D’Angelo’s Music and The Ethics of the Artistic Gift

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For an atheist, a good concert is as close to a religious experience as one can get. We live in an increasingly secular society, but there’s something in the vastness of a congregated audience, in the anonymity of its unison, and the adulatory feeling towards a performer that echoes Eliade’s reminder: much of our profane life is nothing but sacrality in disguise.

Last winter I had the opportunity to see R&B artist and neo-soul embodiment D’Angelo share with the audience his comeback album, the first released after 14 years of silence. Alain de Botton has once suggested that in our post-religious world it’s imperative to keep some of the values that religion has instilled in us, and instead base them on secular grounds. To this end, he says, we should cultivate experiences that “reawaken our sense of awe”. It would be fair to say that D’Angelo’s performance was one such experience.

As many artists and thinkers have pointed out, music is a special kind of art. The most abstract, as Agnes Martin called it, and yet the most moving; appealing to our innermost sensitivity, it is capable of unearthing emotions we didn’t even know we had. D’Angelo’s music has all of these qualities, but his performance did more: it created a connection so powerful with the audience that it made me rethink the relation between an artist, their work and the public.

As I was standing there in the middle of an overjoyed crowd, one question wouldn’t leave my mind: how can I repay this? The intensity of what was happening on stage, the strength of the music and the deep place it was coming from — it all lead to this one haunting thought. How can I give this ‘back’? Despite having paid a considerable amount of money, to me this was more than a performance. It was an act of altruism. An offering of oneself. A gift, par excellence.

In 1983, cultural critic and essayist Lewis Hyde wrote a book that Margaret Atwood said was ‘about the core nature of what it is that artists do’. It was entitled “The Gift”. Blending philosophy with poetry and anthropology, the book speaks about the various ways in which a gift may manifest itself, from socio-economic glue to artistic inspiration and then an artwork itself. However it shows itself, ‘the gift’s’ main quality remains: it is immensely transformative, for both the giver and the receiver’.

What made D’Angelo’s presence on stage so unique was precisely this reciprocity. Rather than being a unilateral expression of adulation, what I witnessed was one of the rarest, most beautiful relationships between an artist and their audience, made truly wonderful by the palpable feeling that it was just as moving for the artist as it was for us. And maybe it truly had been.

We know the man D’Angelo (a.k.a. Michael Eugene Archer) has certainly gone through some transformations, with his music suffering changes as well, or sometimes just suffering. In the early 2000s, he released Voodoo, an album almost unanimously hailed as a masterpiece of neo-classic soul blended with jazz and R&B. He soon after reached the peak of his stardom, largely as a consequence of the sexually infused music video for the track Untitled (How Does It Feel).

Since then, D’Angelo went through substance abuse, obesity, rehab and conflicts with the law. He hadn’t released another album in 14 years, in what many referred to as one of the longest creative dry spells in the history of soul music. But at the end of 2014, D’Angelo broke that spell with a genre progressing, soul, R&B, funk, jazz and rock epitome of a comeback album, Black Messiah, released shortly after controversial decisions to do with race in America around the Ferguson and Eric Garner events.

Could it be that the seemingly self-destructive detours D’Angelo has taken in his convoluted career were just transformations of the self, necessary for creating art? And if so, has D’Angelo now managed to produce a true, artistic ‘gift’?

The Creative Labor

In a beautiful piece written 3 years ago, journalist Amy Wallace introduced us to the creative travail that was going on behind what would later be called Black Messiah. Over the years it took to finish it, enough announcements of the new album’s release had been made to justify ‘A History of D’Angelo Album Promises’ as the title of a lengthy article. Despite the industry’s efforts to push the album’s release for 2012, producers and label managers soon found out about the so-called ‘D-time . . . a pace so slow that it could test even the most patient saint. . . . In [D‘Angelo’s] world’, Wallace wrote, ‘nothing happens quickly.’ D-time seemed so implacable that even the president of giant music label RCA had let go of the idea of a deadline. In 2012, when asked when the new album would be released, he replied ‘This year would be nice.’ As we now know, it took D’Angelo another two years and a half.

It seems that ‘D-time’ couldn’t be bogged down by the alarm clock. Perhaps D-time was a special kind of time, not the same time that buses arrive at, or the time when people have to be at work – perhaps it was the rhythm of creative labor.

‘Work’, we are told in The Gift,

‘is what we do by the hour. It begins and ends at a specific time and, if possible, we do it for money. Welding car bodies on an assembly line is work; washing dishes, computing taxes, walking the rounds in a psychiatric ward, picking asparagus—these are work. Labor, on the other hand, sets its own pace.’

Labor is more difficult to quantify, because during it ‘the soul undergoes a period of travail, a change that draws energy. Writing a poem, raising a child, developing a new calculus, resolving a neurosis, invention in all forms’ these are, in Hyde’s account, labors.

