Afrochella
Steve Morris @stevemorrism

Afrochella Sets Sight On Connecting The African Diaspora, One Festival At A Time

Co-founder Abdul Karim Abdullah talks overcoming obstacles to make the annual event a success, why December in Ghana is important and the mission post the “Year of Return.”

African music and culture are going global.

There’s a concerted effort to create and connect on the continent and to the continent. In Ghana and Nigeria specifically, a number of events, festivals, concerts, and activations have grown to prominence over the past five years, attracting newcomers and serving locals. This year, December will harvest a crop of opportunities for those abroad and at home to tap into the music, art, food, and fashion of the new-wave vanguard.

“Ghana remains home to the global African family,” Ghana Tourism Authority CEO Akwasi Agyemang said in an interview earlier this year. "We are positioning Ghana as a gateway to the West African market," Agyemang added. As African cultural productions popularize abroad, Accra and Lagos have become the go-to grounds for people of the diaspora to initiate immersion into experiencing Africa. 

The Ghana Tourism Authority and the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture have lined up a slate of activities in an effort to boost the country’s tourism industry. The government has taken initiative to further pushing for mobilization, galvanizing both descendants and diasporans to visit, invest, and live in the country.

Certain factors make Ghana appealing for visitors. Along with it being one of the more stable nations in West Africa, according to a 2011 Forbes report, Ghana was ranked the 11th -most friendly country in the world, ranked higher than any other African country. But as of last year, according to the World Atlas, Ghana didn’t rank amongst the top 10 African countries to visit for tourism in 2018. There is already a history of diasporans permanently relocating to Ghana. The government attempted to facilitate this process when it waived some visa requirements and passed amendments to a 2002 law that permits people of African origin to apply to stay indefinitely in Ghana. 

But this year has been a particularly important one for visitors. This December marks the ending commemoration of the Year of Return. Ghana 2019 is an initiative of the government formally launched by the President of the Republic of Ghana in September 2019 in Washington, D.C. as a program for Africans in the diaspora to unite with Africans on the continent. The mission transcends a marketing strategy. The year 2019 commemorates 400 years since the first enslaved Africans were brought to Jamestown, Virginia. The program serves to recognize the surging people and the following generations of achievements, sacrifices since then. 

The past year has seen a steady influx to West Africa. According to a report in Quartz Africa, Ghana’s tourism sector contributed 5.5 percent to GDP in 2018, ranking in fourth place after gold, cocoa, and oil in terms of foreign exchange generation for the country. And the government is hoping for more growth. Ghana is reportedly projected to rake in an annual $8.3 billion from the tourism sector by the year 2027 in tandem with an estimated 4.3 million international tourist arrivals.

But with the opportunities for connection and investment comes a slate of new concerns attached to old ones. Tourism, for example, can be lucrative for local business, but also can have a broader disruptive impact on the nation’s economy. Then, there are the issues that programmers face to bring locals and visitors the sought-after idealized experiences of Ghana— a taxing and a challenging feat to execute in an environment that’s still developing its infrastructure in multiple sectors. Along with improper documentation of visitors, the 15-year development plan put in place to help push the numbers, in ways, has not been implemented in full force.

But a rush to Ghana is still projected, and there’s a slew of events coinciding in the region at the same time this year aiming to accommodate this. One of the events slated for a return is Afrochella, the annual art, music, and food festival happening in Accra from December 20 to January 5. Separate from the official year of return events, each event also aims to fulfill a similar mission and market individual appeal amidst similar events. There’s AfroNation, the popular Europe music festival holding its first-ever edition on Ghana’s coastline at the same time as Afrochella, while Nativeland is planning a selection of panels and immersive activations with Melanin Unscripted focusing on music, art, and culture in Lagos right before it.

Afrochella was conceptualized by Abdul Karim Abdullah in 2015. Abdullah, along with co-founder Kenny Agyapong, and COO Edward Adjaye, launched the full-scope festival with the hopes of curating a connection to the continent this year, focused on increasing visibility to the rising talent on the continent. Their 2019 theme is “Diaspora Calling,” aiming to promote networking within the Ghanaian community and diaspora, ensure African youth value and celebrate their native cultures while connecting communities through education, fashion, art, music, and business in Africa. 

Community involvement representative Emmanual Ansa states they want the event to become “the impetus and mecca for the celebration of African music, culture, and art.” But amidst the many options on the ground this year to fulfill these missions, where does Afrochella stand, and how does it stand out?

