On the first Friday of every month we take a look at one artist you need to be familiar with; for this month’s First Look Friday we talk to Donavon, a 22-year-old singer-songwriter who is devoted to preserving the essence of music’s past Black geniuses.
Twenty-two-year-old singer Donavon is a child of the algorithm. Not in the sense of being an industry plant engineered by record label-farmed consumer data. The Brooklyn-bred singer-songwriter and instrumentalist is a product of a world where so much information is available in seconds. The newest generation can absorb a lifetime’s worth of music months and see the full scope of the Black genius in every era.
It’s Donavon’s time; but he feels he doesn’t “really live in this time,” he explained to Okayplayer over the phone.
“I’m a kid who grew up on Twitter. I got Twitter in the 7th grade and I’ve just been on it. My brain has fully be shaped by the algorithm, and I understand what my attention span is and I make music for my attention span.”
The artist spent the last two years mainly indulging in music from the ‘70s while making his debut project, Badmind. Songs like “Bad” glide from Donavon crooning about “losing a good girl doing bad shit” over thudding drums and a sensual bassline. His voice has a velvety rasp to it that makes even psychedelic party jams like “Trip” sound bedroom-intimate. That’s not to confuse the bedroom intimacy of his voice with bedroom quality of his vocals, as he produced, mixed and arranged the entirety of Badmind to pristine levels, in fact, in his bedroom.
“I want people to sort of have a new idea of what [do it yourself] means. When people think about DIY they’re thinking about shitty sound and not thinking of something that can be an anthem. But, it really can be, especially in 2019.”
The DIY savant makes music with his ears more than his eyes, so the optics of a move he makes never supersedes the quality of the music that comes from it. So, his time in professional recording studios is absent from the image he portrays on Instagram and the music he presents on Badmind. It doesn’t even matter if that studio tangentially connects him with the highest-selling album ever.
“I went to L.A. to finish Badmind and I recorded in the same studio they recorded [Michael Jackson’s] Thriller in,” Donavon said. “I got a lot of takes in. I came home and I compared to the takes that I did in my bedroom and I liked those better. So, what you end up hearing on the project are those takes that I did in my bedroom chosen over the ones recorded in the studio.”
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Badmind has the lush instrumentation, careful sequencing and measured yet inviting transparency of some of the best R&B from the newer artists of the last few years. All from someone who admittedly can’t read music. Born and raised in a Jamaican household in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, Donavon spent most of his formative years developing as an artist in the church and was barred from listening to any secular music growing up. “You don’t really learn how to make music correctly [in the church], you just learn how to play music to get a feeling out of people.”
This introduction to the emotive side of music making in lieu of the technical is how he managed to craft a stellar debut project in a very small room at his mom’s house in Mount Vernon, NY on a $50 mic and a pop filter only a few feet from the bed he rests his head on at night.
“I can use a $10,000 mic at my job. I choose not to because I don’t like the way that it sounds with my voice,” he said. “It’s much less about price point than it is about trial and error.”
Badmind is an 18-month labor of love consisting of thousands of recorded and discarded vocal takes; the ashes swept away once the project was fully formed. Recording in his bedroom meant 24/7 studio time, essential for finding his artistic voice in the rubble of trial and error. Without the freedom of a recording environment unencumbered by limits on time, money or both, some of the projects that launched the biggest careers this decade may have never been made. J. Cole’s breakthrough 2009 mixtape The Warm Up had no budget but was made in professional studios with at least $30,000 of free studio time.
“I don’t think I could’ve made this project anywhere else because it took a lot of time and it took tens of thousands of takes and hours of decision making. I would’ve been spending so much money. It wouldn’t have been possible.”
He admittedly has no interest in scoring a No. 1 album. In his words, he’d rather stay “sane while contributing something to the music.” Donavon doesn’t even want to be a legend because, to him— due to attention spans too short and transient— not many artists can capture them long enough to stick through the test of time.
“Something the internet taught me, as well, is that we’re shifting away from huge platforms and moving towards micro-communities,” Donavon said. “My goal is centered around being the best in my specific micro community for the kids who have my influences. I do it for the kid who thinks D’Angelo and Lauryn [Hill] are the GOATs. I’m making music just for those people and I don’t really give a fuck about anyone else.”
He uttered the seemingly harsh sentiment with calm levity to his voice. He sounded free killing “legends,” or rather, the sheer idea of them ever existing again. A feat that could only be done with the confidence of an artist who found a way to make the algorithm work for him.
Donavon knows the typical career trajectory of the Black genius: incubation of the genius separate of modern influences, presentation of the genius and shocking audiences before finally becoming a recluse before the pressures of being a genius and being human splits you in two.
So, if he knows how the story goes, is he willfully walking into his own destruction?
“I keep telling my fellow Black and brown artists if we make it and we go crazy, we are just encouraging the kids that are looking up to us to sacrifice their sanity and their happiness for some numbers, playlists and some festivals. That shit is corny.”
The precocious artist already has two more EPs worth of material from his DIY Badminded sessions. He’s taking his time before putting them out, carefully piecing them together as he builds a leagcy all his own.
“No one can be a legend anymore,” he said. “You can’t be D’Angelo. You can’t be Lauryn [Hill]. You can’t be Jai Paul. You can’t be any of these people. That makes it a great time to be yourself.”
Watch the premiere of Donavon’s Badminded documentary below.
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