D’Angelo and the Vanguard’s Black Messiah connects to the idea of the outcast hero, a figure representing the power of mystery, of those forces we fail to understand.
Although I am conditioned to connect the title, Black Messiah, to the notion of a black Jesus, there seems to be a better reading available, a deeper significance than that of a mere substitution of a dark-skinned figure for one that has become historically determined to be “white.”
The album’s liner notes by Nelson George, in fact, speak to the idea that the album title is not meant to be religious. It’s meant to be a civic reference, a proverbial call to action – “Black Messiah is not one man. It’s a feeling that, collectively, we are all that leader.”
Mentioning Ferguson (Missouri), Egypt and Occupy Wall Street, Nelson George suggests that this album title is looking to the root meaning of “messiah;” invoking the idea of deliverance through the vehicle of social activism.
Renunciation, Social Activism & the Unknown
As Consequence of Sound writer Kristopher Lens puts it, we can see the release of Black Messiah as a kind of “moment of grace knowing that the tragedies of Ferguson, MO, and New York, NY, (among numerous others) have already started to motivate discussion, reform, and production in ways social, judicial, and artistic.” An album directly addressing the political foment in response to a widely perceived imbalance of protections under the law (be those protections financial, judicial or physical), Black Messiah is a testament to the collective voice that has arisen.
There are certain overtones in this message that we can connect to the Western image of the Messiah in Christ. Turn out the money lenders from the temple. Take stock of what you are doing and ask if it is in keeping with who you, individual or Uncle Sam, say you are.
Yet, to conflate the “activism” of a Christian Messiah with a more populist and even Marxist activism proposed by Black Messiah is to miss an opportunity to consider how mystery functions as a locus of social power within the popular mind. Let me be clear. Mystery in this context is all about the range of truth that lies just beyond human understanding and/or beyond common access. It can take the form of cabalistic secret societies, cloaked mystery cults and also pathologized* elements of society.
Mystery is the unknown. Some things are unknown because they are mystical – impossible to put into words. Some things are kept secret. Some things are unknown because we choose not to know them. Some things fall into more than one of these categories. And thus mystery becomes a charged concept, useful when we look at where and for whom the voice emerges that is responding to systemic marginalization of minorities and the poor.
This is not a treatise on the term, “mystery.” I just want to point out that as a categorical idea, mystery has a tradition within history that is often linked with power. There is a question that stirs in all of us as to what exists just beyond the margins of the known world and this question has political power, mythological power.
I approach this album and its title asking how we can put this statement, this moment, and this phrase – Black Messiah – into a literary, historical, and/or mythological context that points a way to some specific meaning? In short, what is the power of the idea contained in that phrase, Black Messiah?
The Outcast Hero
Thinking about the phrase, Black Messiah, sent me to contemplating the literary/mythological tradition of the outcast hero. And this, to me, seems to align directly with what Nelson George is writing about in his intro to the album. The theme that unites his references to Ferguson, Egypt and Occupy Wall Street is the idea of under-representation, of marginalization, of being the outcast.
To see in “Black Messiah” the notion of the outcast hero is maybe the strongest way to read the phrase, because there are connotations of power and tradition and beyond all that there is an implication that the force of mystery is working through the outcast hero.
Where figures like Jesus and the Buddha Siddhartha Gautama can be characterized as middle-class people who renounced the world they had inherited, the outcast hero has not inherited much of anything. If the last Buddha was a figure of discovery, it was a self discovery that emphasized personal agency (which is great).
But if the outcast hero is a figure of discovery, he is one that the world discovers. Until he emerges, potent and intact, the world does its best to squash any belief that he exists or, if he exists, that he matters.
Fascinating, that a hero could step out of the darkness fully formed. What does he represent, but the force and power of that which we fail to reckon with, fail to recognize or understand, fail to address intelligibly? He is the avatar of mystery. Bacchus and Bob Marley. Adherent to a vow that ties him to the mystery, which is to say obscurity, third world origins, marginality, etc. This is a specter, not with the power of renunciation, but with the power over renunciation. The hero that cannot and will not be denied.
Does the world not need deliverance today? According to D’Angelgo and the Vanguards, the world could use a collective messianic spirit, a surge of vital social action, a temperament of pitched passion directed toward the ideals of political justice.
Contrast the ethos of renunciation promoted by the figures of Jesus Christ and the Buddha, who attempted to associate themselves with the power of mystery by turning away from a middle class life, against the perhaps more rare figures that have no power to renounce because they exist on the fringes of society.
There is a key distinction to be made between the heroic figure who chooses to wander in the wilderness and in so doing get to know the mystery that exists there and the heroic figure who is born in the wilderness and kept there until he enters into society as a representative of mystery.
There is an equally important notion at work as to how this figure is given power. Through no choice of his own, the outcast hero is identified as unknowable by the normative elements of society. That is a political idea and it has everything to do with the movements mentioned in Black Messiah, from Ferguson to Occupy Wall Street.
Eric Martin is a writer and educator living in California’s Antelope Valley. His writing has appeared at PopMatters, Steinbeck Now and It’s Not Only Rock ‘N’ Roll (2014).
Notes: * “Pathologized” elements of society has become a convenient euphemistic handle for discussing groups that we are willing to recognize as mis-understood but unwilling to empathize with. We see in the term an implicit and ironic negation of the value of a social group simultaneous with a statement of authority as it is applied to the normative group.