If you haven’t noticed, there is a current renaissance going on in black art. Within the last couple of years, there have been pheonomonal albums, movies, television shows, books and more. It all seems to be, to some degree or another, part of this wave of socially and politically conscious content. Everything from the Black Lives Matter movement onward.
The Harlem Renaissance was a cultural, social, and artistic explosion that took place in Harlem, New York, all the way through the ’20s and ’30s. I believe something similar is happening right now in black art, and we’re just seeing the beginning.
D’Angelo & the Vanguard’s Black Messiah arrived at the tail end of 2014. Naturally, it blew everybody away. Every track was and is pure hot fire, from “Ain’t That Easy” to “Another Life.” The album was well-needed at the time, particularly among the black community. It was just what we needed at that time in our country. Tracks like “1000 Deaths” and “The Charade” specifically spoke to the struggle many black people were feeling.
D’Angelo himself said as much during an interview with Rolling Stone.
“It just shows how ongoing this sh*t is, because I wrote that even before the Trayvon Martin thing happened. It’s crazy that we’re still in the streets protesting the same shit. That song was just about the state of society in general — when I say, “A chance to talk,” that means a chance to come to the table and exercise rights that are supposed to be ours already. Me and [co-writer] Kendra [Foster] were reading a lot of [James] Baldwin around that time.”
And it shows. The very title of the album was celebrating and relishing in the black identity. It was helping a lot of people, particularly those in the black community, feel comfortable in and love their black skin. As the album jumped from love songs to protest songs, soul, R&B, funk, rock, jazz and gospel. It did all of this and still managed to be some music you can groove to.
“The label wanted a Voodoo part two. At one point, after Voodoo, I was early in the process of working on new music that would eventually be on Black Messiah, and I let the label know where I was at with it. The music was pretty ahead of the curve, and they weren’t ready for that.”
Right after this album was released, in December of 2014, we got Kendrick Lamar’s second studio album, To Pimp a Butterfly. That album, too, was a very black piece of work. With tracks like “Alright” becoming a rally cry for many within the Black Lives Matter movement. Many will argue it should’ve won Album of the Year over Taylor Swift’s pop album 1989 at the Grammy’s.
But that is an entirely different conversation for a different article. D’Angelo’s Black Messiah and Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly share a commonality between them, particularly, their reaffirmation of blackness, as well as touching on more socially-conscious topics and ideas. They were and are two beautiful pieces of black art that both arrived roughly within the same time frame. Looking at it this way, Black Messiah serves as the first domino that fell.
In 2016, there was a flood of art coming from the black community and deeply rooted in blackness. This is where things really began to blow up and blossom. Ava DuVernay’s television series Queen Sugar and Netflix documentary 13th, movies like Queen of Katwe and Hidden Figures, albums like A Seat at the Table and Lemonade, even authors like Ta-Nehisi Paul Coates working on Marvel Comics’ Black Panther. The list goes on and on.
Not to say that Black Messiah literally inspired all of these pieces of art. I’m merely remarking upon the fact that Black Messiah appears to be the first truly pro-black piece of art, that had a huge impact on the culture, within the last few years. Certainly in terms of music. The album is still relevant today and still gets plenty of spins.
And since D’Angelo is apparently working on some new music, it seemed only right to discuss the importance of this album and its impact within black art.