While we can rush the rhythm of plain work, because it is clearly intended and can be willed into accomplishment, the internal movement of labor, bound as it is with feeling and creative intimacy, seems to flow at its own rate. ‘A labor can be intended but only to the extent of doing the groundwork, or of not doing things that would clearly prevent the labor. Beyond that,’ writes Hyde, ‘labor has its own schedule.’ ‘D-time’ too seems to have been impossible to rush. D’Angelo’s music engineer, as well as his longtime artistic partner and legendary musician Questlove, both confirm the same thing: ‘Once [D’Angelo] gets into the studio, he gets in his own zone’. D-time ‘speeds up for no man’.

If this is true, do the deadlines and pressures of the music industry stifle the creative impulse? Or are they there to transform one’s labor into consumer-oriented ‘art’? ‘The music business’ said D’Angelo in a recent interview, ‘is a crazy game, especially for somebody like me who is really a purist about the art. Trying to balance the pressures of commercialism [is] a tightrope. It’s a fine line between sticking to your guns and insanity.’ Once, a music video for an older song on D’Angelo’s Voodoo was once not played in rotation by MTV as punishment for the artist having missed the deadline for the album.

But, writes Hyde, the fruits of our labor cannot be predicted. In fact we can’t even know if we’ll ever finish. When things do get done however, it often seems like they’ve completed themselves. ‘Everything hinges on D letting the music go’ music journalist Amy Wallace wrote 3 years ago. Her inspired wording expressed D’Angelo’s greatest challenge: not standing in the way of his own gift.

This proved to be hard. The sultry image that D’Angelo tied himself to in 2000 seemed to have ossified into an insurmountable obstacle. The music video for Untitled made everything about the man, creating so much interest around his physical image that it overshadowed his art. ‘The narcissist’, writes Hyde, ‘works to display himself, not to suffer change.’ D’Angelo must have been well aware of the threatening spectre of narcissism, as he retells the story of beautiful Lucifer with seemingly stark lucidity in his interview with Wallace: ‘Every angel has their specialty, and his was praise. They say that he could play every instrument with one finger and that the music was just awesome. And he was exceptionally beautiful’, D’Angelo reckons, ‘as an angel.’

Most of us can hardly imagine what it’s like to be thrown into the pool of vanity that our celebrity culture so openly encourages. Despite being constantly objectified, captured in photographs, praised and ridiculed, analysed and deconstructed, the artist is expected—and has—to remain intact. Their integrity, both figurative and literal, is constantly under threat. To carry on with strong and decided focus, unfalteringly, pushing away every shred of self-doubt that’s trying to penetrate from outside within — is at once essential to being a creative artist, and an almost impossible effort.

Hyde explains that for creation to take place, the ego must temporarily disappear. Art is a virtue, and as with any virtue, practising it means effacing the mean, greedy part of ourselves. The true artist, therefore, ‘is not self-aggrandizing, self-assertive, or self-conscious, he is, rather, self-squandering, self-abnegating, self-forgetful.’

The R&B icon’s 14 years of silence, devoid of creativity, filled with substance abuse and weight gain were deplored by critics everywhere – but I suggest it was a process of self-abnegation indispensable to artistic creation. His overly-fetishised image had to be killed, the self-consciousness fame had brought had to be discarded if any more music was to flow.

The annihilation of the ego is not dictated by moral reasons. The artistic gift simply cannot come forward if encumbered by self-scrutiny. We seem to have known this through the ages. Hyde’s explanation is interspersed with numerous folk tales, and they all amount to the same conclusion: as soon as an artist starts reflecting on their gift, they cannot use it anymore. Magical, neverending supplies of craftsmanship or talent all seem to end in scarcity the moment the protagonist wants to know their origin and the inner workings of the creative process (at least during the act itself). In art you become self-forgetful, but fame makes you self-aware. Knowing people watch you makes you watch yourself. Much like a fleeting climax, the gift is lost as soon as you think about it.

As we’ve seen, sometimes it can take as much as 14 years before it shows itself again. Many have wished ardently for D’Angelo’s creative freeze to end, ‘not just for the artist’s sake, but for the culture’s.’ Long-time friend and drummer legend Questlove has accused D’Angelo of ‘holding the oxygen supply that music lovers breathe,’ calling him selfish for not sharing his gift with the ‘starving’ public. D’Angelo’s reasons for holding off may have been personal, but the responsibility he has as a gift-receiving and gift-giving artist is universal, for ‘the creative spirit moves in a body or ego larger than that of any single person.’ Whether it’s tradition, community, history or race, works of art are drawn from a territory much greater than one’s self. The duty of the receiver becomes to give the gift further. Not hoarding or capitalising it, but disbursing it and dispersing its seeds is what nourishes the communal, rich soil of artistic inspiration. This is how gifts are kept in motion, their greatness sustained by generosity.

Many artists speak of how much of their creativity comes from a source they do not control, or sometimes even comprehend. For many artists, this is simply God. Lewis Hyde calls it ‘the creative spirit’, the Maori tribespeople of New Zealand call it the nourishing spirit ‘hau’. Atheists would maybe point to psychology, neuroscience and evolutionary ‘by-products’ that explain the process by which the experience comes about. An ardent religious believer, D’Angelo has spoken on many occasions of good and evil, demons and angels that play a part in his work. Nothing seems to fill him with as much (spiritual) reverence as two African-American icons: Marvin Gaye and J Dilla.