VIBE sat down with the Afrochella co-founder Abdullah to talk about the structural challenges of executing this initiative while appeasing the demands of a growing consumer base, the cultural significance of the event, and envisioning Ghana as a premier frontier for a global black connection.

Can you talk about the origin of Afrochella? What inspired it?

I went to school in Ghana for about seven years, and then I came back to the US and I went to high school in the Bronx—  High School For Teaching And The Professions. I went to Syracuse University in 2006 and got my bachelor's in psychology and biology. And then I got my master's in 2016 at CUNY Hunter college in public health. I've been working in medical research for eight and a half years. But this has been a passion of mine that I've always done on the side, which is throwing African-inspired events.

That’s when my team came together. It started out with me wanting to do a festival here in New York called Native Tongue festival, and that was geared towards food. I just wanted to explain the culture and engage people within the diaspora. But then, on our yearly trip to Ghana, I found that we would gather and we would have a great time, but we couldn't really have that much of an effect once we left. I felt like we could have an effect; we could encourage more people to reach back home and do certain things by creating a space where we can engage each other. I thought there was so much talent coming in from all over the world that were from Ghanian descent or African descent and if we could create a place where we can galvanize all of that and the people that are doing amazing things within those industries, we would be able to create something pretty good. [In] 2017, we decided to do something like that.

How has it changed since 2017? Has it been easier to translate what you're trying to do in terms of this new interest in Africa — Ghana and Nigeria in particular? 

My team is battle-tested. We understand what we have to do in order to make the event successful. But, I wouldn't say it's been easier; each year presented different challenges for us. In year one, it was financial. Until this year, it was navigating bureaucracies. Last year, it was navigating governmental agencies. This year is navigating competition, navigating finding more funding. 
One of the things that we noticed about events in Ghana specifically is that once it [nears] completion, people tend to not attend it anymore. What we want to make sure we do is every year we want to increase the amount of people that attend— and each year we have at least by 30 percent. Each year, we've been able to define our message more clearly. 

Talk a little bit about the government in Ghana. How has it been dealing with things on the bureaucracy level?

I would say our event is doing a big service to Ghana. Afrochella has definitely given people an opportunity to visit Ghana. The government should support us in a way that makes gaining access to certain government facilities easier. But that has not been the case. We've had to be very proactive about that with regards to certain policies that may exist that are not written on an online forum. Like in America, if I wanted to do a special event in the park, I'd be able to go to an online source. I'd be able to see all the things that need to do in order to get a specific permit for a specific venue. In Ghana, these things don't exist.

For instance, this year we received an email from some agency. Out of all of the years, we've never communicated with them and in the third year, they're reaching out to us about musician copyrights and, apparently, we have to pay a tax. Those are the kinds of things that we've faced. You can end up paying people that are not actually supposed to get paid. And there's no way of you knowing whether or not it exists or doesn't exist. 

Last year, we had a very weird incident four days before the festival. We were told by the Ministry of Aviation that our stadium is right by the takeoff of the planes leaving Accra. I would think that the venue that we're renting out for this festival would be able to let us know, “hey, you need to do this with the Ministry of Aviation,”— they did not. The day before Christmas, we got a notification that we have to change venues because they feel our lights will interfere with flights taking off. It's, of course, an accident. So, we reached out to the Ministry of Aviation, sat down with the director and devised a plan in order to allow our event to continue. Those are the kinds of things we faced as an event that we are still trying to navigate. Hopefully, as we grow, it will get easier.

Do you think it'll get easier when some type of infrastructure is built to help those types of events move more smoothly?

I think that Ghana is going to have to look itself in the mirror. We all don't know what to expect in December. Because there are a lot of people going to Ghana in December, the anticipation is very high. All the major hotels in Accra are sold out. How Accra responds to the influx of people I think should inform the government on how they should prepare for events and things like this for the future. I do hope that there is an effort created to streamline policies. 

I would like for the government to encourage events. I think events is one of the major drivers of tourism. And if they're paying attention, they will notice that a lot of people are coming to Accra for Afrochella and the events that exist during that last week of Christmas. The double mission is to take a deeper look at this creative industry and figure out a way to encourage that positively in a way that it affects both the people on the ground and the people within the diaspora. 

The government has not been welcoming this with open arms or does it not have any type of structured initiative to help this run smoothly?

