The smooth style of modern day soul singer, Donnie, is comparable to such other neo-soul and r&b artists India Arie, Jill Scott, D'Angelo and Maxwell.
Born Donn Johnson in Lexington, Kentucky during the mid 70's, Donnie was raised in Atlanta, GA and came from a very religious household. As both of his parents were ministers, Donnie began directing the church choir at an early age. As a young adult, he expanded his musical horizons, and became influenced by such gospel artists as The Clark Sisters, The Winans, Commissioned and Mahalia Jackson, in addition to soul and r&b masters like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin.
In the early 2000's, Donnie was signed to Giant Step label and issued singles "Cloud 9", "Masterplan", "Do You Know" and "Our New National Anthem". His full length debut album, The Colored Section, was released in 2002 and received rave reviews and was eventually picked up for release by Motown. "The Daily News", an even more ambitious album, followed in 2007.
Donnie's latest project, I AM DONNIE is the height of his creative talents as a songwriter. It is a live concert albmu accompanied by a musical stage play that illuminates the themes of the album using the archetype of allegory. The album and play are set to be released in the summer of 2017.
There are singers and then there are “sangers.” You know who I’m talking about. The entertainers whose voices make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up or give you goosebumps every time their on the mic. The one’s that have you yelling out, “Ooh, that’s my shit!” in the middle of the song. It’s the kind of singing that causes you to throw your head back and raise your hands in the air even though you’re not at anybody’s church service. Well, that’s exactly what happened to me last night when I went to see soul music sanger Donnie perform his critically acclaimed album, The Colored Section.
The performance took place at Atlanta’s Vinyl at Center Stage and was packed with die-hard Donnie fans. For some reason, I thought the show was in celebration of the album’s 10th anniversary but realized instead that it’s been 14 years since its original release. However, the subject matter that he addresses in each song are still relevant issues today like homophobia, racism, sexism, classism and colorism. “I’m not a nigger I’m a negro, When I become a nigger I’ll let you know” from the song ‘Beautiful Me‘ are words that are just as meaningful in 2016 as they were in 2002.”
Who knew the lyrics from ‘Wildlife‘ would still be a haunting reality of today with all of the recent police shootings of African-American men? “And you call me a savage, uncivilized when it’s you who made lynching your way of life And you dont want me to be mad Well I’ll say too bad I’m a product of my environment So who the hell we call wildlife Look at us They only kill when they have to We kill for sport.”
But then there are songs from the album like ‘Our New National Anthem‘ that speak of hope and racial reconciliation. “Your hand, my hand, we can make it to the promised land I know we can show what it is to be truly American Your race my race, come together and have a taste of the new day for the remix Eventually the race dilemma we’ll fix and…”
Last night’s performance was also a very personal one for the singer, who admitted to the audience that he suffered from years of self hate and almost “snorted and smoked himself to death.” He also testified about coming to grips with his sexuality and how he forgave the pastor of his childhood church for years of bullying him from the pulpit. (Click here to listen)
But it was his moving performance of the album’s closing song, ‘The Colored Section‘ that brought everyone to tears. “We are the original people The alpha and omega of it all but We get the short end of the stick all of the time Welcome to the colored section See what it is to be me Sign your name on the black list and know this It’s American history…” At the end of the original song he mentions the names of civil rights pioneers, Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X but then added to last night’s rendition the names of Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner and Alton Sterling, referred to them as modern day martyrs.
Check out more amazing photos from last night’s show below. The evening also featured up-in-coming R&B/Pop singer JK Howells and Janelle Monae‘s new group—All Cows Eat Grass. The show was also presented by my friends The MuddyWater Group.
It's been more than a decade since Atlanta-based musician Donnie Johnson, better known on a first name basis by most, released his debut album, The Colored Section. But that album is just as relevant now as it was back in 2002. Sadly, racism and police brutalities are in the headlines, which is why Donnie is hitting the road in support of the still-relevant album. He'll be in Charlotte to perform at Neighborhood Theatre on July 22.
"I believe my music is very relevant to these times. That's why I play it. We have music to entertain and to help get some of that frustration out. People are frustrated and angry, but I'm learning how to channel my anger because there's no use in getting violent with the police, because you're dead," Donnie says. "I know that sounds harsh, but it's always been that way. They're lynching us and a lot of people don't want to really face that. In the South, lynching was common in the '20s and '30s from slavery and in the 20th century it turned it into something else."
He speaks about how he believes that Klu Klux Klan members are "trading in their sheets for shields" and that people are coming home from war with disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder, only to later join the police force. Whether you agree or disagree with that, there's no denying an increase in police violence — or at least in its accessibility, thanks to smart phones — and the need for hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter.
"We go through periods where we cover it up with a good time and friends, but it's always there. It doesn't go away, so it's always going to be relevant until we reach a world of love and peace, which I don't think is impossible," says Donnie. "But until we do that The Colored Section and The Daily News will always be relevant."
The Daily News, Donnie's sophomore album, was released back in 2007 and tackled similar race-related issues as The Colored Section. But it didn't receive the attention that The Colored Section did, which included review comparisons to musicians like Donny Hathaway and Stevie Wonder.
He feels that its success was in part due to good marketing. "The Colored Section had Giant Step records. They knew how to market it even more than a major label, so with Giant Step's Maurice Bernstein behind it, it was just better and more cheerful and artistic. It was more power, that's it," Donnie says.
Aside from addressing race discrimination, the album also touches on Donnie's own conflict with being a homosexual African-American man living in the south. He grew up in a Bible-thumping household — he's the son and sibling of preachers — and struggled to grapple with the church's views while keeping his faith.
"It spills over into my music, because I don't like discriminaton. And in my church I felt that discrimination, but I still loved my people. I entered enough churches where people have faced discrimination," says Donnie, who feels that his former church-versus-the-world complex has morphed into something else.
"I like my own identity. I want to be involved in shaping who I am. We don't shape ourselves all the way. We speak a language that somebody else created or made or invented. But I want to say who I am so people can really understand, so I've had this battle between the secular and sacred world. I won't be this for the church but I won't be this for the secular world. Neither one gets to tell me who I am."
In that regard, Donnie says he's attracted to men, but isn't fond of the word "gay."
"I don't like the word gay because a lot of people do not know any gay people and they tend to think it's one way when we're all different. Being attracted romantically doesn't always involve sex and people don't really get that. People have their own idea of what gay is. I wish there was another word," he says.
While Donnie isn't shy of pondering alternatives to language, he's also been busy researching mythology and symbolism for an upcoming musical called, The American Mythology.
"It's a musical based on the archetype of the classic myth with titans, sun and moon goddesses. It's an allegorical look at the American story and it uses symbolism and what America is really all about. For example, the golden arches, that's McDonalds and different things like that," says Donnie.
Though he plans to debut the musical later this year or in spring of 2017, his current focus has shifted to the relaunch tour for The Colored Section.
Still largely recognized for the album, even 14 years later, he's returning to the stage after flying under the radar for some time.
"It's a resurgence. That's really what's happening. I'm rising from the ashes," Donnie says. "Everybody has a time when they make themselves over or get to a certain point where they want to be in their attitude and outlook on life. I wont be under the radar for long."