Isolation Drills: Danielle Johnson (Sug Daniels, Hoochi Coochi, Brown Sug & Blonde Roast)

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.

Johnson: I played a show with my band at City Winery in February 2020 and had no clue I would be taking the longest break from performing since I was a kid.

I’m usually onstage at least four or five times a month, every month for the last four years especially. In between my original band Hoochi Coochi, my cover band Brown Sug & Blonde Roast, sitting in as a guest vocalist, and writing and recording for other artists, I was finally feeling like a “true” artist and entertainer. I was even hired as a booking agent at a local entertainment company called Gable Music Ventures.

My income was 100% coming from music and the entertainment industry. I was feeling really excited about the year. Then the pandemic hit, and everything toppled like a house of cards.

The safety guidelines kept me from doing the job I had just got hired for, all my shows were cancelled one by one, and I wasn’t able to travel to a studio to record vocals for anyone. I felt like my life was being personally attacked. I would stand around my kitchen after laying around in my room all day, get depressed and listen to NPR.

It didn’t take long to realize I wasn’t being personally attacked and, in fact, all things considered, my life was more than OK. I began to think about all the people in the entire world going through the exact same thing. People who were elderly and terrified to leave the house. People who couldn’t properly socially distance themselves because they were deemed “essential.” All the other gig workers who were shit out of luck because they worked for themselves and had no backup plan or health insurance.

I went from feeling attacked to empathetic, and the shift in perception will follow me for the rest of my life. It made me think about my community as a whole. What have I done in my own state, city, neighborhood to make life better for those around me? I never wanted bad for anyone, but I never wanted better for them either.

When Breonna Taylor and George Floyd’s murders hit the news and everyone had the time to research how the people of color in America are sometimes treated, the outpour of love and support from my white friends was overwhelming. I’ll never forget the march in Wilmington from Tubman-Garrett Riverfront Park to the courthouse, everyone clad in face masks and holding signs demanding equality. It rained so bad that day, like the sky was crying with us. I knew I could never go back to thinking only of myself at that point.

While being forced to slow down, I picked up instruments for the first time ever and made a practice regime for myself. It was so incredible to see progress when I practiced every day, even just for five minutes. At the time, I lived with two other individuals who played music, so we would play music every night. I felt so inspired playing music with these other two women and having them encourage me to continue playing. I feel like they gave me a sort of permission to create on my own and not wait for a band or producer.

Since then, I’ve been creating music, including a song called “Tilton Park,” which I wrote and recorded with my mentor, Rob Pfeiffer. It addresses the concerns a lot of Americans have with the new POTUS and his team. We released the song on Bandcamp with the ability to donate whatever you want to get the park in front of our home fixed and made safe for the children and people of the neighborhood.

The love and support that we’ve gotten is beautiful, and the act of using my art to create change and better the lives of the people around me has been transformational. I’ve also received a lot of love from my musical family for the solo music and YouTube videos I’ve been sharing. My latest single is “Heavy.”

While I’m still grieving for all the lives we’ve lost due to this pandemic, I’m grateful for the lessons of both independence and togetherness I’ve learned. My plans are to continue honing in on my skills as an instrumentalist and producer while continuing to do community outreach with local volunteer groups and writing and highlighting the artist community for local blogs.

It feels strange, but if I look inward, I feel I was only able to see the light after experiencing such darkness. I feel the tide shifting in my life—using my gifts and energy to uplift those around me—will continue to be the way I stay afloat.