Donnie gets bold on `News'

The gospel-funk artist sings the truth on his latest CD and opens up about himself

October 04, 2007|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun pop music critic

He was scared initially and didn't really think he could do it. But afterward, Donnie felt free at last.

This past summer, while on stage at the Jazz Cafe in London, the soul singer-songwriter publicly came out as a gay man. He was there promoting his latest album, The Daily News, a stellar collection of melodic, topical gospel-funk songs.

Donnie felt that if his musical mission is to boldly sing the truth as he sees it, then he should be honest about who he is.

"I don't think I've ever been in the closet, but I was never out in the industry," says the Atlanta-based artist, who headlines the Black Cat in Washington tomorrow night. "I felt bad that people didn't accept me. But I felt it was time to just be open and honest about who I am. There was no reason to hide that anymore."

Released in June, The Daily News is a musical reflection of the new, liberated Donnie. He doesn't addresses his sexuality on the record; instead, the artist largely centers on societal and political turmoil. The new CD is refreshingly bolder than The Colored Section, Donnie's debut released by Motown in 2002. Though critically well-received, the album was woefully underpromoted. So it didn't sell well, and the label promptly dropped the artist. But Donnie (whose last name is Johnson) says he was barely able to handle the small buzz the record garnered, anyway.

"I just wasn't ready," he says with a sigh. "I was still dealing with some personal things. Nothing I really want to get into right now."

During the interim, as the Kentucky-born singer wrestled with his issues, he still managed to focus on his music. He eventually hooked up with SoulThought Entertainment, a Los Angeles-based indie company, and threw himself into The Daily News, whose sound is decidedly more modern than his debut.

"The Colored Section was a dedication to black America," he says. "This one is speaking more to the world. It's more open. The Colored Section sounded kinda old."

The arrangements on the first album were self-consciously retro, rehashing Songs in the Key of Life-era Stevie Wonder. Vocally, Donnie's melismatic approach bore some similarities to the Motown legend, while his richly burnished tone recalled Donny Hathaway. On The Daily News, those chief influences are still heard. But Donnie sounds more assured this time, backed by progressive production that smartly mixes live instrumentation with sleek programming.

Lyrically, the album is heavy. The performer delves into the shady side of the pharmaceutical industry ("Over-the-Counter Culture"), the Hurricane Katrina disaster ("Impatient People") and the rise of unemployment in urban areas ("Classifieds"). The album's most haunting, pointed track is "Atlanta Child Murders": The Atlanta child murders conspiracy/Was a modern-day lynching like Tuskegee/A political prisoner Wayne Williams is/Scientific experiment on our kids."

"This album is American music, and America is rooted in black people," says the 33-year-old artist. "And as far as the political nature of my songs, I'm political. It comes naturally." But Donnie and his producers, Steve "The Scotsman" Harvey and Craig Bowers, manage to make such serious songs feel exuberant. No matter how sad or depressing the topic, the singer's fervent vocals communicate a sense of hope that feels genuine. It's an extension of his gospel training. Donnie grew up in a strict Pentecostal household and sang in the choir.

"I can't escape that gospel sound," he says. "It's in me. It's that part of black American music that makes us feel good, you know? It speaks directly to the soul. It's good information, and that's what I want my music to be - just honest and open."

He feels good about having nothing to hide anymore.

"We live in a terrible world. People don't accept you for this or that. But the important thing is that I accept me," Donnie says. "There are few things that are inspiring around me, but I don't lose faith and hope."

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

See Donnie at 9 p.m. tomorrow at the Black Cat, 1811 14th St. N.W. in Washington. Tickets are $20 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-SEAT or going to ticketmaster.com.

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