I'm not saying that. I just feel like in general, we do not know what changes in infrastructure or policy being made to accommodate the amount of people that are coming in. For instance, with Afrochella we understand that because there's going to be so many people—there was an excessive amount of traffic coming into the stadium last year—that we need to figure out a way to get people to the festival in shuttles. If we can get people that are shuttles, then we could reduce the amount of cars. We reached out to the Ministry of Roads to help us so we can avoid traffic in front of the stadium and that we can make sure that there's a safe way for people to enter. This is some of the planning that we have done. Until now, I personally have not seen any information come out, access [to] policies that exist. 

One of the major complaints that people from the diaspora face when they go to Africa during Christmas time is we feel that we should be having the same sort of customer service that we enjoy abroad. With the influx of people, I think that it's going to get worse.

We just wanna make sure that infrastructure exists to make sure that people that are coming do not disrupt the way of life in Accra.

There are a lot of other events happening around the same time as Afrochella. What is the concerted effort to kind of stand out from the rest?

Our goal is to highlight the thriving millennial talent from within the continent. So we take pride in making sure that we're highlighting people within various industries of food, fashion, music. With our Afrochella Talk series, we’ve been able to highlight people that have been doing amazing things within the creative industry. In December, we'll be doing one on music. And this is an opportunity to be able to educate people on opportunities that may exist within their field or create a platform for people to be able to discuss questions they may have. 

We're also involved heavily in charity. Last year, we supported Water Aid to help provide clean water to families in need. The year before that, we gave out school supplies to kids within Madina Zongo. This year, we're doing charity twofold. We're rebuilding an orphanage school, in Jamestown, Accra and also providing them with school supplies. We call this initiative Afrochella Reads]. We’re also doing Afrochella Feeds on December 26th. 

Our goal when we bring people to Ghana is not just to come and turn up, not just to have a good time, but also to give them a feel of the vibration of the country, what the culture is.For us, it's a holistic approach.

What does the full festival entail?

The festival itself is art, music, food, fashion and all of that culminates in our eyes what culture is. We believe that each part of these is equally as important. Not one part is more important than the other and that we should celebrate them together. In addition to people getting to go to our festival, we also give them the opportunity to be able to engage with the country through our tours, through our charity. The tours and the charity that we do is to make people understand that yes, Africa is a good time— you can go to all the clubs— but we want to make sure you leave and provide an impact at the same time. 

Talk a little bit about the Audiomack rising star challenge and that effort to kind of curate the connection with music and culture.

With the rise of afropop music in America, I feel these artists deserve a chance. Right now, the popular, mainstream artists are the ones that are getting the looks they deserve. But I think that there are a lot of talents that exist from the continent that deserve to showcase their talent.

The other aspect of it is, I feel that people in the continent are using all of these apps and all of these different services and they hardly get to connect with representatives from those services. One of our goals is to make sure that we partner with these companies and give them the opportunity to invest in the talent directly. With Audiomack, we're doing exactly that in that we're giving seven individuals an opportunity to perform at Afrochella. And the one with the most streams, we’re giving them $1,000 towards their career and we’re giving them an opportunity to for a studio session at our partners BBnZ Live. This is one model of the type of partnerships we want to, we look to create with companies in the future. 

Why is this year in particular so important for the reconnection of the diaspora in the context of the 400-year anniversary?

A lot of the conversation between the diaspora and the people from the continent is what makes us different, why we don't get along. What we want to do as a festival is take that conversation and change it into what can we learn from each other and how can we help each other. I think that it's very important that as you see the Chinese and the Japanese and the Americans and everyone reaching for Africa, that we engage the people in the diaspora to make them understand that there are opportunities that exist and there is amazing talent in Africa and they are interested in starting a business and you're interested in developing a space and you can engage with your counterparts on the continent and help build the continent yourself.

I think the more black people we get to invest in the continent, as a whole black will be helping each other. This year is absolutely important and I think that shoutout should go to Nana Akufo-Addo of Ghana for declaring this year The Year of Return. Ghana is definitely a good site that people can visit, but we hope that as people enjoy themselves and have that experience that they use that as a platform to visit other African countries and see what opportunities are there for them to be able to leave a lasting impact on the continent.

This interview was lightly edited for clarity.

