Retro Neo: Donavon is a Neo-Soul Scholar Who Believes The Genre Doesn’t Get the Respect it Deserves

Keith Nelson Jr. Keith Nelson Jr. is a journalist who has covered hip-hop,…
Donavon is one of the new generation of neo-soul's rising stars. His whispered falsetto paired with clever repurposing of everyday life results in uniquely neo-soul moments. Graphic: Okayplayer

In the latest edition of our neo-soul series, Retro Neo, we chop it up with singer Donavon who talked about wanting to see Black artists get the credit they deserve for constantly innovating.

Donavon doesn’t know a world without neo-soul. Born in 1997 — the same year Erykah Badu released her landmark classic Baduizm — Donavon has grown alongside the genre. Now he is one of the new generation of neo-soul’s rising stars. His whispered falsetto paired with clever repurposing of everyday life results in uniquely neo-soul moments like him telling a love interest “You more Jo-Jo and K-Ci, I’m more D’Angelo ‘Lady’’’ on his song “Bad.” 

He’s a student of the genre who never forgot his teachers and can know what it takes to push it forward.

“If you’re carrying on the tradition of neo-soul, you try to be making classic soul music in this post-Brooklyn drill world. It’s about capturing the cadence and energy of the time with the timelessness of what we know to be classic Black music,” Donavon told Okayplayer. “ What Quest[love] and D[‘Angelo] were doing in Electric Lady Studio wasn’t tried and true, they were experimenting.”

Speaking with Okayplayer for Retro Neo, the fledging singer discusses literately taking from D’Angelo to make his own songs, how he can hear neo-soul in Michael Jackson, and wanting to see Black artists get credit for innovating. 

What is your earliest memory if neo-soul?

Donavon: The key connection for me was hearing it and thinking, “Oh, these are gospel chords. This is gospel music slowed down and paced in a way that was sexual.” My first memories of it was probably some Slum Village-era and Kanye West-era shit when he would borrow what some of the Soulquarians were doing at the time. I remember early on they would call D’angelo’s music “Hythm and Blues.” I thought neo-soul was literally just gospel chords, gospel progressions, and even gospel approaches to music making, but with normal secular lyrics over it. A lot of Prince’s influence on neo-soul was, musically, spiritual-sounding music and sexual-sounding music are actually the same thing. It’s all about the context you present them with. Look at a song like Prince’s “Insatiable,” which is a pre-neo soul era song on Diamonds and Pearls. It’s toeing that line between it being gospel and soulful and him talking about fucking over the entire thing (laughs). That’s sort of the line neo-soul is able to hit in the early 2000s with Voodoo, Mama’s Gun, and [J] Dilla‘s shit. Even though Prince didn’t start the neo-soul movement, the people who did were his proteges. 

How does your music specifically borrow from neo-soul?

I’ll never run away from my influences. The literal snare on my biggest song, “These Days,” is stolen from Voodoo. I cut that shit out and put it in there because I tried recording a bunch of different snares. I went on a bunch of different message boards to figure out how D’angelo and Questlove mic’ed up all of the drums on that album. I spent a lot of time and money trying to get drum sounds that sound that good, but I couldn’t because there’s something about those records that I couldn’t recreate. So, I had to take specific sounds from my favorite neo-soul records, in order to capture the feeling. Beyond that, it’s really about the way it affects your internal sense of time. Voodoo influenced the way musicians play behind the beat. Dilla was working on [Erykah Badu’s] shit, and Quest and D’angelo were working on Voodoo. D was telling Quest to keep playing further behind the beat and Quest was skeptical, thinking, “People going to think I’m a bad drummer.” But, it’s that shift in internal sense of time that dictated all of my music. “Bad” and “These Days” are behind the beat. 

What does neo-soul sound like to you?

