In a season of stunning Saturday Night Live bookings like Chris Rock, Prince and Eddie Murphy, the biggest surprise yet was D’Angelo landing a musical guest spot, a performance that wasn’t on anyone’s radar just two months ago. The soul singer and his backing band the Vanguard hit the SNL stage to play a pair of tracks off their acclaimed Black Messiah.
While D’Angelo had been road-testing his Black Messiah songs in concert in recent years, SNL provided a chance to showcase the tracks to the greater public as well as further spread the new album’s powerful message. That happened during D’Angelo’s second song of the night, “The Charade.”
For the Black Messiah track, D’Angelo wore a hoodie to salute Trayvon Martin while the Vanguard donned shirts with the words “I Can’t Breathe,” a tribute to Eric Garner. On the Studio 8H floor laid a chalk outline of a human body, D’Angelo’s nod to the song’s lyrics and Michael Brown.
The deaths of Garner and Brown and the subsequent grand jury decisions not to press charges against police officers in both cases fueled D’Angelo to complete and rush-release Black Messiah, and with his outstanding SNL visit, he delivered his message loudly: “Black Lives Matter.”
D’Angelo kicked off his SNL appearance on a quieter note with the flamenco-flavored ballad “Really Love,” with the singer dressing up for the part by rocking a poncho over his well-tailored suit and topping it off with an Old West-style hat. The performance also offered up a live look at the Vanguard, which includes guitarists Jesse Johnson (of The Time) and Isaiah Sharkey, Prince drummer John Blackwell, the Who bassist Pino Palladino and keyboardist Cleo “Pookie” Sample.
D’Angelo and the Vanguard will spotlight their Black Messiah in greater detail when they perform at Harlem’s Apollo Theater on February 7th, their only U.S. date before embarking on a month-long trek of Europe.