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Grammy Contender Lucky Daye Is Waving R&B's Melodic Flag With Pride

Perhaps it was a baton passed by February 2019 Vibe digital cover star H.E.R. during Grammy that solidified Lucky Daye’s 2020 nominations. At an intimate gathering during Grammy weekend last year, the 2019 Best R&B Album and Best R&B Performance winner sweetly sang a rendition of “Roll Some Mo,” much to Daye’s amazement. As H.E.R. struck gold with five nominations last year, walking away with two gramophones, Lucky is poised for a similar fate, nominated for Best R&B Song (“Roll Some Mo”), Best R&B Album (Painted), Best R&B Performance (“Roll Some Mo”), and Best Traditional R&B Performance (“Real Games”). Though the nominations were announced merely two months ago, for Daye, the news finally sunk in as he attended The Recording Academy’s L.A. Chapter Celebration.

“My body doesn't react to verbal news, it’s like a normal thing. I'm so used to expecting stuff that people say--especially in music--and it not happening,” Daye says, as we speak a day following the L.A. Chapter Celebration. “Now that I should be excited early--because I want to be excited this whole time--it [doesn’t] happen until I walk into a room. Then I get all jittery and nervous, like, ‘oh my God, this is happening.'”

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“I got a chance to get everything out, like, my deepest emotions and feelings. To finally say it without getting cut off, or to finally say it and not get a rebuttal before I actually try to get people to hear it… Most times, I get feedback and it discourages me, [but] this time, it was too late for anybody to discourage me since the album was done,” he says. “I was already like, ‘I love it, so I don’t care what anybody thinks’. To me, it felt good to get a response from people [but] a positive one, for once. I’m still adjusting, [so] I’m kind of new to how it’s moving and I’m new to the people liking stuff from me. People don’t really get it, it’s a different side of life that I’ve never been on.”

Daye, previously known as D. Brown during a run of being a songwriter and background vocalist, follows a tradition of fellow songwriter-turned-full fledged R&B artists including D’Angelo and Faith Evans. However, he assures that crafting music behind the scenes wasn’t his end goal, as collaborating with producer D’Mile ignited his passion of re-pursuing solo stardom. In a recent Rolling Stone profile of D’Mile, the producer noticed an uptick in contemporary R&B paying homage to the 70’s, notably psychedelic cut “Redbone”, which snagged Childish Gambino a Grammy for Best Traditional R&B Performance in 2018.

Both Daye and D’Mile followed suit, with their own formulaic reverence to 70’s funk and soul on Painted, ushering in a modern take. Daye mentions that while D’Mile is knowledgeable of music theory, it was Daye’s “chemical imbalance” over D’Mile’s production and radical instrumentation that essentially made them musical soulmates. “When it comes to music, [it] will teach consciousness in the body to be open, to be understanding of everything. To have multiple perceptions, it’s rare, and [D’Mile] has that,” Daye says. “If anything else, we know that at the end of the day, it’s all going to boil down to music. We’re here to do something on Earth at this age and time, and I’m indebted to him.”

For long-time fans of Daye, some were initially surprised once playing the album, as songs featured on his introductory EPs I and II were featured prominently on Painted. For Daye, he wanted to ease his listeners into living with his music for a while longer before presenting the remainder of his debut, unexpectedly recommended by a rap icon. “I didn’t want [fans] to listen to it and be like, ‘yo, it’s a jumble of a bunch of mess’, because honestly, that’s how I felt at the time. I just felt like, ‘they’re not gonna like it’. If we’re going to really put it out and [make] it a big deal, I don’t want to mess this up. The best advice was putting it out piece by piece. I talked to Nicki Minaj about that and that’s where the idea originally came from,” he says, referencing that he accompanied a friend to a studio session with Minaj.

“This was probably eight months before [Painted] came out. We’re sitting in there, they couldn’t come up with [any] ideas and she was like, ‘Why you sitting over there quiet? What you humming? Sounds like you got something if you wanna hop in, you can.’ I just hopped in and freestyled a whole song.”

Taking Minaj’s advice made for the organic success of his EPs, and a gradual acclimation of ‘Daye Ones’--a token for Daye’s dedicated fanbase--especially those who witnessed his performances during a streak of three tours in the past year. After joining Ella Mai and Kiana Lede during Mai’s debut tour, Daye launched into The Painted Tour, later heading to Australia with Khalid during The Spirit Tour. Daye admits the stage is where he’s most carefree, but that he’s still getting acclimated with finding time to rest. “It’s so crazy because I look around [and] sometimes I’ll push my friends too hard, or I’ll push other people too hard because of my expectations,” he says. “Fresh off the Khalid tour, I didn’t sleep for a week, I was like ‘I don’t know what’s going on’. I’m calling doctors, Kehlani’s helping me like, ‘maybe you should drink that’, I just realized it was adrenaline. It’s hard to go to sleep when you’re running off that kind of energy.”

