In 2002, Atlanta-based soul singer Donnie released his critically acclaimed “The Colored Section,” a powerful and spiritual look at black life, history, and race relations with personal perspective that channeled his idols Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Donnie Hathaway and offered hope.
Almost 15 years later, his songs remain relevant.
“I wrote ‘The Colored Section’ and (its follow-up) ‘The Daily News’ based on what was going on at the time,” says Donnie (last name Johnson), who wrote the album in his mid-twenties. “I think people are paying attention now, but the world’s been messed up.”
Donnie will revisit his debut album in its entirety Friday during his show at Neighborhood Theatre.
“I hadn’t experienced life like I did over the 15 years after that. (‘The Colored Section’) was more an inspiration from (those) three artists. They wrote songs that were political,” he says.
Johnson grew up in the post-Civil Rights South. He remembers the Atlanta Child Murders from 1979 to 1981, during which 24 African-American children between ages 7 and 14 were kidnapped and killed (cases that often remain unsolved).
Later, it was the 1989 Brooklyn death of Yusef Hawkins, a 16-year-old who was targeted along with three friends by a white mob. Then the shooting of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins by a Korean store owner in Los Angeles around the same time as the Rodney King beating that grabbed national headlines.
“Recorded in 1969, it came out in 1970 – Marvin says, ‘Crime is increasing/Trigger happy policing,’ ” Johnson says, quoting the lyrics of Gaye’s “Inner City Blues.” “Almost 50 years ago this same thing was happening.”
Johnson remains hopeful, as he was in 2001 when he wrote the lyrics to “Our New National Anthem”: “Ur race, my race, come together and have a taste of the new day for the remix/Eventually the race dilemma we’ll fix and...Everything it will be alright/Everything it will be just fine.”
“A lot of racist people have been programmed to be that, and they’re lonely. I saw a group on the internet, Black Lives Matter protesters walking on one side of the street and on the other side white protesters showed up,” Johnson says, describing the recent viral video where protesters from both sides following the Dallas police shootings embraced and cried.
“The cops came and got in the huddle. I cried like a baby because it let me know racism and hate will never win because that means there is no love,” he says.
“I’ve seen people who were racist change their minds. I had a coach in high school who said, ‘I used to be racist, but I changed my mind.’ He was inspiring,” says Johnson.
He remains inspired to create political music, but in a new way.
“I’m inspired by the same things, but not the same way of expressing them. Singing with a band and background singers – I don’t want to present myself like that anymore. I want to have Broadway type elements,” he explains. “The (upcoming) ‘American Mythology’ is a concert musical. It’s going to be more of an allegorical, symbolic message I want to cover a lot. You have to see the things people have in common and use symbols that make sense to them.”
“We need to celebrate. We’ve been here and we’re still thriving and I mean America,” he says. “We’re going to look back on what we’ve been through and we’re gonna dance.”
When: 9 p.m. Friday.
Where: Neighborhood Theatre, 511 E. 36th St.
Details: 704-942-7997; www.neighborhoodtheatre.com.