The United States of Hoodoo—An Interview with Darius James

Darius James & Ghazi Barakat

Darius James and I first met in the late nineties in NYC. We encountered each other again a couple of years later when we were both living in Berlin, and developed a friendship. He helped me write a bio for my musical project, Boy from Brazil, and we collaborated on subcultural events in Berlin until he returned to the U.S. in 2007. After five years of sporadic correspondence, Darius came back to Germany in the summer of 2012 to present a documentary movie in which he stars called The United States of Hoodoo. The film premiered in Frankfurt and Berlin in late July, and I had the honor of playing a special Voodoo set at the after-party. Darius was kind enough to suggest to the editors of Sensitive Skin that I conduct the following interview—more honor, more death, more glory. We hung out at my Kreuzberg flat early this August and ran the voodoo down like we used to, only this time, a tape was running.

—Ghazi Barakat

 

Ghazi: Making a film seems like a logical followup to Negrophobia and That’s Blaxploitation!—they’re both very cinematic books—TB even had the little flip-book movie in it! What’s it like to be working in cinema?

Darius: I discovered that you need smart people to make a good film. It doesn’t matter how much money you have. If you’re all on the same page, relatively speaking, and focused, it can happen. I’ve always wanted to be involved in films, since I was a child. I started making eight-millimeter movies when I was a kid, and I continued making small films up to puberty. That changed when I discovered writing—you know, film requires a lot of money, equipment and people. Whereas you sit down with a pen and paper and you can write.

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G: But making films is more of a communal experience.

D: Which is great, I want to continue with filmmaking.

G: With Oliver [Hardt, director and cowriter of United States of Hoodoo]? You have new ideas?

D: I’m working with someone now on a new project that concerns the darker aspects of Sammy Davis Junior’s life.

G: Wasn’t Sammy Davis a member of the Church of Satan?

D: Yes, which is the reason I got involved in the project.

G: I remember the parts with Sammy Davis in Linda Lovelace’s book Ordeal, which was wonderful. How did the idea for United States of Hoodoo come about, since you cowrote the script and also appear in the movie?

D: The idea for a book started probably in 1985, maybe 1986.

G: What kind of book was this going to be?

D: I wanted to do a book on voodoo. Previously, I had been employed as a researcher for Michael O’Donoghue, the former National Lampoon and Saturday Night Live writer. I was working specifically on the Easy Rider sequel. It was called Biker Heaven. There was a sequence in the film that involved these bike-riding pagan witches. Part of my job was to get real information on witches. So I got involved with a group of witches from the Lower East Side and learned a number of spells, things like that, and different pseudo traditions of paganistic feminist witchcraft, okay? Through that experience, I became rather proficient in doing certain kinds of spells. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the process of doing these spells always involved candle-gazing meditation. That is where the real power comes from—meditation. This internal psychic energy is what you’re drawing from. This energy was never really something external. At a certain point, these witches got pissed at me and started throwing curses at the apartment I was living in. This was my first wizard war. At the end of this episode, I was on a train to New Haven and I ran into somebody from the New Haven occult scene. They told me that these people were pissed that I had a certain power object that was given to me by a former member of their coven. Basically, they said they didn’t want black people involved in what they were doing. “We’re Celts,” they said. “We’re Druids. We’re white people and blah blah blah. What you need to do is get involved with voodoo.”

United States of Hoodoo poster

G: I remember you telling me, a few years ago, about the idea of a voodoo cookbook . . .

D: Well, I’m starting from the beginning. What eventually happened is that my friend Sally, whom I’ve been corresponding with for years—

G: Sally is in the movie?

D: Yes, the voodoo priestess in the film. We’ve known each other since high school. She was aware of me long before we met, because of her mother. Her mother was a drama teacher of mine and she use to come home and complain about me, so that’s how Sally was aware of who I was. Let me see if I can speed this up a bit. Anyway, she was interested in the OTO, I hooked her up with the OTO, so she joined the OTO and eventually rose rather quickly through the ranks, where in fact she was the second in charge of this international order. If the caliph was out of the country for more than twenty-four hours, Sally was the official head of the order.