Daye’s adrenaline and charismatic stage presence made his mainly-female audiences buckle at their knees, even intimately crooning select attendees to violin-driven track “Concentrate” at shows. But it was the track “Roll Some Mo” that stood apart from his catalog, instantly becoming a fan favorite and soundtracking The Photograph, which premieres on Valentine’s Day next month. Though “Roll Some Mo” is beloved for its penchant in marijuana-infused desire, Daye says he initially rejected the song being featured on Painted. “That was the fastest song I did. Most times when I write fast, I’m not trying and I felt like I didn’t put my all into it. That’s why, to me, “Roll Some Mo” wasn’t strong. I felt like I could do better, but everyone else was like ‘that’s the one’,” he says. “So I should just write and not think, that’s a lesson I’ve learned from misjudging “Roll Some Mo”: don’t overthink and do not try to make it perfect.”

Long accustomed to songwriting, Daye had a natural inclination to join the ranks of Keep Cool Records, especially the intensity of their songwriting boot camps. Prior guests of the boot camps have included Masego and Baby Rose, and Daye mentions that he also attended recording sessions of Revenge of the Dreamers III on their final day. “It’s so much pressure at writing camps like [Keep Cool Records] because there are so many people that are amazing. They go in with that mindset--and I understand that because I can write, as well--I just don’t do it with that type of intensity, because my confidence has been killed in that area,” Daye says. “Being in a room with those people, you learn different ways to make music and that’s the beauty [of it]. Music is art, it’s in me and I can’t do nothing about that, so to be in that environment is paradise.”

With writing credits for Keith Sweat, Boyz II Men and Keke Palmer years prior to releasing Painted, it was mentorship from Mary J. Blige during recording sessions for Blige’s 2017 album Strength of a Woman, that aided Daye with honing in on lyrical simplicity. Co-writing “Love Yourself” and “U + Me (Love Session)”, with admiration for Blige, Daye even attended her 2018 Walk of Fame commencement. “[Blige] always speaks vulnerability and she always taught me a lot about changing words [for them] to make more sense,” Daye says. “I’m way more abstract than I was when Painted came out, and she’d always bring me back, like, ‘why don’t you just say it like this?’ I’m like, ‘that’s ghetto’. (laughs) She’d be like, ‘but it’s good’. I’d be like, ‘Well, alright, I got it; just do what I normally do if I was talking to somebody.’”

With Blige’s guidance in mind, Daye knew that he wanted the apex of Painted to revolve around intricacies of love, his previous relationships being the basis of the album, notably, overexerting himself while in those relationships. “On Painted, I wanted to convey love as being misunderstood and not what you always expect it to be. I feel like we watch all of these things around us and we got these high expectations of what love is supposed to be and it’s really an illusion. When you find somebody who’s actually a real person and they don’t meet your illusion, they fail in your eyes,” he says, subtly warning women to beware of overzealous suitors. “I just wanted to say ‘it’s fine to not be perfect, it’s fine to be normal’. Being normal is actually what love is, everything else is extra. You can’t always exhaust yourself. I’ve exhausted myself and I wanted to portray that on the album, like, I’ve done that already. I’ve tried everything I could to try to stay in love and try to be in love. It allowed me to fall in love and get my heartbroken, and that created more content for me and it created more depth for my character.”

With room to create meaningful content, though not intentional, Daye withheld from having collaborations on Painted. For many listeners, the “Roll Some Mo” remix featuring Ty Dolla $ign and Wale was the first time they heard Daye accompanied by featured guests. “I don’t think I had any power to even get anybody that wanted to get on my record. I would like to think that the music industry would hear good music and want to get with it because it’s good to them, not necessarily good to popular people,” he says. “I wanted to at least do my first album complete and not wait on features. I think all great artists can do an album with no features and you’ll still be able to listen to the whole album. I don’t care who it is, if someone’s not good on my record, I’m not putting it out.”

