Donnie (Johnson) is a soul singer, it is in his blood. We all know his late cousin Marvin Gaye (who wasn’t but Donnie is), and his “come to the table and talk” song called “What’s going on?” Donnie released his own document called “The Colored Section” about the same issues Marvin sang about, and now, 20 years later, we are still trying to sort these out.
Donnie lives in Atlanta Georgia, and because of the last week’s news regarding Ahmaud Marquez Arbery, this album once again comes to the top.
“The Colored Section” is incredibly powerful, I will warn you, and it will leave you feeling stripped, ripped, hurting, and empty. Musically it is a masterpiece with some of the best production and talent you could fit into an album. It is also filled with the thoughts of a man who put to pen the suffering of people from the sheer cruelty of others. It is an album that needed to be made, and many more like it. Sometimes we need to look at the past, and learn from it, cause we are still there. Donnie is probably the most passionate person I have ever spoken to in my life.
Jeremy Hinks: Donnie thanks for taking the time, what’s going on?
Donnie Johnson: Thanks for having me, I’m actually learning something new this month.
JH: Yeah? What are you learning then?
DJ: I am learning more about who I am, and that as you learn these things, it makes you stand up a little more, and be proud of who you are. My friend’s daughter, I was showing her what a bee was, and she said “I KNOW WHAT A QUEEN BEE IS.” It hurt me, to be honest, and coming from a perspective, but I am for women, and it was the first time I had that happen to me. I want everyone to know that, as a woman, that her children are somebody, and not just worker-bees. But just to know that your children are somebody, I could hear that in her voice already. She sparked something within me that I never felt before. It made me prouder to be feminine because that’s who I am. When I was a little boy I was feminine, but my mom wanted me to be masculine. So I can act masculine, but, in nature, I’m the colorful one, I like art, paint, and colors.
JH: So, your album, the 20th year of your album “The Colored Section”, I LOVED the record, and when I think that yeah, that was 20 years ago, and we have come such a long way, then I hear this whole “Critical Race Theory” shit, and people saying “That will make our history look bad.” Then I know the line on your album “Sign your name on the blacklist, and know it’s American History”, I mean, you wrote this 20 years ago. That was so vicious then, and now it’s a slap in the face to think we are still fighting with this crap. I believe this album today, because of the headlines about “Critical Race Theory” about Florida. I’m thinking “WTF?” Do you think that “We went 20 years, and nothing has changed”?
DJ: I’m getting to the point that it wasn’t anything new to me, I wrote about what I saw, and I talked about what we saw every day. And a lot of people because of the media REALLY don’t know what black people actually go through, they let the media think for them. So when I saw George Floyd murdered, I had never seen white people fight like this. There were some things they said, none of us have ever heard a white person say “Silence Is Violence”. Because for so long people were seeing all of this, and still saying it wasn’t happening. I mean, black people were being skinned alive and hanged in the south. We suffered for everybody, and it’s still here, and until it leaves we are going to be talking about it. That was what Marvin said 50 years ago.
JH: Yeah, I was going to get to that, you guys have it in the blood. You don’t sound like Marvin, but you have the talent, so it’s in the family. So, let’s go with the song “Beautiful Me”, you said, “American Music was built on my back, and I will sing forever in the name of the American Negro”. You referenced slavery, I mean, rock and roll happened because of the situation created by the collapse of slavery, and segregation, Jim Crowe, and reconstruction. Rock & Roll would not be what it is today without the music of black influence. I found it unsettling, to make those connections of something we all love so much as Rock & Roll, to slavery and segregation.
DJ: I’m a loving human being, but I can not just forget what happened to my people, and let’s face it, there would be no “American Music” without black people. You take all of this music, and you make all this music, and you take it from somebody, and make all this money off it. People think Rock & Roll is Bon Jovi, but Jimmy Hendrix inspired distortion, and Heavy Metal, was built by white men? You know, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry, get your props man. But Christianity was used as a tool to exploit, not because they cared. I have seen it all in the south, and it’s like … Are you really human? I’m not looking at you thinking you did something to me, but if I’m in a room full of too many white people and I feel like there is going to be some sort of violence, so I just leave. I know this probably doesn’t settle, but I had to be honest, and put that in my music, because nobody cares about them (Black people). So when it comes to Rock & Roll, and thinking it’s “yours”, like so many other things, you wouldn’t have simple stuff, ironing boards, and peanut butter if it weren’t for African Americans.
