D’Angelo’s music video, which was never explicit but only ever flirtatious, left the desire for more. And isn’t sex only ever incredible when it creates the space for new unknown pleasures? When it creates new desires we haven’t tapped into or only ever dreamed of? Now in music culture we are inundated with hyper-sexualisation of mainly female bodies and those videos are mostly modified with plastic surgery and a heterosexual male approval. The female gaze is forever neglected and here came this video which gave women not only the physicality of his body, but a pronounced nuanced sensitivity of what sex could be.
This is exactly why Devils Pie: D’Angelo needed to be made. D’Angelo’s colossal talent aside, his career correlates with real, palpable issues that reverberate throughout America.
There’s a moment in clarity in Questlove’s articulation of the burden of the black genius and survivor’s guilt. “If you truly look at anyone in black entertainment who has declared a next level thinking of genius there has been some complications along the way,” he says in the film. “Either in early exits, jail, religion and some just stall, or use time, chronic lateness or just not showing up at all as a way to control things. These are just some of the symptoms. Anyone who is black that started in meagre or so-so conditions that are not of the privileged of the world – when they finally transform to a higher level, it is guilt they feel. And that is one thing that every black genius wrestles with.”
Throughout history we have seen black geniuses who have come to terrible endings, or stunted existences where their talent or quality of life has been corrupted beyond comprehension. Donny Hathaway, Lauryn Hill, Sly Stone, John Coltrane, Nina Simone, Robert Johnson the list goes on and on. How can black genius thrive when it exists in a system and more specifically a world that is intrinsically racist?
Black Messiah arrived a year earlier than what is rumoured to have, amidst the Ferguson unrest in 2014 after a string of prominent murders by the police of black men. The lyrics to The Charade (‘All we wanted was a chance to talk ‘Stead we only got outlined in chalk’) proclaim the same issues of violent dehumanisation that African Americans systematically experience with painful reality, and the footage of D’Angelo and The Vanguard playing this song during the documentary is one of the most powerful parts of the film.
D’Angelo sits greatly within the lineage of brilliant black music, never the imitator. Instead his music is as an articulation of everything that came before him while remaining utterly unique. Questlove describes D’Angelo’s process in the studio as ‘beautifully blatantly disrespectful to the rules’ because he would turn all traditions of melody and structure on their head. This is perhaps best exhibited through how he flipped this ‘disrespect’ even further by having all of the rhythms off beat, so the record would sound more human – because humans make mistakes.
The final scene of the film is remarkable. We see D’Angelo alone in his studio turning on his record player and playing The Violinaires song The Upper Way. Singing along as the song ends, it’s almost as if the camera has been left on and he thinks he’s alone. His voice wavers in rooted spasms, melodies and wails as if it’s nothing. Not everyone deserves D’Angelo, but once you take the time to really appreciate talent, originality, vulnerability and substance, you realise the world is a better place when it kindly accommodates to beautiful mistakes.