While Painted didn’t lack in vulnerability, Daye is open to the possibility of having features on his sophomore album. With his majorly-female audience in mind, he wants to reintroduce an influx of female features to create melodic balance. “The second album might be a little bit different. I’m probably gonna do an album that has a great amount of features on it and I’m working on that right now. We’re reaching for gold,” he says. “When it comes to singing, girls are listening to me. Most guys, they have too much ego to listen to me, I’m too real. They don’t want to feel soft. I feel like if get girls featured, it’ll make more sense for me than male features because I talk about love a lot. Ain’t too many guys I know that’s gonna open up like that on a record. That’s one of my goals, I want to do a lot of songs with girls like Marvin Gaye did.”

With music videos traditionally having a cinematic, thoroughly crafted feel, Daye shares that a visual album is soon to come, with a slew of screenplays already written. Initially wanting to release a visual album alongside Painted, he’s tentatively reserving it for his sophomore album. Though he’s mapped out his plans for 2020, Daye says that he’s willing to let go of his reigns to get better acquainted with fans. “I’m gonna make myself more uncomfortable this year when it comes to putting myself out there--controlling less of what I think I should be controlling--and just be more free and just be present. I want them to know, if there’s anything I should do, I’m open [to it].”

During a generation of R&B when artists are arguably most hands-on with their creative intention, Daye fits right in, nominated in nearly every R&B category of the 2020 Grammys. Hinting at surprise single before the ceremony, while arguably a veteran, Daye assures that his journey is far from over. “The fact that [artists] can reach so many people, just with one button, that’s awesome. Most people have to climb, they climb a long way from city to city and it takes years just to get to a level. I have millions of views in a year, and I believe [“Roll Some Mo”] might be gold. Just to do that in one year, being able to touch so many people, I feel like we’re getting closer,” he says. “It’s come back around, for sure, [but] there’s way more to accomplish. I plan on having at least eleven albums, and I feel satisfied, kind of, but this is the beginning. I just started, it’s the first day.”

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“Envision this: a lone man in a haunted room surrounded by glowing instruments. What sounds are evoked from a room where Jimi once slept? What are the rewards of those who tend to their God-given talents as they would have the Creator tend to their spirits and daily lives? What happens when the artist becomes the conjur man?”

Twenty years ago, poet Saul Williams posed this question in the liner notes for D’Angelo’s sophomore offering, Voodoo: notes that served as a listener guide while exploring the long-awaited follow up to 1995’s Brown Sugar. Voodoo is considered by most as D’Angelo’s definitive work. (In fairness, he’s only graced us with three studio albums in his 25-year career.) Upon release, the LP was widely celebrated; it landed near the top of every major year-end list for 2000, and garnered the Grammy for Best R&B Album in 2001. In the years since, living up to its name, Voodoo has become something spiritual for many – a totem of musical greatness and genius. Okayplayer declared it “neo-soul’s most salient creation,” and no doubt this month there’ll be a flood of pieces examining the project’s importance in R&B music. Indeed, D’Angelo’s debut and sophomore albums each marked turning points in R&B. The Virginia native’s first outing came two years before the phrase “neo-soul” was coined. Add Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite (1996), Erykah Badu’s Baduizm (1997), and Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998), and you have the four musical horsemen of neo-soul. Baduizm inspired executive Kedar Massenberg, who also oversaw Brown Sugar, to create a descriptor that came to define a subgenre. But when Brown Sugar first hit the streets, it simply felt like an extension of the jazz and classic soul influences found in the work of D’Angelo’s future collaborators from A Tribe Called Quest and The Roots.

Five years later, Voodoo bowed at the top of a new millennium, at a time when the R&B genre was evolving and fracturing in ways that R&B and soul purists are still lamenting today (Hi, it’s me. I’m lamenting). In 1999, TLC’s Fanmail and Destiny’s Child’s Writing’s on the Wall signaled the pop-leaning, bounce and tempo-driven, slickly-produced direction R&B was heading toward to maintain a presence on hip-hop dominated airwaves. Voodoo was a collective resistance, a labor of love from some of the finest artists of the era. A harkening back to musical foundations. Rolling Stone dubbed it “an ambitious record that seeks nothing less than to unstick black music from commercial considerations and leave it free to seek its muse.” Questlove wrote of the album effort shortly before release, “It was a love for the dead state of black music, a love to show our idols how much they taught us. (T)his was the love movement. (A)nd this was the beginning.”