Marvin Gaye’s death reportedly had a strong impact on Michael as a child. His mother had to seek specialised help for him, and the soul legend has been constantly reappearing in his dreams since the day he was shot. Later on, J Dilla’s death is what prompted D’Angelo’s decision to make an artistic comeback in the first place, reconnecting him with his own gift.

Before him, poets like Ezra Pound, Whitman or Pablo Neruda were all shown to have been haunted by gift-givers of their own, those they felt indebted to, whether they were personal heroes, tradition or a sense of brotherhood – these quintessential artists have dedicated a large part of their work ‘to the renewal of their spirits’, in a labor of gratitude.

Of Ezra Pound, Lewis Hyde writes:

‘For Pound, I think, what gifts we have come ultimately from the gods, but a “live tradition” is the storehouse in which the wealth of that endowment is preserved. Pound speaks certain names over and over again—Homer, Confucius, Dante, Cavalcanti—the lineage of gifted souls whose works had informed his own.’

D’Angelo confesses that he’s driven by the masters that came before him, and he and Questlove have a name for them: the Yodas. The music behemoths that have informed D’Angelo’s work are his own ‘lineage of gifted souls’.

New creation, in an attitude of humility and generosity — is often the only possible way of showing one’s gratitude. Generosity means to generate. ‘The return gift is, then, the fertilizer that assures the fertility of the source.’ After his Voodoo album in 2000, D’Angelo went through a creative freeze. ‘The talent which is not in use is lost or atrophies’, and letting that happen is the greatest sign of ingratitude. Everyone was wondering if he would be able to honour his own ‘lineage of gifted souls’. Would the lavishly imparted talent and untimely deaths of the Yodas make him reach his true potential?

The Labor of Gratitude

On that exceptionally warm winter evening, I saw D’Angelo perform as part of his 2015 comeback tour, in Berlin. His performance reminded me of a particularly beautiful passage from ‘The Gift’’:

‘Sometimes, then, if we are awake, if the artist really was gifted, the work will induce a moment of grace, a communion, a period during which we too know the hidden coherence of our being and feel the fullness of our lives.’

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that D’Angelo’s performance induced such a sense of borderline religious togetherness. His new album is flawless, and his live energy difficult to describe. It felt as if the stage was eerily taken over by Otis Redding, James Brown, or Marvin Gaye himself.

What made the performance unique though was a palpable feeling of mutual transformation and enrichment between him and the audience, rather than the one-way transmission all-too-familiar in music gigs. The performance was so intense that it made me think this was an act of altruism more than anything else. We, music-lovers, were no longer starving. We got back our oxygen supply. D’Angelo was repaying his gift, and in doing so, he has finally earned it.

The concert ended with Untitled. However, the song had little of the raw sexuality it was once infused with; instead, after 14 years, this version was subtle and soft, melancholic perhaps, emanating a fragile but strong, beautiful intimacy between him and the fans. The closeness felt rare for an artist of such stature. The gratitude was overwhelming. It was probably a moment of grace.

Suddenly, money felt inappropriate. Even the 70 euros I paid for the ticket – a considerable sum of money for an average, middle-class person, didn’t seem to be ‘enough’. But 100 euros wouldn’t have been enough either. Or 500. Or a beach house in Malibu.

The question is not how much money we should pay, but whether money is an adequate payment.

The essence of the artistic gift is that it transforms. Gratitude cannot be shown before the transformation has taken place, as the two are interlinked. The best way to show gratitude is by creating, and then giving, something of one’s own, but we only truly create when something inside us has been moved. D’Angelo’s gift was stirred by his Yodas, and in turn, some in his audience were moved to tears. Art, in this light, is a cycle.

As Hyde puts it,

‘The charging of fees for service tends to cut off the motivating force of gratitude. . . . Gratitude requires an unpaid debt, and we will be motivated to proceed only so long as the debt is felt. If we stop feeling indebted we quit, and rightly so. To sell a transformative gift therefore falsifies the relationship; it implies that the return gift has been made when in fact it can’t be made until the transformation is finished. A prepaid fee suspends the weight of the gift and depotentiates it as an agent of change.’

Money seems an inadequate form of payment, but we cannot repay art with obsessive adoration or by fetishising fame either. Everybody’s genius, like Socrates’ inner daimon, is a private matter: when people found out about it, his demise ensued. When the world obsesses over an artist’s persona, they force the artist to obsess over themselves and the flow of creativity is cut short.

After experiencing ‘gifts’, in our little moments of appreciative lucidity, we can (and should) contemplate the idea that some things deserve a more complex, long-term form of payment. In striving to do this, we might become, in turn, creators. An intense artistic experience could make us wonder–what can I give back? We have received a gift, and it’s up to us what we do with it.

Our labor of gratitude begins now.


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