Image from Devil's Pie documentary (2019)

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 Mes­si­ahs 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.

D'Angelo at the 2000 MTV Movie Awards.
Credit: Chris Delmas/ZUMA Wire

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.”

D'Angelo photography las vegas performing

D'Angelo performing in Las Vegas, 2015.
Credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

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.

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