G: So we’re still on the “white” black-magic side of the subject?

D: Yes. She eventually left the OTO for political reasons. She devoted herself to the study of voodoo and became really adept. What people don’t realize—because the question always comes up as to why this middle-aged Jewish white woman is talking about voodoo—is that she has lineage as far as spiritual study is concerned—like, who is your teacher? Who is your teacher’s teacher? Who is their teacher? So there is a lineage, a line, like the students in kung fu movies. Sally is a direct linear descendant of Maya Deren, the dancer/filmmaker/author, who’s known for her experimental films and this anthropological documentary called Divine Horsemen, as well as a book of the same title. Now, who was Maya Deren’s teacher? That was Katherine Dunham. Katherine Dunham was a choreographer and anthropologist who is responsible for, among many other things, introducing authentic vodoun dance into Hollywood films. She is best known for Cabin in the Sky. She did the dance sequence at the end of the film Stormy Weather, the title song of which Lena Horne sang. Now, the thing with Katherine Dunham is, she trained, or so-called “initiated,” a number of important black American choreographers into the nature of vodoun dance. Alvin Ailey, Geoffrey Holder, Lena Horne, all of whom were once members of her dance company. Eartha Kitt, these people, you know. Except, here, vodoun dance is presented as art, a religious experience behind the mask of art. Whereas in more forbidden times, during the times of slavery, voodoo was masked by Catholicism, saints, things like that, and nowadays voodoo wears the mask of art. Art is where you can project vodoun energies, but it’s known by a different name. I think what I should do now is define what voodoo is. Voodoo is a religion, it’s a religion that’s danced, that’s transmitted through music, e.g., drum rhythms and song. The combination puts one in a trance state where the ego is lost and is replaced by a feeling of ecstasy, a feeling of the divine, a feeling of God.

G: I always thought that voodoo was also the beginning of psychoanalysis through psychodrama, by living out certain taboos, by doing the things you can’t really do in normal society. That you can live out all these energies that are obviously in us—Greek mythology for me has a similar function. It’s more than just religion, it’s resolving inner conflicts in the community and with yourself. In Haitian voodoo, you get possessed by a spirit of the opposite sex, like the very feminine Erzulie, which might be helpful to overcome homophobia, but maybe that came from the pirates, maybe it’s different in Benin.

D: I don’t know about Benin. I’m trying to talk about how voodoo has manifested in American culture. Obviously, there are many miles between Africans and African-Americans. African-Americans aren’t simply African-Americans, they are many things. I had the idea for this project for years. I was stopped from doing it for various reasons. In Berlin, I found myself in a position where I could finally work on it. So I wrote a proposal of about forty pages for a book. I gave it to my then so-called agents to shop around. They kept coming back with rejections from all the major New York publishing houses. What my agents were telling me was, one, the editors wanted me to take an academic approach, which I refused to do, because there are too many academic books on the subject and I think it should be approached from a personal, exploratory point of view. What does it feel like, the voodoo experience, you know? And, two, they all claimed they didn’t understand what I wanted to do. When that happened, I sent the first few pages of the proposal to Oliver Hardt, whom I had worked with previously on a documentary called Black Deutschland. This was a film about blacks in Germany. I sent it to him because English was his second language, and if he didn’t understand what I wanted to do, that meant there was something wrong with my writing. I was communicating ineffectively. If he came back and said he understood, then there was something fucked up with the editors who rejected the project. So he came back to me and said he understood the project perfectly and in fact he would like to make a film based on what I had presented. And from there, he spent three years raising the money from a film company he’s a part of in Frankfurt, and they managed to get some money from Arte.

Darius James in NYC

G: So it was a lucky accident. You just wanted his opinion and he said, “I’ll do it!”

D: Yeah.