“We have come in the name of Jimi, Sly, Marvin, Stevie, all artists formerly known as spirits and all spirits formerly known as stars. We have come in the tradition of burning bushes, burning ghettos, burning splifs, and the ever-burning candles of our bedrooms and silent chambers. We have come bearing instruments and our voices: Falsetto and baritone, percussion and horns…We speak of darkness, not as ignorance, but as the unknown and the mysterious of the unseen.”  - Saul Williams

The Avengers-esque origin story of Voodoo is part of the album’s power and mythology. The project inspired the formation of the Soulquarians collective, a superhero music taskforce that began with D’Angelo, Questlove, J. Dilla and James Poyser (all Aquarians), taking over the long-dormant Electric Lady Studios – former studio home of Jimi Hendrix – to create something new and real. The crew expanded as Common and Erykah also camped out at Electric Lady to work on their upcoming projects, and other collaborators including Q-Tip and Raphael Saadiq fell through in regular rotation. Quest, D and camp went full music nerd, using the studio’s vintage equipment and keeping everything as organic and analog as possible to create a retro energy and sound. They studied old performances of Prince, Stevie Wonder and other Yodas -  their name for the masters - obsessively, channeling the spirits of their heroes. Voodoo was the start of a legacy.

Famed music critic Robert Christgau said Voodoo is “widely regarded as the greatest R&B album of the post-Prince era.” And it is…but are we puttin’ too much on it? I do believe D’s lack of visibility and minimal output since Voodoo adds a preciousness to the album (not unlike Miseducation, which might be discussed differently if there was more work to talk about).  But also, Voodoo is not an R&B album; it’s some unnamed sh*t (calling it neo-soul is reductive) that the Soulquarians pioneered and mastered. You can’t approach it casually; you’re not gonna just throw this joint on while cleaning the house. Quest additionally said of Voodoo in his (admittedly biased) review, “Music lovers come under 2 umbrellas. (N)umber one: those who use it for growth and spiritual fulfillment and number two: those who use it for mere background music. (T)he thing is, this record is too extreme to play the middle of the fence. (T)his record is the litmus test that will reveal the most for your personality.”

“Here is a peer that is focused wholly on his craft and has given himself the challenge of bettering himself. I mean really, D could have come out with any ol’ follow-up album after Brown Sugar dropped so that he could double his sales “While he’s still hot.” You know, an album that sounds just like Brown Sugar, uses all the same formulas, so that audiences don’t have to think….or grow, they just keep liking the same shit. He could even sample songs that you’re already familiar with so that you don’t have to go through the “hard work” of getting used to a new melody or bass line. Y’all don’t hear me.” – Saul Williams

Voodoo is without question a superior album to Brown Sugar, technically and sonically. It takes the formula D’Angelo created in his mama’s Virginia home, blending soul, funk and a dash of hip-hop, and elevates it. Late trumpeter Roy Hargrove added jazz’s controlled chaos. J. Dilla’s beat alchemy and Premier’s deft precision rendered the few samples used almost unrecognizable. Pino Palladino contributed his legendary bass lines. Rounded out with Tip and Ray Ray, plus Quest steering the ship as co-captain along with D’Angelo – it was a soul fantasy league. Yes, Voodoo is a stronger album, but I’d argue Brown Sugar is more focused (though some would say it’s just more formulaic). It’s definitely a more accessible work. The New York Times, examining how the Soulquarians brought Voodoo together, said the process was “vague, halting, nonlinear.” Voodoo is a long jam session – literally. They approached much of the completely original material through retro engineering: long jam sessions of hero material - Prince, Curtis, etc - would evolve into a new song. You can especially pick this up in “The Line,” which feels like it was maybe going to be an interlude and just kept going, and “Chicken Grease.”

The transitions between songs can be jarring, and the songs are so gritty and raw that some give a bootleg or demo feel – undoubtedly intentional, as Questlove and D’Angelo were studying bootlegs of their faves. Rolling Stone’s reviewer declared the album sounded “loose and unfinished” (but worth noting that it was No. 4 on their top albums of the year list later). The highest praise for a single universally went to “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” D’Angelo’s outstanding homage to his and Questlove’s most esteemed Yoda, Prince. It’s one of the more familiar-sounding tracks, along with “Send it On,” “Feel Like Making Love” and “Left and Right,” which feel the most like Brown Sugar follow-ups.

