D'Angelo's Voodoo Technology: African Cultural Memory and the Ritual of Popular Music Consumption

Article excerpt

The execution of Call-Response tropes opens the symbolic field, where reside the long-standing, sublimated conflicts, taboos, and myths of personal and group emotional experience and our relationships to them.

--Samuel A. Floyd Jr., The Power of Black Music

Voodoo is an ancient African tradition. We use "voodoo" in the drums or whatever, the cadences and call-out to our ancestors and that in itself will invoke spirits. And music has the power to do that, to evoke emotions, evoke spirit.

--D'Angelo, Jet Magazine

This current volume of Black Music Research Journal posits that, despite the great diversity of New World African cultures, examining their religious and musical practices can reveal noteworthy similarities. The trope of Call-Response, outlined in Samuel Floyd Jr.'s landmark The Power of Black Music (1995), provides an important hermeneutic for uncovering such connections. As a metaphor for the expressive economy of musical practices, ideas, and experiences across the Diaspora, Call-Response tropes focus our attention on the perseverance of African cultural memory within the United States and Caribbean (95-97). This essay examines the mobilization of African cultural memory in the work of neo-soul musician Michael "D'Angelo" Archer.

Voodoo (2000), the much anticipated follow-up to D'Angelo's 2995 debut album Brown Sugar, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts and went on to win the 2001 Grammy Award for Best R&B Album. The album's title can be read as a symbolic gesture toward what Samuel Floyd Jr. (1995) has called the "subliminal, inarticulate, and implicit perceptions and relationships" that exist between the musical cultures of the United States and African Diaspora (230). Using language that seems to echo Floyd's description of the expressive powers of Call-Response--a musical "trope of tropes" that informs a wide variety of black musical practices from antiquity to the present--D'Angelo describes his music as a "call-out" to the "ancestors" meant to "invoke spirits" ("Hot Singer D'Angelo" 2000, 58).

Voodoo's graphic design also invokes Afro-Diasporic religious practices. Some of these images feature photographs of what appear to be actual participants. But most of them show D'Angelo himself, often posing as though he were in the midst of some sort of ritual experience. Although much of the iconography of these photos is authentic to Caribbean religious practices--the sacrificial rooster that appears in numerous photos and the eleke (beaded necklaces) D'Angelo wears suggest Cuban Santeria--neither the album's music nor its liner notes engage actual religious practices directly.

It is easy enough to dismiss representations of Caribbean religious practices as exotic, romanticized, and inaccurate when they are produced and consumed by a white, middle-class demographic. The most egregious musical examples undoubtedly come from the jungle exotica craze of the 1950s and 1960s, which gave rise to the percussion-heavy primitivism of Les Baxter's Ritual of the Savage (1951) and Robert Drasnin's Voodoo (1959), among numerous others. But how are things different when the appropriation of African and Caribbean religious imagery comes from within black popular culture? We have here a call, but what should be our response?

Explaining the logic behind the album in the earlier second epigraph, D'Angelo provides us with some possible answers. D'Angelo relates his understanding of African (and African-derived) religious practices to his own experiences at the Pentecostal church of his childhood, the Refugee Temple Assembly of Yahweh Yahoshua the Messiah. As a young boy, D'Angelo sang, played organ, and eventually served as music director of the church while his father preached (D'Angelo 2000, 70; Farley 2000). Because of his upbringing, D'Angelo stresses a responsibility toward the "power of music," specifically "the drums," and notes how when used properly as in "voodoo" they can "evoke spirit. …