OAKLAND, CALIF. — In early June, before the shootings in Charleston, S.C., the R&B singer D’Angelo stood beneath the blood-red awning of the It’s All Good Bakery here, peering into the window of the building that served as the first office for the Black Panther Party. At another stop, beneath a street lamp on Seventh Avenue, he stood where the group carried out its first observation of law enforcement.
In the wake of recent killings of unarmed African-American men, D’Angelo has grown increasingly frustrated with racial injustice and has been looking at the political movements of the past for ideas for change. “There’s got to be a way, right?” he asked his tour guide, Bobby Seale.
“It has to go beyond just sitting and arguing and debating,” replied Mr. Seale, who formed the Black Panthers with Huey P. Newton in 1966. Throughout the evening, Mr. Seale stressed the importance of getting more African-Americans elected to office. “Political seats — you make the laws, you change the laws,” he said.
D’Angelo, 41, and Mr. Seale, 78, had met for the first time just a few hours earlier, but the survey of sites significant to the Black Panthers in Oakland and in Berkeley had been in the works for weeks, at the suggestion of D’Angelo, who first became interested in the militant groups as a teenager in Richmond, Va. (A reporter was invited to come along.)
For more than a decade, D’Angelo stayed out of the public eye, overwhelmed by the attention that came with his acclaimed 2000 album “Voodoo.” But he has long been concerned with issues of racial inequality and police brutality, he said, and after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., last year, he felt compelled to speak out. In December, he surprised fans by suddenly releasing the album “Black Messiah,” named after a term J. Edgar Hoover used to describe any charismatic black leader who could galvanize a movement. The album is searching and biting in its social commentary. On “The Charade,” D’Angelo sings, “All we wanted was a chance to talk/’Stead we only got outlined in chalk.” (D’Angelo and the Vanguard will perform at the Forest Hills Stadium on Sunday).
Mr. Seale has been an activist for half a century. He served as a spokesman for the Panthers in the late 1960s and ended his relationship with the group in 1974, after renouncing violence. As part of the Chicago Eight, he and other protesters were charged with conspiracy and inciting riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Mr. Seale’s trial was severed from the proceedings, and he was imprisoned for contempt from 1969 to 1972.
Dressed in a black suede jacket and matching fedora, D’Angelo came across as an eager, patient student who’d done his research as he and Mr. Seale, in khakis and an undone tie, drove around in a borrowed 1964 Ford Falcon convertible. Over dinner later that night, they continued a passionate discussion about political action and the role of musicians in inspiring social change. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q D’Angelo, you seem almost giddy in the presence of Mr. Seale.
D’ANGELO This is a dream. It’s very rare you get to meet one of your heroes. It’s like that guy, Phoenix Jones, in Seattle who dresses up like a superhero. This is real life. Bobby didn’t dress up.
SEALE Thank you, brother.
Q With “Black Messiah,” you exhibited a political side not previously seen in your music.
D’ANGELO I’ve always kind of tried to do something that was a little different than just simple “I love you, baby”-type songs. Like “Brown Sugar,” it was a metaphor, or a double entendre, if you will. A lot of people thought I was talking about a girl when I was actually talking about something else. I was trying to tackle some issues on “Devil’s Pie.” But on this album in particular, before the songs were even written, I knew that the name of it was going to be “Black Messiah.” There are also songs that didn’t make the record but that I’m getting ready to release in the fall. I got a song called “Go and Tell Bro.”
SEALE Not COINTELPRO — “Go and Tell Bro”?
D’ANGELO Right. The chorus goes — [sings] “Every time I turn my head, it’s the same old thing again, ain’t much different now than it was back then.”
SEALE What crept in my head right then was that we gotta go tell our brothers about getting greater community control of the police with respect to the Black Lives Matter issue.
A protest in Washington over the shooting death of Michael Brown. Credit, Jose Luis Magana | Associated Press
D’ANGELO Yes. [Sings] “There’s a number on your head/it’s the same old thing again.” There’s so many parallels going on between now and your time. And it’s the same fight with the police.
SEALE That’s true. You can’t get around it.
Q What goes through your minds when you see young black men and women taking to the streets?
D’ANGELO I’ll tell you how I feel: I feel awesome. What people call a riot I call a rebellion. In my humble opinion the word “riot” is used by the media to dismiss or degenerate what’s really happening. Everybody knows the looting and burning is the voice of the unheard.
