The Daily News ends five years of silence for Donnie Johnson, one of the city's most talented artists. His 2002 debut, The Colored Section, summarized years of understudy amid Atlanta's soul conclaves, in particular the much-lamented Yin Yang Café. He was focused and aware of his surroundings, but undeniably in good spirits. When he calmly insists on "Beautiful Me," "I'm not nig-ger, I'm ne-ga-ro/If I become a nig-ger I'll let you know," and pronounces the words phonetically, he sounds as if he's in dialogue with you, firmly correcting you instead of cursing you out.
The soft-spoken, sun-speckled grooves of his first album are a stark contrast to the strident, aggressive funk of The Daily News. It begins with a challenge to "Impatient People," and then launches into "911." "I'd trade the World Trade to spend some time with you, babe/I'd trade my racism, my sexism, my homophobia/Trade all my funny ways, my financial center/Gonna be a cold and lonely winter without you, babe," he sings. It's not a tacit approval of the 9/11 bombings, but a hope that people see it as a call to come together or face cataclysmic consequences: "It's urgent," he sings.
On the album's most controversial track, "Atlanta Child Murders," he revives the conspiracy theory that the U.S. government, not convicted murderer Wayne Williams, was responsible for the dozens of black children murdered between 1979 and 1981. He compares it to the infamous Tuskegee Experiment, a clinical study conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service in which hundreds of African-Americans were denied treatment for syphilis. The Daily News is righteous message music, and it's meant to be taken as a statement and warning, not a casual conversation.
"The American government, the CDC, has always done experiments on black people," says Donnie about "Atlanta Child Murders." "The Atlanta child murders are a cover-up. That's my theory." He adds, "I've been hearing that story since I was a little child, that Wayne Williams is innocent. I've always heard that."
The Daily News is one of the best albums to come from an Atlanta artist this year. But its author remains as elusive as ever. A scheduled interview with Donnie at Lovin' It Live, an organic-foods restaurant in East Point, turned into an hour-and-a-half wait. A second attempt at reaching him by phone proved more successful. He was apologetic about missing the first interview, but not about his new tough-love songs.
"I don't feel like love songs are really real," Donnie says. "People talk about love and romanticizing the world when the world is terrible, otherwise the world would look like that. I don't want to live in a fantasy world."
The Daily News ends years of pernicious gossip about Donnie's life. For a time, at least within Atlanta's familial underground soul community, it felt as if all the side talk eclipsed his music. In a December 2005 story for this paper, Donnie was asked about rumors of a drug problem. "I'm not worried about people and what they got to say," Donnie responded.
Months later, during the inaugural International Soul Music Summit last August, Donnie found himself on a panel among the leaders of alternative soul. He sat alongside Eric Roberson, Jaguar "Divorcing Neo 2 Marry Soul" Wright, Laurnea and many others. But what began as an earnest discussion on how best to bring real soul music to the American mainstream turned upside down when Donnie launched into a wrenching tirade about his personal issues, from grappling with various addictions to coming to grips with his sexuality. It was a painful and cathartic speech.
Today, Donnie says simply, "There's no difference in my personal life and my music." While he doesn't explicitly reference it in lyrics, you can hear the tumult of the last few years in The Daily News' forthright and occasionally angry funk, and songs such as "Impatient People" and "Suicide." "Scaring all of my family and my friends with this thing of wanting to kill myself/Then I heard a voice that said to me, 'Donnie, you've got so much to live for,'" he sings on the latter.
"It took a long time for this album to come out because I had to work on my life. Things don't go right if your life is not right," he says. "I had to be concerned with Donnie, the real person. This music thing had to wait."
It took Donnie more than three years to write the lyrics for The Daily News. (Longtime producer Steve Harvey helped compose the arrangements.) Its uninhibited and topical nature differs dramatically from the glossy, prepackaged and tightly controlled aspect of contemporary soul and R&B. SoulThought Entertainment, an independent company in Los Angeles, is releasing the album, and its sales expectations are more realistic than those surrounding The Colored Section. But anyone who dismisses The Daily News as a less worthy follow-up would be doing himself a disservice.
"I can't make people listen, so my hope is that it reaches people it needs to reach," Donnie says. "I'm an artist. I'm not trying to keep up with the times. ... People want you to be with everybody else. And I don't want to be. I want to be me."
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