The Devil’s Beat: Vodou and Rock Music

The art and spirituality of Vodou (also voodoo) has long typified the Afro-Caribbean culture, but has also been subject to great scorn and judgment from imposing communities. A complex faith full of altars, spirits, charged objects, and possession, much of Vodou’s threatening qualities stem from its roots in spells and curses, and the mere fact that it is so culturally different from Western Civilization. Because of this, traditional society has long wanted little to do with it. While campaigns and veritable witch-hunts have long been organized to stamp out and convert the Vodou culture, its power has not only bled into other aspects of society, but also wordlessly inspired some of the most groundbreaking and popular music in the United States and beyond. The influence of Vodou on rock n’ roll is not widely discussed. To truly understand the power and resonance of early rock music, however, is undoubtedly to dive into the world of Vodou and recognize the power of possession as something much more familiar than one may like to admit.

African influence on music is evident. From the basic beat of drums to the power of a rhythm, Africans—and more specifically African Americans—are the creative forces behind Blues, jazz, R&B, hip-hop, and rap music. The genesis of rock n’ roll, however, is often not credited to the genius of African peoples in any capacity. The myriad of notorious rockers—from the Doors to Janis Joplin to The Rolling Stones—notably lack many characters of African heritage, with Jimi Hendrix being the most obvious and significant exception. Rock n’ roll, however, did not appear overnight, nor was it entirely the brainchild of white men. Rather, it was the product of a multitude of other music styles, most obviously inspired by the blues. The very spirit of rock music—the reason it sparked an indescribable phenomena—was largely rooted in resistance, rebellion, autonomy, and, quite often, an unapologetic debauchery. To love rock n’ roll was to lose oneself in it, to give oneself away to it. Rock music was never about establishing control; it was always about letting the music take over you. Almost like a spirit.

The music of The Rolling Stones in particular is full of Afro-Caribbean influence and Vodou references. Aside from the fact that the very name “Rolling Stones” came from a blues ballad by Muddy Waters, much of the mysticism and emotional release in the Stones’ music is at least comparable to, if not explicitly derived from, Vodou concepts:

“From their earliest records the Rolling Stones embellish Black expressiveness; Mick Jagger’s vocals usually include an amount of distortion, groans, moans, howls and screams, often using phrasing that is barely intelligible. Again, emotional feeling is emphasized over and above articulation, and as in African music, the repetition of phrasing and rhythm often leads to a creation and resolution of tension, sometimes producing hypnotic trance-like states.” (Wells, 17-18)

Such hypnotic, trance-like states that harken back to Vodou spirits, or lwa characters are not the only visible connection between The Rolling Stones and Haitian Vodou. In fact, the very dress style of foreman Mick Jagger suggests a deference paid to the infamous Haitian lwa Baron Samedi, also known as Papa Guede. Given the fact that plenty of celebrities, including Jagger himself spent time in Haiti during the 1970s and 1980s, most specifically at the Hotel Oloffson in Port-Au-Prince (they even named one of the rooms after him), this makes sense. The Baron, a graveyard keeper notorious for his debauched behavior and tendency to stir up trouble, is usually depicted wearing a tuxedo jacket, flamboyant dress, and runs around barefoot, clad with a top hat to polish of his look. While Mick Jagger certainly took a cue from his British heritage to round out his outlandish, dandy fashion sense and further his “Artful Dodger”-esque qualities, influences of Baron Samedi also remain evident. In fact, the Baron is much like a Dodger, with his mysterious elusiveness, flagrant disregard for the conventions of society, and hypersexualized persona. In fact, each of these aforementioned qualities speaks to the draw of rock music and its liberating power.

Rock music is so tied to Afro-Caribbean culture that in fact, “The roots of rock are in a West African word for dance — rak.” (Devi, May 2012.). And more than that, “Mojo, a word found in many a rock and blues tune, is Ki-Kongo for “soul” (Ventura, 2). Finally, the word “boogie” comes from “the Ki-Kongon mbugi, meaning…“devilishly good.” Juke, as in our jukebox and juke joint… is the Mande-kan word for “bad,” for among righteous blacks as well as righteous whites, this was bad music played by bad people in bad places”(Ventura, 2). The very essence of modern music, the element that electrifies listeners with feeling—so much so that their body cannot withstand the groove-is African in origin, right down to the vocabulary used to describe the sensation of song.

The lyrics of popular rock songs both explicitly and implicitly refer to Vodou culture, with “Voodoo Child” and “Voodoo Chile” being the most obvious examples. Jimi Hendrix’s electric rock anthems broke the boundary of guitar solos and rock n’ roll mastery on his final album, Electric Ladyland (1968). Although not a Vodou initiate himself, the songs pay homage to a sort of wild, spiritual, and fluid power of Vodou (here Voodoo). In “Voodoo Child,” Hendrix sings in a haunting, almost other-worldly tone, “Well I pick up all the pieces and make an island/Might even raise just a little sand/’Cause I’m a voodoo child/Lord knows I’m a voodoo child.” In “Voodoo Chile,” of the same album, he moans: “‘Cause I’m a million miles away/ And at the same time I’m right here in your picture frame.” The lyrics speak to the omnipotence and all-encompassing powers of both rock n’ roll and Vodou.

The music of The Rolling Stones is also rich with the untethered, debauched sexuality and mystic darkness of Vodou culture, the very qualities that often earn Vodou a reputation for “black magic.” Similarly the Rolling Stones, beloved and worshipped by liberal, progressive, and young rockers, groupies, and hippies, was demonized by the uptight echelons of society, damning the group of radical men for their careless regard for propriety and overt sexual declamations. (Like Baron Samedi, the Rolling Stones openly shirked traditional social conventions in favor of a more vagabon lifestyle.) The vagabon figure, so prevalent in Haitian and general Caribbean culture, can be applied not only to the rocker, but also to a broader class of defiant male ne’er-do-wells across the globe who likely associated with this style of music during the 1960s and onward:

“The point is that the vagabon is only one permutation of a broader complex masculine identities that are intimately connected with the structures and strictures that both revile and define them. But the vagabon and his cohort are revered as antiheroes because they flaunt their exclusion.” (Smith, 131-132).