SEALE What I was glad about Ferguson was that the federal government went in and stepped in to investigate. I want to see 1,001 people like the Baltimore [state’s attorney] sister Marilyn Mosby. She ran over there with her power, her political power seat, and then indicted [six police officers accused of involvement in the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore in April]. A grand jury indictment. I’m like, right on, sister!
Q Do you see value in protests? The Panthers were never big on them.
Mr. Seale, left, and Huey P. Newton in 1969.
SEALE Oh, sure! How many people, though, are doing the right things in the political seats?
D’ANGELO Corporations are funding these private prisons, and they’re building them left and right and kids are going to school, coming right out of school and going to these prisons. It’s like modern-day slavery. Michelle Alexander wrote that book “The New Jim Crow.” It’s disheartening. It’s been constantly going on forever. And here we still are.
Q Does music play a role in helping ignite social change?
D’ANGELO Now more than ever is the need to sing about it and to write songs about it. And no one’s doing it. There’s only a chosen couple of people. I think it just takes one little snowflake to start a snowball to go down the hill. My contribution and say, Kendrick Lamar’s and some chosen others’ start the snowball. That’s all I can hope for. I don’t know if I’m comfortable being quote-unquote a leader. But I do realize and understand that my role as a musician, and in the medium that I am, that people are listening to me. Kids are listening to me. We have power to influence minds and influence lives. So I respect that power. I really do. I’m not putting myself on a pedestal or anything like that. I think that’s dangerous. When you start playing with that, and you’re not careful, you can get yourself into trouble.
SEALE That’s right. My man Huey Newton got himself into trouble.
D’ANGELO Coming up, the music of my era was very conscious. I grew up on Public Enemy, and it was popular culture to be aware. People were wearing Malcolm X T-shirts and Malcolm X hats. It was a very cool thing to know who Malcolm X was. It was all in the lyrics. It was trendy to be conscious and aware. Now the trend … it’s just [expletive]. But to tell you the truth, there are a lot of people who feel the same way that I feel and that are making great music, conscious music. But for some reason or another it seems like the gatekeepers are not allowing that stuff to filter through to the mainstream. Kendrick Lamar, he’s an example of someone who is young and actually trying to say something. Who else? You got Young Jeezy and Young Thug. You know what I’m saying? It’s stupid. It’s ridiculous.
D’Angelo and the Vanguard at the Apollo Theater in February. Credit, Chad Batka | The New York Times
SEALE On the Black Lives Matter [front], I’m pushing for the youth in these groups to get more political and more electoral; you’ve got to take over some of these seats. And you’ve got to get more Mosbys elected to some of these political offices. And you got to put some measures on the ballot. I didn’t start the Black Panther Party until 1966. This was the year that Stokely Carmichael came out with black power. They understood that we need political seats. You could change the whole spectrum. You could change the city laws. This is what you do.
Q A major issue right now is some cities where law enforcement is disengaged from the communities it patrols.
SEALE There are good cops, straight cops. They don’t run around brutalizing people for the sake of brutalizing people. They’re my friends. I want people to make that distinction. I know why the riots happened, and I know they’re going to happen as long as we have this rampant police brutality going on and there’s no justice going. But I discourage it. I put straight up on my Facebook: “We do not assassinate police! We will not stoop to the low scurvy mentality and the level of a murderer, a fascist, a racist, etc. We don’t do that!”
D’ANGELO It’s really about awareness. Before you can really change anything, you have to know what it is that you’re trying to change. You have to know the forces that are against you and that are trying to break you down. We talk about the problems facing the black community: the decimation of the black family; the mass incarceration of the black man; we’re talking about the brutality against black people from the police. The educational system.
SEALE Economic exploitation.
D’ANGELO Yeah. I say this in my song “The Charade”: “Crawling through a systematic maze of demise.” Because it really is a systematic decimation of us. And in order for us to change it, we’ve got to first realize that that’s what’s happening to us. It needs a true agenda, a central committee, some type of leadership. Otherwise it does just end up being a hashtag, #Black Lives Matter. I do think it’s more than a statement. It’s a movement. I’m scared, though, that it’s in danger of not going anywhere. It’s just going to fizzle.
SEALE You have to keep it going. You can’t let it quiet down.