There are many forms of religious music: Christian, Hindi, Islamic, Rastafarian, Shintō—the list goes on. Styles indeed vary, but some don't care for tradition, often picking up some form of contemporary music to spread the word of their God. Nietzsche wrote, "Without music, life would be a mistake," and many cults thought to go on without a soundtrack would be a grievous error. In Part Two of this piece on music by cults, I'll dive a little deeper into some of the more obscure sonic artifacts left by some of the odder religious orders.
The Family International began as the Children of God, in Huntington Beach, CA. Started in 1968 by David Brandt Berg, he was known as Moses David to members. While mostly quiet, the cult gained some notoriety for their practice of "flirty fishing," which was basically asking female followers to have sex with non-members in hopes they'd join. After tiring of the bad press, the group changed its name to The Family of Love (1978), but were soon hounded by charges in the sexual abuse of minors. In '82, they reformed as The Family, probably not realizing the negative connotations behind that cult name. Members of note include River Phoenix's family, and Jeremy Spencer of Fleetwood Mac.
The group never released an album, but being fans of the newly available art of video recording in the early-'80s, decided to make music videos, and only then wrote the music to fit their visions. From the near-new wave of "Cathy, Don't Go!"...
...to the freakish pop reggae of "Watch Out for the Green Door!," one might almost wish they had put out a record. That is, until you remember that they are sick kiddie lovers who are still around today, so keep your children safe.
Speaking of "families," another group who loved that moniker were Father Yod's tribe, known to most as the Source Family. Cincinnati, OH WWII Marine and jiu-jitsu expert, James Edward Baker (who became known as Father Yod), moved to the West Coast in the '60s, opening a vegetarian eatery—the Source Restaurant—on Los Angeles' Sunset Strip. The establishment began to hold classes on yoga and meditation, establishing a local following with hippie types. In all respects, there is no dirt on the Source Family, as all evidence shows that nothing nefarious ever occurred in the camp. All stories about Father Yod, even by ex-members, are amazingly positive. Father left this earthly plane believing he could handglide, without ever trying a practice run. He plummeted several hundred feet, breaking his back, and later dying from his injuries.
Before his death, he seemed to be actively living in peace, and attempting to spread good vibes—so much that Father Yod started a rock band with members of the sect. Like I mentioned, he believed he could do anything, and even though he could not sing a lick, he released several albums under the name Father Yod and the Spirit of '76 (such as Contraction and All or Nothing at All), as well as another handful as Ya Ho Wa 13 (Penetration: An Aquarian Symphony)—all within two years. While sometimes invoking giggles, most of the band's output is a pretty cool mix of psychedelic freeform rock and experimental jams.
Sometimes, everything publicly available about a group's leader is positive, but it's later found that there were actually some dark secrets hiding somewhere. Another group that is seen in a pretty positive light is Fela Kuti's compound Kalakuta Republic. Fela was a Nigerian musician and pioneer of the afrobeat music genre. His music connections and popularity helped establish him as a human rights activist. He is championed as a vocal opponent against an oppressive government. Upon closer inspection, both sides held fault. Kalakuta Republic turned out to be a cult of personality, with its own militaristic system of justice. In 1977, Nigeria sent in an army of 1,000 to burn down the compound, no thanks to his satirical album Zombie, criticizing the military. In the following days, Kuti ritualistically married his 27 backup singers in protest.
Fela Kuti has a pretty well-known music history, and released almost two dozen albums from 1969 to his death in 1997, on labels such as EMI and Decca.
The Nation of Islam was founded in 1930 (Detroit, MI) by Wallace D. Fard Muhammad, who was succeeded by Elijah Muhammad after Wallace's mysterious disappearance. The group set out to improve the economic, spiritual, and mental condition of African Americans in the U.S. They secretly preached a theology of spacemen, ancient racial genetic science, and black supremacy. Long after their most popular speaker, Malcolm X, left to become a Sunni Muslim, Elijah's son, Warith Deen Mohammed, took the group in the direction of mainstream Islam. In 1977, he was replaced by Louis Farrakhan (born Louis Eugene Wolcott), who brought the Nation of Islam back to its kooky roots.
Now, I admit that the following track is not associated in any way with the Nation of Islam cult, besides the fact that it is Louis Farrakhan himself singing. I had to include this bizarre slice of calypso music, as Farrakhan, under the name The Charmer, often sung of zombies and aliens, so one can see why he may have found the Nation of Islam philosophy fitting to his worldview from early on.
Even so, small Nation of Islam chapters did release music, and Farrakhan, under the name Louis X, had released the 7" single "A White Man's Heaven is a Black Man's Hell," which was collaboratively produced by Phoenix, AZ's Mosque #32, and Boston, MA's Temple #11.
Another quasi-religious black nationalist movement inspired by Islam is Dwight D. York's group of Nuwaubians. After forming the Ansaaru Allah Community (NJ) in 1970, he moved to Brooklyn in 1980 and started the Holy Tabernacle of the Most High, also known as the Children of Abraham. By this time the sect had owned about 20 buildings in the NYC borough, which housed many of the cult members forced to sell church goods as rent payment. In 1993, 300 of his followers moved to the state of Georgia and began construction of "Tama-Re," an Egyptian-themed complex which contained 40-foot pyramids, obelisks, and a giant sphinx. In 2002, York was arrested on 100 counts of sexually molesting children. He swears his trial and imprisonment were foretold in chapter 10 of Zecharia Sitchin's The Wars of the Gods and the Men. Dwight is now serving his sentence in Colorado as Inmate # 17911-054, with a release date set for 2122.
