One of the most interesting facets of being a music writer this past year has been talking to artists who’ve taken the whirlwind of the pandemic, social injustices, and more and spun them into an array of heavily influenced songs and records. The soulful Dondi is one of those artists. From the choir to serving his country to penning music that hits on so many levels, Dondi shared with us his insight on the past year and how it played into his August 2021 release, ‘Swim in Your Skin.’
Kendra: Were you the one to take the initiative back when you were a kid to join the Philadelphia Musical Academy Boys Choir?
Dondi: I was actually recruited by the assistant choir director at the time, Dan Rothernel. He came to my elementary school at the request of the music teacher to hear me. My grandfather took me to audition with the director and full choir on a Saturday morning at the Philadelphia Musical Academy. It was quite an experience. Once they decided I was a good fit, they called my mother and asked her permission, and explained the responsibilities. It was life-changing.
Kendra: Having that as your foundation and later enlisting in the Army, would you say all of the above has made you a more disciplined musician?
Dondi: I think the discipline comes from God. He’s given me the drive and ambition to nurture and continue to develop the gifts he gave me. If you don’t use it – you lose it.
Kendra: Looking back to where you started to where you are today with ‘Swim In Your Skin,’ what would you say has been your greatest moment of growth, musically?
Dondi: That’s an easy one. After getting permission from Burt Bacharach to cover “Alfie” written by him and performed by Dionne Warwick. The version I did was produced by her son, Damon Elliott. He’s a great guy and a monster producer, who’s worked with the likes of Destiny’s Child, Pink, Kelly Rowland, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, Billy Ray Cyrus and so many more.
I took what I learned from him in the studio, back home with me. And shortly after that, we collaborated on two songs that ended up on my “Don’t Call Me Junior” album.
Kendra: Coming out of a year like 2020, it’s going to be hard not to find someone whose creative endeavors moving forward aren’t inspired by the chaos that was. Your title track and single, “Swim in Your Skin” is all about the power of community and that connection. There was a lot we missed out on last year, but for you – what was the most surprising thing you found yourself missing last year?
Dondi: I’m a bit hesitant to say but, what I missed was the sense of security and community I felt as an American. The common sense we used to have in crucial moments. Conspiracy theories and rhetoric ruled the day and still do. Truth is not something that can be ignored by the masses. There is no such thing as alternative facts, but too many of us take hard truths and twist them to fit an agenda. We have become our own worst enemy. With that being said, I hold on to the hope that most will come back to their senses, and we can turn things around.
Kendra: Overall this album was inspired by not only the pandemic but also the social injustices that seemed to be nonstop throughout last year. Where was your mindset most of the time as a Black man who has served his country watching these scenes play out the same way time and time again?
Dondi: Certainly not a surprise. African Americans have been fighting for equal rights and equal justice under the law since the founding of our country. Remember, we had to beg to fight in the Civil War to secure the freedoms we were promised by our creator and have fought bravely alongside every shade of American since. Today we are faced with the prospect of not teaching our children the truth about race relations in our nation, and how slavery has affected our social and economic landscape. Some would have us whitewash history and sugarcoat the truth, even as it plays out in real-time on national television. There is no future if you can’t face the past.
Kendra: I think we’ve heard this line said more than once in recent years, it’s that America loves Black culture more than Black people and that pertains to Black people and their influence on everything from fashion to slang to, of course, music. As an artist rooted in a genre like soul, what are your thoughts on that?
Dondi: Black culture is rich in diversity. Just as every other culture in this melting pot, but the difference in my opinion is that Black music and culture are rooted in survival. From the very beginning, black music was spiritual. Sung in the fields while toiling over someone else’s land by force. An alchemy of joy and pain that gave us a sense of belonging in the world. As time moved on, more heard it for what it was. It said to our oppressors, “No matter what” I’m going to survive this. That’s where “Swag” comes from. It’s just confidence. It’s in the way we talk, walk, sing, dance, and interact with the world. That kind of confidence is appealing to everyone. It’s a contagion, and we are more than happy to share it as long as it’s not belittled. It means a great deal to us.
Kendra: Lastly, it’s getting a little easier with the vaccine rollouts, but it’s still kind of hard to have a definite answer when it comes to future plans given the current state of everything, but as far as what you can control when it comes to your career and creativity – what do you have planned in the coming months for yourself.
Dondi: I’m in rehearsals right now putting together a show that I hope will bring smiles to faces. I want to make people think, dance, make love, and work on being better people. I’ll be kicking it off on December 1st at World Café Live in Philadelphia and hopefully head on to NYC and other cities to share the Dondi experience. There will be songs from past projects as well as from the new album. And maybe a couple of brand new tunes I’ve recently finished. You’ll have to come out to find out.