G: The United States of Hoodoo is a very personal road movie revolving around your history and cultural interests. I wanted to know your personal standpoint towards cinema as a writer and also under which criteria you chose the characters involved. You’ve talked about Sally already, and it seems you had her in mind from the beginning, but there are also the other quite interesting characters.

D: I did a lot of studying and talked to a lot of people from the beginning. I started this in 2000. I corresponded with a number of people that I wanted to include in this project. Obviously, many of them didn’t even get to the interview stage. Lots of people were either people that I knew previously, who had a feeling for the subject I wanted to talk about. Some of them I met on the road, some of them were people that Oliver had discovered. So basically, we put these people together.

G: How did you discover Val, the Haitian girl who lives in New York and makes this amazing modern electronic voodoo jazz?

D: She was one of the people whom Oliver had found. He had gone to an exhibition at the Caribbean Cultural Center, and he saw a videotape and thought she might be interesting. I saw a video clip and listened to her music, and I thought why not, we can talk with her. However, when we actually shot, it was the first time I had met her, and I could tell she was the real thing. Because of her music, yes, but [also because], when we entered into her space, she was totally serious. Not because of the altars and the various power objects within—it was just the vibe she gave off, the vibe in the apartment, and we hit it off like that. It was natural. We met Hassan on the day we shot in Sally’s temple. In the film, you see him coming in on a bicycle, dressed in white, and he smiles at camera. That’s the first time we’d ever seen him. Because he was one of the few black faces in a sea of white people, Oliver thought it might be a good idea to speak with him.

G: That’s the piano player who explains the rhythms? What’s his full name?

D: Hassan Sekou Allen. There’s also Joe Marini, whom I met New Year’s Eve 2006. I was stumbling out of a bar in Manhattan and he, just, out of the blue, said, “You have Indian blood, don’t you?” And I said, “Yeah!” And he said, “I could tell,” and went into this whole spirit-reading thing.

G: Who is he in the movie?

D: He appears briefly while we’re talking with Danny Simmons in his apartment in Brooklyn with all the masks. He’s the Palo Mayombe priest. He was really interesting.

G: They both seemed to be. I liked their attitude, anthropological on one side, but also very human. Very open, and a nice vibe toward the whole subject.

D: I mean, that was Joe’s life. He comes from a family of Santeros, and he went to what some might consider the “darker side” of Santeria.

G: Is there an even darker side of Santeria? I thought Santeria is already on the dark side.

D: Well, there are people within the religion who deal specifically with demons, and that was his speciality.

G: So he’s an exorcist?

United States of Hoodoo mural

D: Yeah, he wrestles with demons, communicates with them. I mean, these are people who literally talk with spirits. You look at them and they’re just off, like, babbling. I mean, Sally’s papa, Edgar, whom we didn’t really explore in the film—he’s mentioned, we acknowledge him in the film. When I first met him a few years before, the guy would just sit in a garden, you know, talk to the trees, various spirits, things like that. I mean, he was out! Sally acted as an interpreter between us, and we just had this wild conversation, ’cause I don’t speak French Creole, French Haitian Creole, or any kind of French.

G: She’s Creole?

D: No, she’s a Russian-American Jew.

G: Because you said papa, I thought it was her father. You meant hougan?

D: Yeah, the papa. They are seen as family, and we’re talking lineage, right? Because most people who are raised in those traditions are raised in it through their family.

G: The three main facets of the feature are art, music and cuisine. Is there a red line going through your journey in regard to those?

D: Yes, there was a red line: they were connections I had already made. In terms of cooking, drawing from different cuisines to create this unique thing. You know, if you look at old witchcraft books from the seventies that have spells in them, [they] look like cookbooks.

G: Well, yeah, they’re recipes.

D: So I think of food the same way.

G: What were you looking for during this journey? Did you find it?

D: I can answer that question, but it sounds pretentious. What I was looking for in the film is what I’m looking for in my own life. For spiritual wholeness, “enlightenment.” All things are interrelated, they converge into “the one,” if we are all one. Reality is an illusion, and the point of a lot of spiritual practice is to cut through the bullshit that makes up most of our “reality” and bring us to a true sense of the divine. That’s what I want. That’s what I’m looking for.

