The Colored Section
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Outfitted in a bright green tie dyed men's dress shirt that looked a size too big, Donnie was jumping up and down like a boxer waiting in his corner of the ring. It was right before his show in Brooklyn this summer, and this new artist was ready to float like a butterfly and throw some musical punches.
Once he entered the stage, it was clear that his presence and audience interaction were second to none. It wasn't long before my friends and I were repeating lyrics we'd just heard and jamming like we had his debut CD, The Colored Section, memorized. The band, the back up vocalists, the audience and Donnie himself created music together. There was a sense of connection and shared energy that only the best performers can foster. With such an outstanding show, I had my doubts about his ability to capture all that on disc, but I was pleasantly proven wrong.
Donnie, unlike other "neo soul" artists, reaches back into time for old school R&B, jazz and ragtime melodies. With a voice reminiscent of another Donny (Hathaway) and musical accompaniment that has a Stevie Wonder quality, Donnie's debut album leaves the listener feeling good all over.
You're "Welcomed to the Colored Section" by Donnie's smooth crooning on a song that sounds like it could be lifted from an old southern black Baptist church hymnal. Lyrically, the song expresses Donnie's desire to invite the listener into the world of black people and the pain that often accompanies that existence. This sets the tone for the CD's racially charged lyrics.
In track two Donnie expresses the joy of being a dark skinned black man who realizes he's beautiful in spite of society's skewed standards of beauty. He proclaims, "I'm not a nigger, I'm a Negro, when I become a nigger I'll let you know." Such empowering refrains are laced through each track and lounge comfortably on the music arranged for them.
Cloud 9 is the next track. This is the song that has been released as a single, but unfortunately does not get much commercial radio play. I first heard Donnie's Cloud 9 on my family's satellite radio. The strength of his voice hit me and I couldn't help but smile. Another ode to loving the black body, this song expresses admiration for black hair and all its power.
People Person is a wonderful testament to the good and bad in all of us. He speaks of a pusher who will sell you any drug you want except on the Sabbath and a preacher who lusts for the deacon board. He asks, "Who are we to give up on anyone?" Who are we to judge because no one is perfect.
The song that most adeptly highlights the heights of Donnie's lyrical genius is Big Black Buck. With a distinct ragtime circus sound, Donnie speaks of consumption and materialism within the black community. Lifting the beginning of a popular children's chant he begins, "Mama's little baby is nothing but a consumer, never making a profit, rendering empty pockets." The Big Black Buck is both the black buying force and a personified black slave whipped and brought to his knees. The modern day slavery of the capitalist system is exposed in a satirical and playful way.
In the uniquely self-empowered love song "Do you Know?," the androgynous love interest is asked to stop vacillating and make up his/her mind to accept the love being offered. "There's winnings with my love so just stay" because "I can't be sweating you." Conversely the next song, "Turn Around," asks the love interest to do just that and see the love that's behind them is more real than the elusive love they seek in front of them. But in both cases the songs' upbeat tempos and sunny vocals make them empowering and not the standard depressing pleading love songs of today. The androgynous love interests allow the songs to easily cross gender and sexuality borders normally inherent in song lyrics. Interestingly enough, Donnie's lyrics, while clearly advocating love of self, a higher power, and others, do not discuss sex, making love, or cheating, common threads in most love songs. His songs reflect a more pure imagining of love and relationship, which is not seen in the work of most of his contemporaries.
The final song I'll comment on is one of my favorites. Rocketship is a Michael Jackson (circa Off The Wall/Thriller) inspired love song. Donnie says he loves you from 3000 miles away and if you were on Saturn he'd "take a rocketship to see you baby you're the one." This song has a more modern groove than the other songs. It has that bass you can feel if you played it on a good system. The instrumental could fit a modern R&B groove, yet Donnie's inventive lyrics seem to keep him from accessing commercial success.
Every song on the album alludes to Donnie's strong ties to the church. His voice was cultivated by singing gospel and his lyrics influenced by biblical prose. His spirituality seems connected to his realization that he is beautiful despite society's denial. None of the songs voice bitterness, resentment, or anger, just a factual accounting of what he has learned about people and himself. What I appreciate most about the album is his song writing. Not only does he say things that aren't normally voiced, he does so in a way that is not caustic or alienating for multicultural audiences.
Donnie is one of the most underrated neo soul artists of our time. I'm not sure if Motown's nonexistent publicity campaign or Clear Channels vice-like grip on the radio waves is to blame, but either way Donnie is not reaching the people the way he should. The Colored Section will leave you grinning from ear to ear despite the gravity of some of the subject matter. This is a CD for any collection that will touch your heart.
Moya Bailey is a student at Spellman University.