Isolation Drills: Donn T

Like the majority of you, all of us in the Philadelphia area are staying at home, learning to adapt to our “new normal.” MAGNET is checking in with local musicians to see how and what they’re doing during this unprecedented time. Photos by Chris Sikich.

“How has COVID-19 impacted you as an artist?”

It’s a task to respond to that question. I feel the weight of the words I’m delivering in front of issuing them. I’ve apologized to the editor twice for missing the deadline for turning this in. I’m not certain I’ve been busy. I’ve been distracted by the landscape, absorbed by it. Confused and bemused.

I’m Donn T, multi-hyphenated creative (recording artist, singer/songwriter, label owner to Dtone Victorious, actor, author). In all the worlds I’ve manifested since publishing my first work at nine years old, I’ve only ever identified with being focused and driven. Thompson family genes, handed down from my late father (legendary singer Lee Andrews) are the culprit. Certainly, my brother Ahmir (“Questlove” Thompson of the Roots) and I get it honest.

I don’t proudly admit ultra productivity, bordering on workaholism, was my easy “go to” pre March 2020. My pet project, &More (w/ Philly rapper Chill Moody) had been catching steam since our debut album release, 2019’s Ethel Bobcat. We were riding a cool wave that included an NPR Tiny Desk, festival touring (spring/summer last year) and some prime local looks (last fall/winter). 2020 was destined to be bright.

At the top of this year, I had a few dozen solo dates on the books and a peppering of &More dates lined up as well. I was juggling a few writing projects and had begun work on my third album. The cherry? A very special collaboration with an artist I’ve loved my whole career. Unfortunately by the last week of March, my entire schedule was wiped. With the ushering in of COVID-19, life slowed and simplified. What’s happened since, I’ll term, “realignment.” 

My story is unusual. Let me backtrack and give you a bit more detail.

At the end of January, my husband, producer/guitarist Jake Morelli, left for Dubai to tour for Quincy Jones. In fact, his plane took off as the news of Kobe Bryant was announced. I was in L.A. for Grammy week and experienced the tragedy in (what felt like) real-time. The morning was incredibly foggy.

The day after the Grammys, I flew back home to Philly. I live next to a helicopter port. It was ominous hearing the sound of take-off and landing throughout the day, for several weeks. I could feel life was heading in an odd direction.

By February, we were hearing about a cruise ship quarantined in Japan, Americans on it being evacuated. Ahmaud Arbery was killed while jogging by three white men, Kobe’s memorial happened, and the largest ever black-hole explosion in the universe occurred. We were two months into 2020, The Year Of Perfect Vision. Impeccable Clarity. Unity. Blinders Off. What You See Is What You Get. Those were the projections. Pretty straightforward. I was curious to see how that would positively unfold.

By spring, coronavirus arrived. I began sheltering in place. Solo. My love was, by now, stranded in the Middle East. What was to be a three-month tour for Jake (with me meeting him in Dubai for the last month) became five months apart with a one-hour window to FaceTime because of a crazy time difference. He in fact, was trapped, quarantined with his band, in his Dubai hotel suite. Their only means out, one airport, shut down until further notice.

If being bombarded by thoughts of the pandemic wasn’t enough, the U.S. had just started dropping bombs in the Middle East. It was a lot. 

Oh, my computer crashed. I was hacked twice and nearly drop-kicked my cell phone off my 14th-floor balcony in the first few weeks of quarantine. I had a real moment where I found myself sprawled out on the living room floor expressing (under my breath), “Donn, get it together—or you may need to figure out smoke signals. You’re coming dangerously close to losing communication with the outside world.” (It’s funny now.)

Over those same weeks, I’d been helping out my mom, who lives a mile away (with errands, groceries, etc.). She’s entirely independent and capable, but … the pandemic. I discovered my focus on being a caring daughter added organization and intentionality to those early days. A gift.

The artist in me, however, the one I know to be fluidly creative, focused and driven, able to write, song-write and receive varied inspiration all day long in any circumstance was MIA. 

I wrestled with not being blindly creative, well into the summer. I felt numb. COVID numbers escalated daily. Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and a too-long list of black people were being murdered by police—in plain sight. Friends and colleagues who are successful musicians (independent artists and those on major labels), venue owners and music professionals were battling infinite financial insecurity. I resisted depression and dealt with my own grief (after having lost my best friend, my cousin Tracey) as the days of 2020 barrelled forward. Like many in 2020, I attended funerals online. 

A question remained. Why couldn’t I give a creative voice to 2020? Songs seemed stuck, stringing words together, tedium. Then, sometime in September, I had an epiphany. 

It wasn’t that I had nothing to say or to write (creatively). Fact is, life was hitting at warp speed, and I wasn’t processing it quickly enough to make it art. It was that I had too much to say. I was experiencing so much, feeling so much, so quickly, that I couldn’t digest it all. The idea of channeling the feelings, and transposing them for a hearer, felt overwhelming. 

The impact of COVID-19 on me as an artist? It has taken, and it has also given (which is strange for me to write). I have become more clear about who I am as an artist. The doorway to my artistry right now is through honoring my humanity. 

In order to create in this climate, I need social-media and news breaks. My body needs to move everyday. My mind and heart like prayer and meditation. Laughing is medicine for me. Being with family, a lifeline. Seeing each evening sunset really makes me happy. Processing the world we all live in with a therapist is a supportive thing.

I applaud artists who’ve seemed to effortlessly jump out of the worldwide-pandemic gate with 10 albums for release “right now,” while giving online concerts three times a day, between taking online classes at Harvard, while they’ve also learned a foreign language and how to build furniture. I just don’t have to be the creative hero of the pandemic. I’m here respecting my new path. Slow burning. But, when you next hear from me, creatively, it’ll be worth your attention.

A final thing that motivates and inspires me recently? A circle of artists, black women I admire whom I’ve gotten to know this year. Writers, recording artists, actors. These were women I’d always wanted to connect with, but there never seemed to be time. The blessing of quarantine remedied that. I don’t like long phone calls, but I’ve had at least a half-dozen four-hour conversations highlighting topics ranging from sisterhood, social justice, dreams, love, children, health, spirituality, investments and history. We’re not chatting. It’s not surface. We are communing. In the company of black women (mentors, sisters, mentees) in a year that highlighted dis-ease and death, life and unity are cultivated. Some outstanding creative collaborations blossomed. This is how I’m closing the gap that COVID-19 created for me as an artist.

With a solid foundation in place and renewed inspiration, I’m taking my fresh perspective forward into the studio these days. Super excited about new music for 2021. It’s special. I can’t wait to share. Today, I am richer as an artist for having experienced 2020 in just the way I did. Grateful.

Come visit me on IG and Twitter to get new music/creative announcements and musings in real time. And remember to say, “Hey!” Also please consider donating to NIVA Emergency Relief Fund/Save Our Stages. Read more here.

Thank you.