During his stay in Brooklyn, York began two record labels, Passion Productions and York's Records, which released a dozen singles, plus a handful of LPs, under his pseudonym of Dr. York, as well as his side projects: Jackie and the Starlights, and The Students. All of it is '80s R&B pop-slop, purposely made—in York's own words—to "reach a mass majority of people through music."
The last black militant group I'll discuss is the Nation of Yahweh. Based in Miami, I had grown up seeing Yahweh members throughout the city, dressed in their white robes and turbans. Started in 1979, by ex-football player Hulon Mitchell Jr., who changed his name to Yahweh Ben Yahweh, after announcing he was God on Earth sent to save the Africans around the world. By the mid-'80s the Yahwehs held an empire worth $250 million, and owned temples, warehouses, and hotels in over 1,000 cities in close to 20 countries. The Miami Mayor even made October 7th Yahweh Ben Yahweh Day in 1990, but one month later Bennie was arrested for crimes including murder (14 counts), extortion, and arson. Though acquitted of murder (one of his lackeys was not so lucky), he was found guilty of racketeering, serving 11 years. All the while, Yahweh Ben Yahweh held sermons from a phone in jail, and even began public access TV shows. Though he died a free man in 2007, his Nation of Yahweh is still very active. The organization, now run by Mitchell's daughter, has dropped their racist outlook and believes all people are children of the Lord.
The Nation of Yahweh released hundreds of tapes, records, and CDs. All of it was available to members only through their extensive mailorder catalog, which also carried soaps, clothing, and 24-karat gold YHVH pendants. Some of the music was early recordings of Hulon jamming out...
...and others were Temple members singing the praises of their dear leader.
On the other side of the racial cult spectrum was a short-run club that probably only held no more than five or six members. They mixed LaVeyan Satanism, Norse mythology, social Darwinism, Apocalyptic fervor, and white power; naming themselves after a secretive Nazi clan called The Werewolf Order. Formed by Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey's daughter, Zeena, and her lover Nikolas Schreck (born Barry Dubin) sometime in the early-'90s, possibly due to wanting what little limelight Zeena's dad was then basking in. They put out a few pamphlets, most of which ended in a catalog for the musical arm of the order: Radio Werewolf. The crew appeared on The Wally George Show to espouse their views, and after a handful of music releases, claimed philosophic books were to follow. In 1992, after some supposed threats, the duo ran off to Europe, where they claimed to have kept the group active (but not public) until '99. They both gave up on the Church of Satan and became members of the Church of Satan's biggest rival, The Temple of Set. In 2003, Nik renounced all dark arts for his newfound love of Tantric Buddhism.
Admittedly, Radio Werewolf was around four years before the idea of The Werewolf Order popped up, but by 1989, the band was a full-fledged propaganda machine for Schreck and LaVey's politico-religious views. Starting as a goth rock outfit, the foursome produced two singles in 1984, "1960 Cadillac Hearse" and "Buried Alive." Reforming after the creation of The Werewolf Order in 1988, the Nikolas/Zeena collaboration ended their musical output in 1991 with their Songs for the End of the World LP.
Steering away from anti-Semites, we now check out a "pro" Jewish group, taking a look at Jews for Jesus. The organization began in 1973, claiming Jesus Christ was the actual Jewish messiah. The group, led by Moishe Rosen, was originally called Hineni Ministries, but their tagline "Jews for Jesus" stuck with the media, and they adopted it as their new name. Besides being sued by comedian Jackie Mason for using his likeness in a pamphlet, these guys are a pretty clean clique, with no dark past or dirt to dig up. In 1996, leadership was transferred to David Brickner, and the sect is still around, with a net worth of $20 million.
The cult knew the power of music well, and they hit the road with tires burning, forming The Liberated Wailing Wall immediately upon establishing their temple. The band was active until 1979, releasing four albums of original and traditional Christian gospel tunes.
I'm ending this trip down the rabbit hole of cult tracks with another clan I remember walking the streets of Miami back in the 1990s. Lawrence E. Wulfing was an old bohemian (born in 1920), who changed his name to Wulf Zendik in the late-'80s, and suddenly appeared everywhere on the neo-hippie circuit, with artist-run farming camps in CA, FL, TX, NC, and WV called Zendik Art Farms. While many of those joining tilled the soil, a handful of others were sent to hang outside alternative nightclubs and college bars to sell the group's fanzines, stickers, and CDs of Zendik's music. Wulf self-published the book Blackhawk: Diary of an Eco-Warrior in 1990, and the group released his novel, A Quest Among the Bewildered, posthumously in 2001. For a time in the mid-'90s, the bar scene was littered with stickers reading the commune's slogan, "Stop Bitching, Start a Revolution." Zendik passed away in 1999, and the community ran until about 2007, when all the properties were suddenly sold, and the group dissolved.
The collective used to list two releases as being the early work of Wulf Zendik: 1972's The Album Wulf Zendik, and Danze of the Cozmic Warriorz (as the band Zendik Farm Orgaztra), from 1988. Yet, no evidence exists of any Zendik musical output until the release of his Strontium Rain cassette in 1993.
Music has played an integral role in religion throughout time, but the relatively new connection small movements and various kinds of popular music have made has become well-known. Thanks to the international fame of many musicians, it is no wonder alluring shepherds look to prevailing trends to gain a new audience. Still, it's one thing to get a few hundred to follow you around chanting. It's a completely different beast trying to climb music charts. God help them all.