Those aside, Voodoo is to Brown Sugar what Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly is to Good Kid m.A.A.d City in terms of expansion and departure from the sound fans originally fell in love with. Some embraced it, some couldn’t get all the way with it. I can testify firsthand that when D’Angelo brought that jam session energy to Essence Fest in 2012 to launch his first tour in over ten years, folks were less than thrilled that after waiting so long to see him on stage again, he was prioritizing the un-danceable, less melodic cuts like “Devil’s Pie” and “Chicken Grease” on the setlist, and then didn’t play the album versions of the hits so they could hit a two-step and sing along.

What Voodoo is, is grown. As hell. Not only is it not music for a casual fan, it’s not music for a casual love thing, either. Brown Sugar is adoration expressed publicly; let me tell folks how much I’m digging you. Brown Sugar is dating. You can let it rock at a kick back with a crew. Voodoo is intimate. It’s a relationship. You don’t play “How Does It Feel” or “Send it On” in a house full of people (and if you do, I have questions).

Which brings us to the gift and curse of Voodoo: D’Angelo becoming a sex symbol. The 20-year old, lip licking, possibly blunted D’Angelo was sexy in a dude-off-the-block way with his baggy jeans, Avirex coats, and timbs. But 25-year old D’Angelo took the baggy clothes off, and had cut abs, a v-line, and the bold audacity to showcase it, on the album cover and in the visual for the project’s third single…and nobody knew how to act. This is where Voodoo simultaneously goes left and becomes legend all at once. Also, why we can’t have nice things.

Twenty years ago, there were no blogs, no social media and no such thing as going viral. Music video channels still specialized in… music videos. And D’Angelo’s manager Dominique Trenier, and director Paul Hunter conceptualized a visual for “Untitled (How Does it Feel)” that The New York Times called “the most controversial video to air in years.” The clip, eventually referred to in conversation as simply “the video,” was a four and a half minute-long, single shot of D’Angelo wearing nothing but a gold chain and cornrows. And sweat. There were no shiny suits, no dancers, no fish-eye lenses. Just Michael Archer staring into our souls through the camera.

The success and notoriety of the video propelled Voodoo to a No. 1 debut on the Billboard Top 200. The plan was to break D’Angelo out of the R&B/neo-soul space to a broader audience, and it worked. Too well. By the time D launched the Voodoo tour in the Spring of 2000, the attention, grabbing, catcalling and screaming were overwhelming. As an artist, he’d put painstaking time and effort into creating the greatest piece of work possible; art that would impact hearts and minds. Spent grueling hours preparing a live show that would measure up to James Brown and Parliament-Funkadelic -  and fans were just yelling incessantly for him to take his shirt off. “It feels good, actually, when I do it,” D ‘Angelo told Rolling Stone near the beginning of the tour. “But I don’t want it to turn into a thing where that’s what it’s all about. I don’t want it to turn things away from the music and what we doin’ up there…I’m not no stripper. I’m up there doin’ somethin’ I strongly believe in.”

(Shout out to Anthony Hamilton’s background vocals coming through all loud and clear)

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened, and D grew so self-conscious and uncomfortable he eventually suspended the tour three weeks early, and retreated from the public eye. Over the next several years there were multiple arrests (with bloated mugshots looking kind of like Thor when he took his hammer and went home in Endgame), at least one trip to rehab, and several tentative returns before he surprised the world with Black Messiah in December of 2014 – almost 15 years later.

“Untitled (How Does it Feel)” is still a highlight in Voodoo conversations, it still evokes immediate remarks about D’s body and sex (I’m guilty of this), and it’s still a sore spot for the artist. So much so that when he reemerged in the public eye in 2012, he and Paul Hunter insisted the video’s inspiration was D’Angelo’s grandmother’s cooking and the Holy Ghost. (Insert side-eye gif here.)

But this is the challenge of a great artist: put everything you have into the work, then give that work to the world, and by doing so relinquish control over what the world does with it. So is Voodoo the millennial answer to John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme? Is it the centerpiece of the neo-soul movement? Is it the Soulquarian stone? Is it just an outstanding groove? Is it just D’Angelo in leather pants and no shirt and you really don’t care about all that other stuff? The answer, according to our original Voodoo guide, Saul Williams, depends on us.

“D’Angelo has made his choices, carefully weaving them into his character, and has courageously stepped into the void bearing these sonic offerings to be delivered to the beckoning goddess of the new age. I do not wish to overly dissect this album. It’s true dissection occurs in how it seeps into your life shapes your moments. What you were doing when you realized he was saying this or that? How it played softly in the back ground when you first saw him or her. How you kept it on repeat on that special night. You’ll see. These songs are incantations” – Saul Williams

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