Catching the Spirit

Faith Pennick, author of D’Angelo’s Voodoo, on how gospel music inspired D’Angelo’s critical acclaim.

Like many African American singers who hail from the South, D’Angelo’s foundation is laid in gospel music. Much has been said and written about his R&B influences: artists like Marvin Gaye, Sly and the Family Stone, and his North Star: Prince. But without gospel music, D’Angelo simply would not be D’Angelo.

As a child, Michael Archer sang and played keyboards in his father’s and grandfather’s churches in and near his hometown of Richmond, Virginia. He contemplated staying in the gospel fold, even receiving pressure from friends and family to not perform the “devil’s” music. One person in particular, his late grandmother, Alberta Cox, supported his dream of being a professional, secular singer. Still, commercial success did not lead to D’Angelo abandoning his heritage. Gospel is an integral part of D’Angelo’s sound, and that can be heard unambiguously throughout his second album, Voodoo.

Performing in churches and leading ministries of music have been unofficial music conservatories for African Americans, according to Indiana University assistant professor of ethnomusicology, Alisha Lola Jones. I interviewed Jones for my book about Voodoo. Churches, Jones said, provide a way for talented Black people who have limited access to traditional music schooling to hone their skills.

D’Angelo’s home state of Virginia has a rich history of gospel music, cultivating respected performers such as Maggie Ingram and the Ingramettes (who D’Angelo cited as an early inspiration) and Cora Harvey Armstrong. Trailblazing singer/guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who also had Virginia roots, crossed gospel with rock, blues, and jazz throughout her career, similar in the way D’Angelo did on Voodoo. And like Tharpe, D’Angelo brings electricity, spiritual and sexual, to his live performances.

What may be the sexiest song on his Voodoo album, “Untitled (How Does It Feel?)” has an obvious spiritual undercurrent. D’Angelo told USA TODAY in 2000 that he was channeling a higher power in the “Untitled” song and video. “I wasn’t really thinking about sex at all,” he said. “I was thinking about the Holy Ghost, and at the end, when I had to bring it through, that’s where I went to get it.”

“[Gospel] musicians are chastised for pursuing nonreligious careers,” Jones told me. “From what I know about [D’Angelo’s] background, to pursue a nonreligious career—even if you were talking about pleasure and intimacy—would be an issue.”

The line between sanctified and secular music has always been thin. Jones gives the example of Thomas A. Dorsey, one of the most important composers of Christian music in the 20th century. (He wrote the widely performed classic, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.”) Before Dorsey emerged as the “father” of gospel music, he started out playing piano in Chicago speakeasies and toured with blues singer Ma Rainey, performing under the moniker, “Georgia Tom.”

“There is no separation between religious and nonreligious [music],” Jones elaborated. “So when people in this modern day talk about the profane coming into the church,” she retorts, “But your founding father [Dorsey] was a blues man!

“[Gospel music] has always brought Saturday night into Sunday morning,” proclaimed Jones. “Always!”

So remember, when talking about how funky, sexy and soulful D’Angelo is, it’s as much a “church” thing as it is a Prince thing.

D’Angelo’s Voodoo comes out on March 5th, 2020. Pre-order your copy here!

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