Jordan Peele’s sprawling sci-fi horror flick Nope was inspired, in part, by a burned CD a friend handed him in the mid-2000s. Scrawled, simply, with the word “Exuma,” the CD contained cult Bahamian performer Tony Mackey’s 1970 debut — and the kernel that would become an epic film about the Black figures history has forgotten.
“I immediately responded to the haunting and elemental quality of his music,” Peele tells Rolling Stone of Exuma, whose records are basically aural movies about zombies, gods, and slaves rising up to punish their oppressors — with a parade or two thrown in for good measure. “I remember having this startling takeaway that: here was such an influential and important musician that I hadn’t heard for the first half of my life. Mackey was such an amazing artist, and he hadn’t been given the proper respect his work deserved.”
Tony Mackey borrowed his stage name from an island district in the Bahamas, moving to New York and the Greenwich music scene in 1961, where he meshed modern rock & roll with the sounds and traditions of his homeland. A central figure in his music was the Obeah Man, a kind of mystical creature from local legends. “He’s the one with the colorful robes who would deal with the elements and the moonrise, the clouds, and the vibrations of the earth,” Mackey said in an interview. Although Mackey had some industry support for his debut — Nina Simone even covered a few of his songs — his music was just too… out there to be marketable in a fickle business like entertainment. Still, he was a mainstay at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and wrote music and plays, and made art until his death in 1997. He’s also managed to find a niche among cratediggers and music lovers with a taste for the beautiful and bizarre — including Peele.
According to the Get Out director, Mackey’s de facto theme song “Exuma, the Obeah Man” was on his mind when he first started writing Nope. The song is essentially a bombastic boast track about how Exuma came to Earth on a lightning bolt to do magic and solve his people’s ills. “[Obeah] was with my grandfather, with my father, with my mother, with my uncles who taught me,” Mackey said in a 1970 interview. “It has been my religion in the vein that everyone has grown up with some sort of religion. … He unlocked the secrets to Moses, good and evil, so Moses could help the children of Israel. It’s the same thing, the whole completeness — the Obeah Man, spirits of air.”
The song crops up at a pivotal point in the movie, which follows the plight of siblings OJ and Emerald Haywood as they attempt to save their father’s Hollywood horse-training business — the only Black-owned operation of its kind — by catching an extraterrestrial creature on camera. (That’s as simple a description we can give without major spoilers.) “From early on in the writing phase, ‘The Obeah Man’ is the one song that was in the script exactly where it ended up being in the final cut of the movie,” Peele says. “It comes in at a moment when Emerald is in her father’s office and reflecting on this person in her life that she’s lost and hasn’t fully paid tribute to in death. The song’s lyrics describe this great, mystical figure who is in many ways representative of [their father] Otis Sr.”
Peele says the song is a kind of “anthem” for the family, as “at its core, this movie is about giving agency to the erased or underappreciated figures in history – which ties in directly with Exuma and his legacy.” As Emerald explains during an early scene, their business was founded by their ancestor, Bahamian jockey Alasdair E. Haywood, who was based on the unknown Black man in pioneering photographer Eadweard Muybridge’s early moving pictures. “That was intended to build a direct connection to Exuma’s music, Black Westerns, and the Haywood family legacy,” Peele says.
“You develop a very special relationship when you discover an underappreciated artist like this later in life, and on a personal level, I made a connection and identified with this feeling of him being an outsider,” he adds.