By Daniel Garrett
Donnie, The Daily News
Executive Producer: Craig Bowers
SoulThought Entertainment, 2007
What makes you think you’ll go forever treating people like you do?
You know the law is universal—it will take care of you.
We are the pieces to a puzzle that is so far incomplete.
—Donnie, the song “Impatient People,” on The Daily News
Donnie’s measured shouting in the memorable funk gospel song “Impatient People,” a song about delayed justice, and the neglected needs of citizens, begins his collection, The Daily News. “I’m an American, and I am human. You treat me like an animal…I’m not a refugee, I’m an evacuee. I’m just a citizen,” he sings in “Impatient People,” words that resound through African-American history and have a special resonance following the abandonment of the people of New Orleans after hurricane Katrina, in which citizens were described by public media as refugees, a designation usually used for foreigners. “Can I get some assistance?” Donnie asks, for those whose voices were not heard or respected. Donnie, reportedly Kentucky-born and Georgia-reared, makes social awareness a principal part of his work. Donnie (Donn Johnson, at birth), studied at a performing arts school, changing his name to Donnie from Donn partly in tribute to Donny Hathaway it has been said; and Donnie’s will to master sound and subject is perceptible. It is easy to be sympathetic to his purpose, when much of popular music consigns itself to only exploring love and sex (or personal conflict and violence) as topics. However, the desperate search for meaning can move us to give a too easy pass to work that is more ambitious than accomplished. I am glad to report that Donnie has made an admirable and valiant effort, a soulful work, but that work is not without limitations.
After the rousing “Impatient People,” Donnie takes a more leisurely pace with “911,” displaying more of his vocal range—crooning, oratorical—and the song has a distinct (splattered glass) percussive beat and also piano. It seems a call for love, individual and communal: “I’d trade the World Trade to spend some time with you babe. I’d trade my racism, my sexism, my homophobia…” The old ways must be sacrificed for something new. “Over the Counter Culture,” about the easy, quick inclination of doctors to use drugs as a remedy for whatever complaints their patients have, doctors as legal drug pushers, is a song that has a clapping beat, with horns and choral support. “They got a pill for my erection, and another for my depression, and I can taste it in my dinner, with your artificial flavor,” Donnie sings in the song, written by Donnie with Phonte Coleman (on which Phonte of Little Brother performs, rapping, “I’m your local grocery store pharmacist, selling you the cure and the disease in the same aisle,” part of a rap about drugs, laws, and health). Is it accurate or fair to describe some of this work as having a clumsy eloquence? Intentions are dramatically conveyed but not beautifully expressed. Donnie’s voice is persuasive—tone of voice is something that cannot be bought (tone may be the most persuasive aspect of any art).
“I need work, I need a job y’all,” Donnie sings in “Classifieds,” a song with an ecology theme, and featuring strings; and the song’s deeper issue seems to be the matter of genuine purpose—what is it that is really needed? What is the purpose that can be found or given for the earth, for society, for an individual life? The chorus works in “Suicide” as conscience and communal support; and it is a very honest song about a subject that takes courage to discuss in public. (Donnie has said that he wanted to put music to everyday culture, but how many people want to accept trouble as a daily occurrence?) These difficult facts—the destruction of land, others, and self—are what can destroy one’s faith in human existence. It takes a certain talent to have such consistent seriousness not be repellent to the ordinary listener. Some of Donnie’s inflections remind me of Stevie Wonder in the song “If I Were You,” which also features harmonica. “If I were you, I’d make a change, in everything I do. I would proclaim it all in the holy name. If I were you, nothing could be sweeter than to love yourself.” It is a soothing song.
If one does not listen closely, romantic possession seems the theme of “Robot,” but the song is actually about social control, about conformity, with little recourse to independent will or personal imagination, a view the repeated lyrics support, though the music—tambourine, uptempo piano, and clapping—is quite spirited. “The Atlanta Child Murders” is a look back at an old scandal, a shocking tragedy, and features the names of the murdered children. The song speculates that the children may have been the subject of an official but secret medical experiment; and that the accused, prosecuted man, Wayne Williams, is actually a political prisoner.
“Still you sit in your school, and in your church, playing by the rules, and law of man,” Donnie sings in “For Christ Sake.” There is a bit of psychedelia and pop gospel in “For Christ Sake,” as the narrator asserts that much good can be done in Christ’s name, accomplishments approaching magic, though by this point in the recording it would be welcome to have more musical and tonal variety (more delicacy, more intimacy). The instrumentation of “Mason Dixon Line” does have aspects that remind one of blues and country songs, as the singer sings of moving from south to north, and the song is mostly uptempo. There is a nice Asian music opening given to “China Doll,” which seems to be about the constancy of incest (“her uncle-father-family friend can’t keep his hands to himself”). Donnie’s intellectual ambition is remarkable, but his sung diction is sometimes muddy (which can eclipse the sting in “a china doll, she’s just a child, you pedophile”). Sometimes gospel singers slur their words as part of their technique, a changed diction suggesting a changed spirit; and Donnie has identified some gospel singers as his antecedents: Rance Allen, Darryl Coley, John P. Kee, and James Moore. Donnie’s social imagination harkens back to Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, and Sly Stone; and, amazingly, he does not suffer in comparison. However, he does not want to be—and is not—a nostalgia act.
The album’s title song “The Daily News” is funk music; and in its catalog of miseries—bad teachers, abused children, war, politics—it can put one in a different kind of funk. Yet, in the song, written by Donnie with S. Harvey, Donnie claims, “Love breaks every chain and fetter.” The album closes with a reprise of “If I Were You.”
Daniel Garrett’s extensive commentary on the film Brokeback Mountain was published abroad last year (2006), in Film International. Daniel Garrett, Louisiana-born and a longtime New York resident, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the founder of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, is a writer of essays and creative work, including fiction, drama, and poetry. His work has appeared in The African, AllAboutJazz.com, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, PopMatters.com, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today. For The Compulsive Reader, Daniel Garrett has written on music, films, and books. Author contact: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org