By Jake Amy and Ella Clair
“It’s been one of the most painful years to be Black in America,” says Danielle Ponder, a New York vocalist, activist and public defender. At 16, her brother was sentenced to 20 years in prison for a robbery of $170 where no one was hurt. Since, Danielle has helped thousands in the criminal justice system by connecting judges to the compassion in their hearts. I recently chatted to Danielle (amidst her #BlackLivesMatter protesting in the US) about identity, artistic collaboration, “business people” who control the music industry, and her new release with Naarm-based cinematic soul outfit, Karate Boogaloo. Here’s the most powerful parts of our conversation.
You’ve said, “It’s been one of the most painful years to be Black in America”. Could you talk about your experience?
Cops are killing Black folks. Not like that wasn't happening before. But Black folks are trying to survive a pandemic and also trying to survive racism. It’s an experience which highlights the fact that we [Black people] always carry an extra burden. And it gets to the point where I’m just like, “Enough is enough”. It doesn’t help that we have Donald Trump as president, who reinforces a lot of the white supremacist beliefs… so it can feel very much like a motherless child. Where do we belong as Black people? Because America doesn’t feel like our home.
Do you feel centred in your identity?
Well, I will say: right now is the Blackest I’ve ever felt. I feel thankful for the connectedness in the community right now. I feel proud of all of the young people who are active. And I feel proud about all the #BlackLivesMatter protests happening all over the world. It’s been beautiful to see. And I think I wear my Blackness proudly, deeply… but that can also be stressful at the same time.
I noticed in Look Around, you sing about feeling “all the pain in the world”. Do you think the people who make the “big calls” in the industry know what that feels like? If not, what possible implications does this disconnect have on the music industry?
Most of our music executives are white people, at least in the US anyway. Many, older white men. And they’re business people, right? Business people tend to focus on what’s profitable, not what will heal the world. And I think that’s a loss. It’s often lost that music is a healer. Music can change the world, but, if there’s such a focus on what is marketable, we lose a piece of that. It’s really unfortunate, because music is probably one of the most powerful tools we have.
And there are so many artists who can’t rise to the level of a famous pop star because they don’t fit a certain “formula”. I mean, there are some who definitely use their position to shine light on social issues, like what Beyoncé is doing right now (granted, she had to become “untouchable” before she could do that). One of the downsides of our industry is that it’s managed by people who are concerned with marketing, and not concerned with transformative change.
Do you think that will ever change?
If I say this, I’ll probably never get a record deal, but, I feel the [major label] industry is dying. Artists like Chance the Rapper are independent and are doing their own thing! I see labels becoming less relevant. It is possible that we get to a world where artists are completely in control of their music. And that would be a beautiful, beautiful thing to see.
What do you think are the next steps for addressing racial inequality in the music scene?
The next step for addressing racial inequality in the world (period), is reparations. For Black folks, there has to be. All the studies and research shows us: you cannot close the racial wealth gap until you explicitly fund and invest in the Black community.
The music industry, specifically, has gotten rich off the struggles of the Black community. There is no way our community should be looking the way it looks when we invented blues, jazz, rock and roll, soul, R&B, funk. I mean, there’s no reason we should even have something called “the hood”, right?! We should not have dilapidated houses. We gave this country so much. There’s no reason why our neighbourhoods should look the way they look.
And I think the music industry needs to go further; don’t just put up a black square and say “Black Lives Matter”. Invest directly into the Black community. Every track that is funk, soul blues, etc… 10% should go into a reparations fund for the Black community. Our struggle, and our pain, and our suffering created that music. You cannot detach the suffering, the struggle and the people from the genre.
Over here in Australia, it seems that centuries-old Western classical music is valued and respected more by government funding bodies than newer styles of music such as soul and jazz. Do you have any thoughts on that?
I don’t know if that’s because it’s centuries old, or if it’s because of racism and eurocentrism? One could argue that the foundations of Black music are also centuries old. The percussion that you hear in reggae or funk, or the use of the guitar, which was originally an African instrument. One could argue that what we have now is only a modification - or its remnants of what we had centuries ago in Africa.
We know that people of different identities have varying societal experiences. What are the implications of this on artistic collaboration between people of differing identities?
Despite our differing identities, there is a foundation on which all humans stand, and that is the need to be valued, the need to be loved. I think there can be a sense of connectedness when we look at collaboration with those basic principles. I wish folks could look at this Black Lives Matter movement as a call for love, and a call to be valued. If people could see it in those simple terms, then I think it’d be easier for them to connect.
Working with a band like Karate Boogaloo… they do a great job of educating themselves and are so thoughtful. They know how to decentre whiteness, follow Black leadership, and elevate Black voices. They call me and have questions, like, “Hey Danielle, do you think we should do this in this way?” That’s what’s so beautiful about them.
Do you see yourself represented in the music scene?
Locally, yeah. And I have a really great fan base; my hometown is just so supportive… I don't know where I’d be without them. Internationally, I see myself in some ways, but I do think I’ve had a very unique experience. I’ve been a public defender and represented thousands of people in the criminal justice system who have been accused of crimes. That experience is very unique, and I don’t know of any other musicians who have had that.
How does that make you feel?
It makes me feel like the time will come and I will be [represented].
Where do you look to see yourself represented?
Everywhere! And I really want to be able to spread my message worldwide. I want to tell the stories of the folks who I’ve represented and stories of those who are marginalised. When I’m travelling, I take [the story of] Tamir Rice with me, who was a 12 year old boy killed by the police. Whether I’m in France or Switzerland, Melbourne or wherever, I tell that story. I like to bring my culture and my people with me. And I like to present an authentic version of myself, Danielle Ponder, and my experiences.
What are the social/political responsibilities of an artist?
I used to think that artists had to talk about political issues. I used to think it was our duty to do so, but I’ve changed that belief, especially for Black artists. For some Black folks, writing a fun song about dancing may be what they need to heal, or what they need in order to survive being Black in America. I think we should make the songs that make us feel good. But for those of us who can, please tell the stories. And I’m one that can, so I do.
If there was one aspect from your experience working in criminal justice reform that you could teach the music industry, what would that be?
The art of telling a story in a way that connects people to their hearts. As a criminal defence attorney, that’s my job. If I’m representing you and you did something terrible, I need to somehow connect that judge to your humanity and connect them to their heart by saying, “Listen, he’s a good person. He’s working, you know? He’s just struggling right now with the drug addiction,” or whatever it might be. As an attorney (and especially as a public defender), you’re constantly trying to connect people to their hearts. You try to get a judge to be compassionate. To me, music can do that as well.
What change would you like to see in the industry over the next five years?
I would like to see an industry that is more accessible to artists who may not have money, may not have connections, may not fit the formula. An industry that truly values the talent.
I think about some of my favourite singers and just don’t know if they would have made it in today’s industry. Think about The Staple Singers - what record label today would accept that band?
I want to see an industry that asks more of the questions “Does this connect to the heart?” and “Does this tell the story of the human experience?” Rather than, “Will this sell Sprite?” and “Will this sell Nike?”
Did you have anything you wanted to add?
My time in Australia was amazing, especially my time in Melbourne. It’s such a diverse city… I mean, I’m sure y’all have issues that I just don’t know about.
What I loved about Karate Boogaloo and other folks I met in Australia was their honouring of the Indigenous folks who live there. That’s something we don’t see enough in the USA. It was really refreshing to see that respect.
Listen to Danielle's latest single with Karate Boogaloo here
We would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we work and live, and recognise their continuing connection in our community. We would like to pay respect to the Elders both past and present of the Kulin Nation and extend that respect to other First Nations people who have read this article.