The Atlanta-based vocalist and songwriter Donnie has often been grouped with D'Angelo, India.Arie, and other artists labeled as neo-soul. Like those artists, Donnie has avoided hip-hop beats and lyric styles in favor of melodic singing and church-inspired harmonies that evoke the classic soul music of the 1970s. What has set Donnie apart from his contemporaries, however, is that he has embraced the politically and socially oriented side of soul as well as its romantic aspects. As a result he has often been compared to soul giants Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye.
One of four children, Donnie was born Donn Johnson around 1975 in Lexington, Kentucky; he has used only his first name professionally. When he was eight his family moved to Atlanta. His parents enjoyed the black popular music of the day, favoring Natalie Cole, Lou Rawls, and the ubiquitous Michael Jackson. As they became more deeply involved in their church, however, they steered their son away from secular music. Eventually both of his parents became ministers in the Hebrew Pentecostal Church, a sect that Donnie described to Boston Globe writer Renee Graham as "black Jews for Jesus."
Donnie continued to attend church into early adulthood. Another church member was Marvin Gaye, a cousin whom Donnie never met but whose violent death in 1984 shook the talented youngster. "I grew up in the same church as Marvin, with the same people, the same pastors, and the same threats," Donnie told theBoston Globe. "There was this whole 'If you do this, you're going to hell' speech. I was scared to do what they called 'secular music' or to come into the secular world."
Beginning his musical career in his church's choir, Donnie was directing musical performances by the time he was 14 years old. The musical variety of 1980s gospel impressed him as he explored the music of figures such as Twinkie Clark and Edwin and Walter Hawkins. When he was in his late teens, however, Donnie began to feel the need to reconnect with secular audiences. "Growing up in the church, a lot of people could write music like superstars," he was quoted as saying on the VH1 website, "but I asked myself, am I going to sing for the church or sing to the world?"
Once he decided in favor of a secular career, Donnie found that Atlanta had a thriving music scene that welcomed idealists and experimentally minded artists. Rappers such as the duo OutKast and R&B revivalists like India.Arie tried out new material in the city's clubs and made connections within a strong African-American creative community. Donnie became friends with Arie and made his way into the center of an orbit of performers associated with the Yin Yang Cafe in the city's Little Five Points neighborhood.
"You might think of me as crazy, but I know the spirits said,'This is a special place at a special time,'" Donnie told the Groovenation.net website. "Because everybody came there. You had black, white, Asian, Latino, straight, gay, bisexual. You had drag queens up in there. Everybody many not always have been comfortable, but everybody respected each other. I felt a kinship because everyone at Yin Yang sang about things that mattered."
Donnie performed with Arie at an Atlanta showcase event in 1997, and she recommended him to Maurice Bernstein of Giant Step Records, a label heavily involved with the Atlanta scene. By 2000 Donnie was recording demo tracks with Los Angeles producer Steve Harvey and working on music for his debut album release. A Giant Step single called "Do You Know?" garnered airplay on the independent Los Angeles-area radio station KCRW, and the singer parlayed that success into a five-night run at the Jazz Café in London.
By the end of the year, Giant Step had released a Donnie extended-play CD called Excerpts from the Colored Section and had slated the singer as an opening act for artist Boney James on a 2002 tour. Any opening act faces a difficult task, and the fact that fans were unfamiliar with Donnie's relatively complex music made things worse. "I learned a lot," Donnie recalled to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "But I had some adversity with the vibe and with the spirit, and sometimes it was physical adversity."
Word was spreading about Donnie's talents in the music industry, however, and in 2002 he was signed to Motown Records, formerly home to both Gaye and Wonder. His full-length debut, The Colored Section, was released in October of that year. The CD's title took its reference from a satirical program called The Colored Museum, which had been shown on the PBS television network when Donnie was young, and its music offered a kaleidoscopic view of African-American history.
"Welcome to the colored section," Donnie sang, over church-choir harmonies on the album's opening track. "Welcome to the Negro League." Donnie often referred to himself with the old-fashioned term of "Negro," rejecting hip-hop epithets. "I'm not a nigger, I'm a Negro," he sang in "Beautiful Me." "When I become a nigger, I'll let you know." Musically Donnie looked both backward and forward. With a musical language rooted in classic soul, Donnie reached as far back as ragtime and minstrel music for his satirical look at black consumerism in "Big Black Buck." His verbal facility and rapid-fire juxtaposition of ideas, though, marked him as a member of the hip-hop generation, even as he rejected many of the musical characteristics and social attitudes associated with the hip-hop genre.
The Colored Section was moderately successful. Some felt that Motown's promotional efforts on behalf of the album were halfhearted, although the song "Cloud 9" was heard in the hit film Brown Sugar, and another selection, "Our New National Anthem," was featured in a Black Entertainment Television (BET) publicity campaign. But critics gave rave reviews. "Donnie's 'The Colored Section' might be the best soul record since Stevie Wonder's masterpieces [of the 1970s]," praised the Boston Globe, while People felt that Donnie "someday ... may just take a place alongside his cousin."
by James M. Manheim for musicianguide.com