G: So it’s a desire?

D: Yeah. So did I find that through the experience of the film? I got closer to it. I discovered a lot of interesting things that I need to pursue further. I think the most important person I met on the film—for me—was Val, the electronic drummer.

G: Yeah, she was fascinating. For me, she almost didn’t get enough coverage. The film starts with her and I was like, okay, now we’re talking, and then she didn’t reappear. She seemed to be more difficult to integrate, and she coming from a completely different angle.

D: Actually it was through my adherence with her, ’cause originally I was going to do the whole initiation trip with Sally and becoming an official devotee of voodoo. Whereas I discovered through Val that I didn’t need to do that, I was already a member of the family—a family of loas, the Gede family.

G: Did you find something that you weren’t looking for? Any surprises, in either a good or a bad way?

D: No, I think we were pretty blessed. I think the surprises are gonna happen now. When I started this whole thing in 2000, I was told that I was going to be tested a lot. By the orishas, the loas, the African powers.

G: You mean the laws. Loa is French patois for the word loi, which means “the law.”

D: That’s interesting. I mean, what I realized with Val is that her music is a purely spiritual thing. It’s a spiritual system that she was working with.

G: What was it like traveling in the South?

D: What I didn’t really expect was that the South itself was time-locked back, like, 50, 60 years.

G: You didn’t know that?

D: No, because I had never been to the South.

G: When I was living in New York, I was always thinking, this is not America. Let’s move down south and look for the real America where the blues and rock & roll come from. But the fact that they’re backwards gives it some wholesomeness—no-change is reassuring, it’s not torn by modern technology. When Robert Johnson comes up in the movie, he seems to be very much alive in people’s heads, although there is probably barely anyone still alive who knew him.

D: There was one person who apparently knew Robert Johnson, but he unfortunately didn’t make it to the blues fest in Greenwoods Park.

G: But you found out how he actually died?

D: I was expecting to go to the actual crossroads where Robert Johnson made his so-called deal with the devil. That didn’t happen. What did happen was that I found myself on the highway where Emmett Till was picked up and murdered.

G: Who’s Emmett Till?

D: Emmett Till was a black teenager from Chicago who was visiting relatives in Mississippi. He went into a shop and he whistled at a white girl. She was offended and complained, and some people in town got pissed and lynched him. He was, like, 14,15,16 years old. It’s the first incident where white people involved in a lynching were actually prosecuted. They were taken to trial. I mean, they got off. That was sort of an early trauma for me.

G: So you didn’t expect it, because you thought you were so far away from all this?

D: Yeah. One would think that the country had evolved, and then you realize it gets more and more retarded every day.

G: Well, that’s idiocracy. So, did you learn how Robert Johnson died?

D: We were there during the Robert Johnson centennial, which seemed pretty ridiculous, because the centennial [celebration] and this exhibition were in a cotton museum, and Robert Johnson apparently spent his entire life avoiding the cotton fields. So you have all these weird white people celebrating Robert Johnson. The same people who would have shot him if they caught him outside of the cotton field. There were all these weird contradictions, like how far they had gotten. I got into some stupid discussion about who owns Robert Johnson. I kept wanting to make these nasty comments about the Rolling Stones, which I’m glad I didn’t, as a result of reading Keith Richards’s autobiography. What he says is true: that the Stones were probably single-handedly responsible for reintroducing the blues back to America.

G: So what’s the story of his demise?

D: I discovered, as a result of all the activities around the centennial, that the story that Robert Johnson told about himself, as far as selling his soul to the devil, was like early heavy-metal PR.

G: He was a blasphemer.

D: It wasn’t that he was a blasphemer. His audience were sharecroppers and cotton-field workers. They were basically superstitious Christians.

. . . you have all these weird white people celebrating Robert Johnson. The same people who would have shot him if they caught him outside of the cotton field.

G: But he did sing, “If I had possession over Judgment Day, Lord, the little woman I’m loving wouldn’t have no right to pray.” Let’s say he was against organized religion.

