So far, the neo-soul project -- the attempt to go back to a pre-crossover black songwriting tradition, in which songs were intended to heal rather than just soothe -- has succeeded mostly in recreating a vintage sound and perhaps not much else. D'Angelo's 1995 breakthrough Brown Sugar had the sparse but rich instrumental arrangements of Quincy Jones' best '70s productions down pat, but the worldview had more affinity to the agnosticism of the hip-hop generation than the cosmic consciousness of Marvin Gaye -- note that the title track was an ode to smoking weed. And granted, Erykah Badu's machismo-deflating earth-momma thang was more Roberta Flack than Lil' Kim, but her businesswoman cool in interviews suggested that her relationship to soul might be closer to lifestyle than life calling.
Not so for Donnie, a 25-year-old singer from Atlanta who's being billed as the next neo-soul star-to-be. He's got the personal relationship with God. He's got the world-would-be-a-better-place-if-we-only-loved-more message. He's got the countrified Age of Aquarius vision. And he's got a voice and singing cadence that's spot-on Stevie Wonder in his glory years. Yeah, Donnie's got a damn bright future ahead of him, if only the music-buying public can stomach a taste of the kookiness that alienated whites from soul music the first time around.
Donnie's debut album The Colored Section (Giant Step) isn't due until summer, so he hasn't done the litany of interviews that an artist of the caliber displayed on his "Do You Know?" and "Holiday" singles inevitably will do. As a result, his answers don't ring of the canned career-speak that most media-savvy musicians get over on. He tends to progress quickly from specifics to universal observations, and, with accommodating Southern grace, apologizes often for going off on tangents. "Ask me more questions because I'd love to answer you," he says after a particularly spirited response, "but you have to ask because I'm a talker and I'll keep going if you don't stop me."
But it's just when he gets going, when maybe the original question has taken new shape in his mind, that Donnie lets the funk flow. For instance, when asked about the overall message of his forthcoming album, he answers, "The message is that no matter how long we fight or run away from it, we have to focus on the concerns of our country, and we don't do it enough. There's too much world news -- we're concerned with stuff that don't even concern us, when we have a heap of problems here in America. I don't like to use the word race, but racism is still the major problem facing everybody -- I believe it's a drain and a sin. If you want a definition of sin, I believe it's racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, and wrongs against children. I grew up in the '80s, with milk carton kids -- I believe those kids were sacrificed in many horrible secret ceremonies ... "
After being reeled back in from that digression, he concludes his thought thusly: "Everybody connects, from your drag queen to your thug, from your preacher in the pulpit to your pimp on the corner, from the ho on the corner to the mother in the church. That preacher might have been a drag queen, and very well might go back to being a drag queen -- are we going to reject everybody just because we're different?"
Donnie's mind is always grasping for connections: the sorts of connections between ideas, events, and people that reveal a subtler truth. He can trace this preoccupation with metaphysics and the grand question of why to a particular insight he had in seventh-grade science class. His teacher was explaining the different states water can take depending on temperature, and he flashed on a lesson he had heard in church about the Holy Trinity -- God taking three forms at once. He saw the same principle in both, which got him thinking of the mutability of all things and looking for interrelatedness everywhere.
Heavy stuff for a junior high student, but Donnie had been steeped in deep matters of the spirit since a very early age. His parents belonged to the Hebrew Pentecostal church, which was headquartered in their hometown of Lexington, Kentucky and which produced one Marvin Gaye. In fact, Gaye's grandmother was Donnie's great-auntie, who was responsible for bringing Donnie's side of the family to the hybridized denomination.
"Imagine black Jews who are Holy Rollers," he says by way of description of the Hebrew Pentecostal faith. "I'm talking about we went to church on the Sabbath, didn't eat pork, celebrated Passover with unleavened bread, celebrated Yom Kippur, and I had a bar mitzvah. But they also shout and jump and speak in tongues and do divine healings. So it was very drastic, very peculiar to grow up like that. But I understood it, and how the Bible explained things helped me get a foundation on what is life."
Donnie says that his parents gave him a curiously strict but liberal upbringing, raising him in the church but encouraging him to pursue secular music as well. Michael Jackson, "back with the 'fro and the nose, when he was really raw," was his first inspiration, and from six or seven on, Donnie knew he'd be a performer too. He fell in love with gospel after moving at age eight to Atlanta, where his father became a pastor. Donnie sang in the choir and soaked in the sounds of gospel greats Tina Morrison, Joyce Martin, the Clark Sisters, and Walter Hawkins & the Hawkins Family. Then at eighteen, he discovered early Stevie Wonder and Donnie Hathaway. "To me, Stevie Wonder broke a code as a songwriter," he explains, "where he could start a song and he could go anywhere with it. He summed it up for me, he put it all in a package -- 'oh, that's how you do it.' "
In his twenties, Donnie spent a number of years clubbing, "just partying until seven in the morning -- a lot of disco and a lot of house. The [now-defunct Atlanta-area] Yin Yang Club was like finding another Stevie Wonder to me, just pure inspiration." And therein lies the "neo" in Donnie's soul -- unlike other neo-soul artists whose contemporary side boils down to a modern R&B sensibility, his original angle on the classic sound involves the incorporation of dance music elements. His producer, Steve Harvey, merges traditional instruments with synthesizers and processed percussion, and New York house veterans Danny Krivit and Ron Trent have remixed his tracks. On the three-song album teaser that's been released thus far, his voice bounces along in the mix like a second bass line, so synced to the groove that it sounds machine arranged.
But whereas the spiritual content of club fodder is usually nil, Donnie writes songs within what he considers a gospel tradition. "It has that same essence," he states. "It talks about positivity and it's intended to give you a message, whether directly or indirectly." He wouldn't describe the message -- or himself for that matter -- as Christian per se, though. "I think of myself as having my own religion. I do believe that the concept of Jesus is very strong and positive, but it's symbolic -- people should take it artistically and not literally. I'm an artist most of all, more than anything, more even than being a Negro, and I love being a Negro. An American Negro is a wonderful thing to be."
Donnie believes that the artist's unique power lies in the ability to bend rules, be they creative or social. Based on the number of musicians he sees doing just that, working together across racial divides, he thinks humanity's on the cusp of a new age that can be barely fathomed now. "Just like it was in the '70s," he observes, "you have the Caucasoid artists singing with the Negro artists and even the Latino artists now. I'm ready for the Asian people to start being stars, I'm ready for the big people to start being stars -- I'm tired of only skinny, model-looking folks making music. I'm ready for short folks and handicapped folks to come out. In, say, twenty years, all the competitiveness that keeps musicians divided will disappear, and everybody will be able to come to the table."
Donnie intends to play no small part in making that happen. He has plans for a label, which he hopes will introduce the first pop star to use a wheelchair. He wants to educate people, he says, about the many contributions Negroes have made to history, which include navigating the first European sailing ships to reach North America. He hasn't stated whether he'll bring those responsible for the milk carton disappearances to justice, but rest assured that he'll look into it. Donnie's got a bright future indeed.
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