Neo-soul is Black and honest. There are a lot of genres that are Black people putting out their best selves. Hip-hop is really good at that; it’s very aspirational. Older soul music was very happy; it was Black people expressing joy. Neo-soul was the genre in the progression of Black music where Black people got to be honest. A lot of these recordings are just Rhodes, drums, and bass. There were no aspirations to get a hit. There was something that felt more honest about it than other genres of Black music I really like. Neo-soul just gave Black people a little more room to be honest. It wasn’t based [on] selling hits. The ’70s were raw soul music and neo-soul was soul music in a post-hip-hop society. I think what D’angelo was trying to do was be Al Green after DJ Premier. So, if Preemo and Dilla are going to change how drums sound, let me try to make an Al Green or Prince song in this post-hip-hop world. 

To that point, what are some songs people wouldn’t classify as neo-soul that you feel fall in that sound?

I don’t know if people consider “Butterfly” by Michael Jackson a neo-soul song but it’s a pop artist clearly making a neo-soul song. 

The chords, the pocket, the drum programming, the way Michael is singing. The real influence in neo-soul is what people are calling “whisper singing.” Neo-soul was always people singing honestly, not singing to impress with their voice. I think all of the alternative R&B is influenced by that because people aren’t singing to sing their asses off. They’re singing to get their message across. I think The Weeknd, 6LACK, Summer Walker, and all the people they put in that “whisper singing” category don’t happen if Erykah, Jill Scott, and D’angelo didn’t record just to capture the intended energy of the song. 

If you had to make a neo-soul playlist, what two songs would you put one of your songs in between? Why?

It would be D’angelo’s “The Root” into my song “These Days” into Erykah’s song “Telephone.” That would be a nice run. I borrowed the snare from “The Root” for “These Days,” so it’ll work. Voodoo is my favorite album because I never heard a Black man be this honest. There’s stuff on that album where I’m like, “I can’t believe a neo-soul artist is singing this.” With “These Days,” I was inspired by how much D was willing to say exactly what he means. There are so many lyrics on Voodoo that are permanently engrained in my brain like, “my blood is cold and I can’t feel my legs” on “The Root.” For “Telephone,” I always loved that song because she wrote it after she visited Dilla in the hospital. She wrote about his transition into the afterlife and it might be one of my Top five Erykah Badu songs. It’s about longing for people and lost like “These Days.” 

Who are some underrated neo-soul artists?

Les Nubians. They have this song called “Makeda.” They were these two Black girls in France reacting to the whole neo-soul movement from a European angle. They’re singing in French and the beats are so crazy. The pockets are super fire and Pharrell even produced one joint on their album. Also, [DJ] Jazzy Jeff, in general. People don’t realize how impactful Jazzy Jeff was as a curator of the whole Philly scene by giving people opportunities early. He even has a song with Eric Roberson called “Rock With U” that’s a great neo-soul song. 

You sound like a student. Do you have any musical connection to any of the legendary neo-soul artists?

I will say this, I think D’angelo’s brother showed him my stuff, but I don’t know if he actually heard it. Someone I knew who knew his brother was fucking with my stuff and wanted to show him. But, that was a dead end and I didn’t hear back. I would actually like to work at Electric Lady Studios. I think there’s something special about the room. Stevie [Wonder] wanted to work there because it was Jimi [Hendrix]’s studio. D’angelo wanted to record Voodoo there because he wanted to use the Rhodes Stevie worked on Talking Book on. I do believe certain rooms and people carry a certain energy that can always be tapped into. .

How do you hope the respect for neo-soul will change?

The biggest thing I want to see is Black faces and voices getting the credit for innovating. I’m tired of the process of Black people reinventing soul music every decade and it being co-opted by non-Black people. Black people are doing great and we’re always pushing the boundaries. The challenge would be to the public to respect things for what they are. I don’t think The Roots or D’angelo were given the credit they deserved. I think when it comes to soul music, Black people are naturally protective of it. We love soul music so much we often don’t like when people tweak it and push it to the next level. I saw that when D’angelo dropped The Black Messiah, a bunch of Black people were like, “What the fuck is this?” He’s never going to do the same thing twice. That’s why it’s called neo-soul. 

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Keith Nelson Jr. is a journalist who has covered hip-hop, technology, and movies/TV for VIBE, Revolt, Digital Trends, Flaunt Magazine, and more. Follow him @JusAire

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