D: Okay, that’s fair, but I’m just saying that his rebellion against black Christian conservatism, which seemed to be prominent in his family—that’s the thing I wasn’t expecting! His great-great-grandson was there speaking at this church, which is also the churchyard where Robert is buried. He comes to speak, at the last minute—it was supposed to be a day to celebrate the life of R.J. because it’s his birthday, which also happened to fall on Mother’s Day. So what we get is this fat, greasy preacher who comes out and tells us that he is R.J.’s great-grandson, and he proceeds to spew the most repellent homophobic right-wing garbage I’ve ever heard in my life. What I found particularly offensive was when he went into the whole R.J. thing of selling his soul to the devil. Mimics Richard Pryor. “How can my black uncle, grandfather or whatever the fuck he was, sell his soul to the devil? His soul does not belong to him, it belongs to God! How can you trade with the devil something that belongs to God?” That was particularly repellent, to see how the church of the poor had been taken over by corrupt right-wing Christian fundamentalists.

G: So, did Robert Johnson get poisoned?

D: You know, these are great stories, great myths that add to the legend. I was sitting with a bunch of Robert Johnson scholars at a blues bar early in the morning. One of the things that seemed to be repeating itself was that Robert Johnson died as a result of drinking poisoned moonshine. The entire batch that had come into the honky-tonk for that weekend was bad, and the reason he died is because the audience he was playing to—again, sharecroppers, people who work in cotton fields—had to get up and go to work on Monday. He started on Saturday, played his gig, they went home, they were sick on Sunday, but apparently were well enough to go to work on Monday. Robert Johnson, who didn’t spend a lot of time picking cotton in the cotton field, stayed at the honky-tonk and continued to drink this bad moonshine, got sick, and died.

G: At one point in the film, there is a discussion about how much Afro-Americans are willing to identify with their cultural and religious African roots. On a recent trip to Burkina Faso, I noticed that Africans are still mainly animistic, and that Wahhabite Muslim and Christian Baptist missionaries have a hard time persuading people to convert to monotheism. They usually resort to materialistic means, since poverty is the major issue on that continent. Many Afro-Americans, on the other hand, have embraced monotheism, be it through organizations like the Nation of Islam or traditional Christianity. Can you elaborate a bit on this?

D: In New York, and in other urban centers, you’ll find African Americans—or black Americans, which I prefer—who will identify with genuine animistic, Afro-esoterics, but those numbers are smaller than the great, unwashed majority, who are largely concerned with the details of survival, not necessarily breaking taboos. There was a large majority of blacks in California who were opposed to gay marriage, which revealed this really mean right-wing reactionary streak in the black church right now, which wasn’t always true—Martin Luther King came from liberation theology.

G: A key moment in the movie is when you talk about how the Africans and the Native Americans were able to assimilate one another, since there were so many cultural similarities between the two. This fusion happened in places like New Orleans, and an island like Haiti, and in South America, where slaves and natives were outcasts and in large numbers. Vodoun has survived and actually evolved into a gumbo of cultural misfits. This is most obvious in the carnival parades of all these places, but then, in the film there is a voodoo ceremony where most people involved are white women.

D: Well, Sally’s temple has always occupied a rather controversial place because of that. There are vodoun cults in the United States who recognize voodoo as a way of getting back to roots and see Sally as polluting the religion, that it is not something that belongs to her, which, clearly—it’s God we’re talking about here. God belongs to everybody, the divine belongs to everybody. The invisible is invisible for a reason.

G: So her cult is progressive and some are regressive, although most non-African voodoo cults evolved or became mutations as a political necessity.

D: It becomes an identity, but the whole point of voodoo is to lose your identity in the face of the divine.

G: Besides the spiritual aspect, is there a political aspect to voodoo?

D: Absolutely. The reason why voodoo has a bad reputation is because a bunch of black people kicked some white people off an island, you know, threw off the shackles of slavery, and they’re still pissed.