That might offend you, but we are offended every day, I can’t walk down the street without seeing a police officer and think “am I going to be killed?” for whatever reason, because we still have trigger-happy cops. That is what I live in every day. I am a real honest person, and I am going to be honest about it because nobody else is going to say it, but I love my people. If I could say anything, just stop being mean, and be kind to each other. You know, Black Wall Street, 35 blocks of prosperity, and no one has said a thing about it in the United States. Seneca Village was a black neighborhood, people were slaughtered because they wanted to make a park in downtown New York City. So, yeah, “The Colored Section” is an album that needed to be made to talk about those things, and more albums like it need to be made.
JH: You just made me think of a scene in the film Blade Runner, where the main character comes across an android he was supposed to “retire”, and the guy pounded the shit out of him and said, “Quite an experience to live in fear isn’t it. That’s what it’s like to be a slave.” You just handed that to me in an uncomfortable way, and, well, I do need to be unsettled by all of this. I don’t get offended easily, but I’m sure it’s coming with this next question. The song “Big Black Buck”, had so many different styles in it, I honestly would not have thought it was the same guy who sane “Beautiful Me”. The lines “Mamma’s little baby was a crooner and a dancer, then you go on to say “This criminal society” then bring the big black buck to its knees… How many different stories were going on in this song?
DJ: It’s about the selling of a person, and not seeing them as a person. This is about going to the slave auction, treating them less than animals. As an artist, I am glad that people can listen and hear the lyrics. I come from contemporary gospel, they were trying to get us to listen, and to hear the sound, to compete with the world, and to stay in church and to stay with Jesus. The songs that they made, it taught me how to minister outside of gospel, but not necessarily secular. But “Big Black Buck” expresses how much America was built on free labor, on the same people they call lazy, those same decedents who fought in every war. I am human, it’s the same thing as when I was talking about the “queen bee”, and we talked about it in music, race, gender, and sexuality, there is always this one group that wants to be “Better” (than everyone else) and it’s REALLY irritating because when you want to be “Better” it’s because you don’t think much of yourself. My mother used to say “But Donnie, You’re BLACK”, meaning “You’re POWERFUL”. And I LOVE being black, even though it comes with a price, but it’s amazing, I know it sounds braggadocios, or conceited, I am not making myself better than anyone because I am black, I am just proud of being black because of what WE have been able to do, who we are and where we came from. I want that to be, not just for us, but for everybody. Not to sound conceited, but there is no real self-esteem or self-love in the mind of a racist.
JH: Oh, of course, if you have to prove your worth, by not doing anything of value for others, but by doing mean things to people different than you, you are far less of the person in your mind, than the person you hate.
DJ: Yeah, right now though, it’s interesting to see the efforts they are making to protect their innocence to avoid even acknowledging their racist history, and even current attitudes. You don’t come from “We shall overcome”, I don’t think that until they are honest with their children about whose backs they built all of this on, and still feel good about themselves. To have skyscrapers, and send people into space, they have to acknowledge who they exploited to get there. It’s a shame that we are still talking about all of this, but I don’t let it discourage me. I see George Washington Carver, I see the Clark Sisters, and I am proud.
JH: Well, I look at for instance the “Blacksploitation” films, like “Sweetback”, or Pam Grier in “Foxy Lady”, and Samuel l. Jackson in “Shaft” (the remake). I mean, for films to come out of nowhere and to have these powerful performances, empowering characters, and just good filmmaking on the whole. Those films in many ways were so groundbreaking, and in your face, they had some Oscar-worthy performances. “Sweetback” was actually required viewing for all members of the Black Panthers.
DJ: I have never seen those films, I never watched them in that “Genre” I suppose, but you do make me want to go watch them now.
JH: Ok, back to the record, you have quite a crew on that. Bobby Watson, Wayne Lindsey, Billy Preston.
DJ: Well, I got to meet Bobby Watson, and Wayne Lindsey, and people who sang backup for Anita Baker, which was VERY exciting. You know those people are studio singers, and they really don’t get the credit that they need to get, the songs wouldn’t be what they are without them. It was an honor to have them all on it.
JH: In the notes of the album you said “This is my version of “What’s Going On” by your cousin Marvin.
DJ: Yeah, I grew up in the same church as Marvin, and our cousin Estella, she sees me and yells “HEY COS”, and it’s a spiritual connection through us all, more than just a bloodline. I think they see me in a way that I am “My Generation” of him. I don’t think people want me to be Marvin.
JH: So this is the family saying “This is your turn with your talent?” so when Marvin sang “What’s going on” he was kicking up the dust, and with this, I guess it’s you fanning the flames. I remember having to sit down and listen to that song as a teenager, and see the point of “Let’s just sit down and talk”. Was this album also your coming out, or just “Affirming”?