The lyrics of “I Go Wild,” from the 1994 appropriately named album Voodoo Lounge embody that willingness to flaunt that carelessness and act upon a desire so powerful it is as though it comes from an external force. The song even uses imagery of slavery to express the emotion: “You whipped me I’m hurting/Abused me for certain/And slavery should not exist/Is this what I get a poison kiss/And daylight drabs and nighttime witches/And working girls and blue stockings/And dance hall babes and body poppers/…I go wild when you’re in my face/And I’m entranced in a state of grace.” Also off of Voodoo Lounge, “Suck on the Jugular”suggests ideas that could be construed as Vodou-influenced. For instance, “Suck on the jugular/Love to change my shape/And change my name/Want to get out of myself for awhile/ Don’t feel no shame/ I love men to be men/And women women/On special occasions/Diving and dipping.” The expression of desire to lose oneself for awhile, to change one’s human shape and exist in another capacity parallels much of the Vodou concepts of possession.

The connections with dark powers, sacrifice, and black magic has been misunderstood and largely falsified in Vodou culture, though connections with complex spirits and lwa is undoubtedly integral to the religion. Much like with rock music, however, these connections are less about devil worship and more about rebellion and spiritual fluidity—despite opinions to the contrary. Haitian Vodou and its robust origins merely operate from a very different place of understanding and spirituality, one that a heavily Anglicized world of power has come to understand as blasphemous, hedonistic, and dangerous. This is the reason Protestant missionaries flock to Haiti with the intention of beating Vodou out of the nation. This is the reason parents of rock n’ roll worshipers in the 1960-1970s scorned the music as a product of the anti-Christ, corrupting the impressionable youth:

“This particular attention to the devil as a symbol of cultural rebellion reached its apex in the 1960s when Mick Jagger himself was referred to as “the devil”…perhaps the Rolling Stones felt closer to the devil because of their obvious rejection of Puritanism, and of course the devil has been called the first rebel with a cause” (Wells, 22).

Perhaps more than anything else, however, the lyrics of these musicians suggest that they were unafraid to sit down with the devil. And maybe in doing so, discover that he was not the devil at all, but rather a new fleet of spirits, desires, and sinners they could relate to—and their fans could relate to. The music and its dark, honest, outrageous, previously taboo qualities and subject matter, mixed with the power of the beat sent people into a crazed, and sometimes catatonic state.

In a longstanding culture of appropriation at worst and lack of credit given at best, it is difficult to understand the proper way to think or feel about Rock ‘N Roll’s deep connections to African and Afro-Caribbean cultures, particularly that of Vodou. I would argue it was not wrong or upsetting that the culture at least partially inspired such an earth-shattering type of music, but rather it is disheartening that the complexity of its origins are so sparsely realized by the masses. As with many other African and Caribbean contributions to society, however, the story’s tangled web of truth remains in the shadows.

Who could deny that African culture and all its offshoots have been ignored, reclaimed, and reappropriated for centuries? Who could deny that any tangible and obvious respect for Afro-Caribbean culture is not coincidentally missing from daily life? The spiritual aspects of African offshoot culture in particular, be it Yoruba spirituality, Candomble, Santeria, or Vodou (voodoo), are considered fake, taboo, or devilish in many social circles. Western spirituality of mind-body Christian religion took over any pagan or diverse belief systems long ago, and thus African spirituality is rarely sought after on a grand scale. Perhaps we have been engaging in it, however, for longer than anyone thought. Perhaps American society in particular has been experiencing a not so detached Vodou possession since the dawn of rock n’ roll. If possession means to be altered, to no longer fully belong to the constraints of the self—even if only for a moment, then most anyone who has listened and loved rock music might say they have been possessed. Perhaps the reason fans blindly forgive musicians for a multitude of ills and lifestyle discrepancies is because those musicians call upon some murky, locked up aspect of their spirit, and at long last let it loose, similar to the way the imperfect Vodou lwa overcome initiates. That very process is Vodou. This very action is inherently African syncretic.

 

 

Sources Cited:

Devi, Debra.“Possessed: Voodoo’s Origins and Influence from the Blues to Britney.” Huffington Post. 16 May 2012. Online. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/debra-devi/voodoo_b_1518269.html

Hendrix, Jimi. “Voodoo Chile.” The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Electric Ladyland. 1968. CD.

Hendrix, Jimi. “Voodoo Child.” The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Electric Ladyland. 1968. CD.

Jagger, Mick, and Keith Richards. “Suck on the Jugular.” The Rolling Stones, Voodoo Lounge. 1994. CD.

Jagger, Mick, and Keith Richards. “I Go Wild.” The Rolling Stones, Voodoo Lounge. 1994. CD.

Smith, Katherine. “Atis Rezistans: Gede and the Art of Vagabondaj” in Obeah and Other Powers: The Politics of Caribbean Religion and Healing. Edited by Diana Paton and Maarit Forde. (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2012,) 131-132.

Ventura, Michael. “Hear That Long Snake Moan” in Shadow Dancing In The USA (Tarcher’s/St. Martin’s Press, 1985,) 2-9.

 

Wells, John D. “Me and the Devil Blues: A Study of Robert Johnson and the Music of The Rolling Stones, Popular Music and Society,” (1983,) 17-24.

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