In the between-the-acts dimness of Temple Bar in Santa Monica, Donnie and his band scurry to find their places on the cramped stage. There's no curtain, so all eyes are on this do-it-yourself effort.
Wide-eyed, wiry Donnie settles behind the mike. Instead of a "one-two, one-two" to test the levels, he grabs hold of the bridge of Erykah Badu's "Apple Tree," the incidental music pumping from the P.A. system. "Do wee, do wee, do wee, do weeeeee," he vamps, until the recording fades out and the stage lights come up. He spins the hit a cappella, like a ball in the air. The backup singers fall in behind him. So does the crowd, wedged in 10 deep.
Who's to know whether the Badu baton-pass was coincidence, but it all works out to be kismet, since Badu, among other rising post-soul stars, provided an out-of-the-mold model for young artists like Donnie -- he goes by just one name -- whose sound was neither old-school R&B; nor straight-ahead hip-hop.
The Atlanta-based singer had been a fixture on that city's lively freestyle/spoken-word circuit for nearly five years before going after a national audience. He developed a following, becoming known as much for being India.Arie's singing soul mate as for his husky, well-traveled voice, marked by the grace of the church and the breadth of the world.
With the release of his debut effort, "The Colored Section," late last year on the independent label Giant Step, Donnie, 29, emerged as a singular voice. Critics called the Kentucky-born singer the first male neo-soul artist to arrive with a mature, evolved sound (with nods to forebears Donny Hathaway and Stevie Wonder) and messages about race, identity and the state of the urban landscape.
And, much like trailblazing neo-soul women -- Badu, or more directly Jill Scott -- he has not only an unwavering social consciousness, but also a plan. Giant Step set out to create a niche, to get the album into the hands of radio programmers, DJs, journalists and scenesters who might float the word -- no matter how long it took, a luxury a big label would not have afforded. They, and Donnie, are willing to take their time.
"I've been making this record all my life, really, truly I have. The songs have been building up over the years," he reflects a few days before the Temple Bar gig. Inspiration comes from words from the elders, the Bible, oral histories. "The first time I opened up one of those black American history books in the '70s, they were talking about Reconstruction and Jim Crow. I remember the photo of the two [lynched] men hanging from a tree and the white people looking back at the camera -- smiling. I mean I knew that I lived in a race-conscious society ... but...." For this post-civil-rights-era baby, the impact of that image was jarring. "I thought, 'Look at how gruesome our history of America is.' And we don't want to face the mutilated body."
African Americans' demons
To better understand history's lingering imprint, Donnie crafted a selection of songs that speaks to social issues that bedevil African Americans today -- blind consumerism as modern slavery ("Wildlife"), post-Jim Crow identity ("Our New National Anthem") and the struggle toward self-defined beauty ("Beautiful Me"). He has fitted these vignettes with out-of-mothballs arrangements -- electronic tweaks and blended styles that give many of the cuts a vintage Stevie Wonder patina. His rigorous religious background brings a mediative layer to the work, paying close heed to the lessons the Scriptures impart, but also acknowledging that one lives in a world that is full of temptation and contradiction.
"People ask me all the time, 'Well, what makes you want to talk about this?' Some of us [black people] were born in the decade that we got the right to vote. It wasn't that long ago. The challenges are here still."
Maurice Bernstein, co-founder and president of Giant Step, a multifaceted grass-roots music company, wasn't scared off by the content. "I do A&R; by the goose pimples. He did it for me," says Bernstein, who saw Donnie in Atlanta at the urging of India.Arie.
Message music, they both knew, wouldn't necessarily translate into big sales. So, the plan then was to borrow a page from Scott's success story: Start the grass-roots groundswell support. Giant Step, as well as Donnie's management collective, Groovement, hit the pavement. "Instead of just throwing it out there, take it to key people -- DJs, club owners, chat boards, our evangelists."
It appears to be working, says Bernstein, who gauges success as the album climbs in radio requests and on playlists around the country, including those of KJLH-FM (102.3) and KHHT-FM (92.3) locally. "Cloud 9" -- a neo-"I'm Black and I'm Proud" anthem -- has been a top 10 request at Hot 92 Jams, says the station's program and music director, Michelle Samtosuosso. "People were calling and asking if it was a new Stevie Wonder song."
She sees the Wonder connections beyond the retro musical arrangements: "You can hear another level of consciousness. The music industry is faced with the worst recession they have ever seen. A lot of people blame piracy, but I think a lot of it is that the music just isn't good. We've got to get behind people who are rattling cages."
The biggest boon, Bernstein reports, is that Donnie is set to sign with a major label with Giant Step as partner.
Donnie knows eyes are on him as he mixes homilies with agitprop messages backed by progressive soul beats. It's a cramped stage out there. But, he maintains: "The words are the most important thing today. They are the most important thing we have. It's the new technology, really. And you can say what you want in different ways."
But, he says after a pause, borrowing an old saying, "We have to liberate our minds. We've got to get out of our mess. I've been reading James Baldwin's letter to his nephew. It's true: The world is waiting for American blacks to get up and lead properly. Not just being the tastemakers. Not just determining what's hip or what's cool."