It's been more than a decade since Atlanta-based musician Donnie Johnson, better known on a first name basis by most, released his debut album, The Colored Section. But that album is just as relevant now as it was back in 2002. Sadly, racism and police brutalities are in the headlines, which is why Donnie is hitting the road in support of the still-relevant album. He'll be in Charlotte to perform at Neighborhood Theatre on July 22.
"I believe my music is very relevant to these times. That's why I play it. We have music to entertain and to help get some of that frustration out. People are frustrated and angry, but I'm learning how to channel my anger because there's no use in getting violent with the police, because you're dead," Donnie says. "I know that sounds harsh, but it's always been that way. They're lynching us and a lot of people don't want to really face that. In the South, lynching was common in the '20s and '30s from slavery and in the 20th century it turned it into something else."
He speaks about how he believes that Klu Klux Klan members are "trading in their sheets for shields" and that people are coming home from war with disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder, only to later join the police force. Whether you agree or disagree with that, there's no denying an increase in police violence — or at least in its accessibility, thanks to smart phones — and the need for hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter.
"We go through periods where we cover it up with a good time and friends, but it's always there. It doesn't go away, so it's always going to be relevant until we reach a world of love and peace, which I don't think is impossible," says Donnie. "But until we do that The Colored Section and The Daily News will always be relevant."
The Daily News, Donnie's sophomore album, was released back in 2007 and tackled similar race-related issues as The Colored Section. But it didn't receive the attention that The Colored Section did, which included review comparisons to musicians like Donny Hathaway and Stevie Wonder.
He feels that its success was in part due to good marketing. "The Colored Section had Giant Step records. They knew how to market it even more than a major label, so with Giant Step's Maurice Bernstein behind it, it was just better and more cheerful and artistic. It was more power, that's it," Donnie says.
Aside from addressing race discrimination, the album also touches on Donnie's own conflict with being a homosexual African-American man living in the south. He grew up in a Bible-thumping household — he's the son and sibling of preachers — and struggled to grapple with the church's views while keeping his faith.
"It spills over into my music, because I don't like discriminaton. And in my church I felt that discrimination, but I still loved my people. I entered enough churches where people have faced discrimination," says Donnie, who feels that his former church-versus-the-world complex has morphed into something else.
"I like my own identity. I want to be involved in shaping who I am. We don't shape ourselves all the way. We speak a language that somebody else created or made or invented. But I want to say who I am so people can really understand, so I've had this battle between the secular and sacred world. I won't be this for the church but I won't be this for the secular world. Neither one gets to tell me who I am."
In that regard, Donnie says he's attracted to men, but isn't fond of the word "gay."
"I don't like the word gay because a lot of people do not know any gay people and they tend to think it's one way when we're all different. Being attracted romantically doesn't always involve sex and people don't really get that. People have their own idea of what gay is. I wish there was another word," he says.
While Donnie isn't shy of pondering alternatives to language, he's also been busy researching mythology and symbolism for an upcoming musical called, The American Mythology.
"It's a musical based on the archetype of the classic myth with titans, sun and moon goddesses. It's an allegorical look at the American story and it uses symbolism and what America is really all about. For example, the golden arches, that's McDonalds and different things like that," says Donnie.
Though he plans to debut the musical later this year or in spring of 2017, his current focus has shifted to the relaunch tour for The Colored Section.
Still largely recognized for the album, even 14 years later, he's returning to the stage after flying under the radar for some time.
"It's a resurgence. That's really what's happening. I'm rising from the ashes," Donnie says. "Everybody has a time when they make themselves over or get to a certain point where they want to be in their attitude and outlook on life. I wont be under the radar for long."