DJ: I came out to the world when I came out to the church, that was bold because it was a Hebrew Pentecostal church. So all of that from Leviticus, and I had to tell them that if we are calling on each other in love and in Christ, y’all can’t get up there and go calling folks names. I grew up Hebrew Pentecostal, so we were “Holy Rollin Jews”, but that means we were also Christian, not just in Leviticus. But, I still had one foot in the closet, I still wasn’t completely comfortable in being gay, because of the stigmas. It was more an album dedicated to black people, but there were other issues that I was talking about. I think that up until now, I really haven’t really truly come out of the closet. When I say NOW, I mean this month showed me the truth about who gay men are. I can’t speak for gay women, for intersex, but to know who I am as a gay man, and to know that first of all, I can tell all these gay men, gay black men, I don’t have to be THIS or THAT. It’s not easy, because it’s about being within the black gay community, we have our own issues. But in the gay community in general there is major racism, and we don’t talk about that a whole lot. That’s the reason why it’s not so easy to fit in certain places. Gay men coming home in the 80s, were mad because they were not included in gay pride. So we had to start our own “Black, Gay” pride. It doesn’t mean they aren’t racist because they are gay, it’s not so easy because you are fighting so many things around you. I think gradually I will come out even more, but I think “I am Me” I don’t need to be any type of gay man to be out of the closet. Sometimes gay men feel like they need to out other gay men. I someone wants to stay in the closet, let them stay in the closet. It’s you who are miserable if you have to out someone for being gay and he does not want to have sex with you. IF a gay man is staying in the closet, and gets married and has children, just leave them alone. In the gay community, we don’t all have it together, we want everyone to treat us right, but we don’t treat each other right. Gay black women have 3 strikes against them, they have it hard, but sometimes it benefits them. Sometimes you are looked at as special, I don’t know why but they do. If I am on the train, and there are a lot of white people, I can start acting feminine and then suddenly they don’t see me as a threat.
JH: That is a strange world, it is all I can say. So, on your song “Cloud Nine”, thinking back about being the holy rolling Pentecostals, the line “I wear the lambswool fine under cloud nine when it rains it pours. I’m black and I’m proud, I’ve chosen to wear the conscious cloud… Ill be the Chameleon, be proud of your cloud”.
DJ: I started hanging out with a lot of cultural people in the late 90s, and I read about lambswool and how the bible speaks of lambswool. There is pride right in the book, it is funny that the same book that tells you to have low self-esteem also tells you that you are powerful. I want to remind people who have black kinky hair that you are powerful. You are not the ONLY person in the world that is powerful, but, you are powerful and beautiful. I’m saying “Fix yourself up” with your natural hair, that’s pride also.
JH: Your use of language is a double-edged sword. BUT, lemme ask about the song “Trois”… I don’t know how much more non-offensive it could be. I mean, ok, EVERY dude in the world has that song on his mind. I had to just smile with that smirk of “Ok, you got me, man, you know what I’m thinking”.
DJ: (laughing) Hey, it’s just a song man.
JH: SO, on the song “Do you know”, “do you know what you are doing, do you know who you are screwing?” If there is one song I would pick to tell the world about your catalog, that would be it.
DJ: That was during a stage in my life, where I liked somebody, and they didn’t like me back, and they weren’t going to like me back, because of the simple fact that they didn’t like me. You learn how to love yourself when somebody doesn’t want you. You kind of are upset at them, but you know it’s also not their fault. The song taught me that maybe I should have loved myself a little more before I wrote that song. Maybe I was living in my head too much, it took a long time for that to be.
JH: So, final question. What would your advice be to the young gay person in the closet, afraid and in that vulnerable state?
DJ: I would want them to explore. Before I came out, I was able to experience the gay community, I got to hang out with drag queens, female impersonators, male impersonators. I learned who I was in that sense. I would rather for them to learn who they are. I don’t want them to be afraid, it’s not easy because the world is programmed to be mean to gay people. I don’t force anyone to come out of the closet, I’m with you, I love you. I love you in or out of the closet, there are people who love you. Love yourself, nobody can do that for you. If you feel like you can, DO IT, if you can’t, get therapy, I know that sounds crazy, but go to therapy, have someone that can help you. Settle with yourself, we are afraid of what people are going to do and say, but all I can say is that I love you. It doesn’t make sense when little boys come and hang themselves because they have been bullied in their schools. Accept yourself, stop thinking that other people’s love is going to validate you. YOUR love is going to validate you. We’ve gotta be bold.
JH: Well Donnie, thank you, that was so heavy.