Danami

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AN ARTIST, HIS FAITH, AND THE MUSIC THEY SHARE

Words and Photos by Emmet Kowler

 
The fact that we're able to create is just a direct correlation to God being the ultimate creator.
 

As a concert photographer, I’ve developed a love-hate relationship with the first three songs of every live set I see.

The first three move quickly. They don’t get intros. The band doesn’t pause for banter. Sometimes, security throws photographers out of the pit after the second, either because it was long or they’re just not paying attention.

But hardly ever is a band worked up and emotional when they walk onstage for the first time. As a photographer, you want to catch the artists not just in peak action, but also peak emotion. A shot of an artist looking vulnerable — when they draw away from the mic to gather the next verse in their hearts and mouths, or cede center stage to the guitar player for eight bars — those are what you crave. It’s those shots that let you in. It’s those shots that the crowd misses.

 

Danami’s rehearsal with his backing band, the Blue, doesn’t have a formal beginning. They don’t enter the East St. Paul basement studio until 12 minutes after their scheduled arrival. With leisure, they take instruments out of cases, adjust the sound of their amps, mess with a few inversions of a chord, noodle on a horn. Danami is on his phone between moments of messing with the PA.

When rehearsal does eventually start, it doesn’t go well. Members of the band have failed to do their homework. Danami’s patience holds, but his disappointment spreads like smoke. A large, ballooning awkwardness fills the center of the room until Adrian, saxophone player and a seeming right-hand of Danami’s, leads the way out to recoup the lost progress.

 

I’m a Jewish white kid walking into Black church on Erev Rosh Hashanah. On this day, I am the proverbial fish out of the holy water.

Danami is their sound guy. He introduces me to the pastor, the drummer, and a couple others. Most everyone else remains a stranger to me, though it seems that whenever anyone gets within six feet of me, they’re obliged to firmly grasp my hand in theirs and offer a sincere, warm welcome.

I’m not prepared for the opening of the service: a three-song set, familiar to the concert photographer corner of my brain, and foreign to the spiritual one. The music moves like nothing I’ve ever heard, except maybe that one time I saw Prince play with Judith Hill at Paisley Park. Each member of the six-voice choir holds their microphone with such confidence and grace. Their voices thrust the music out and up, to the crowd and to the heavens. The band seems possessed by a God that knows how to keep great time.

 
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I don't believe in writer's block. I used to. Elizabeth Gilbert says this about creativity and inspiration, how back in the day people used to separate the muse from itself. The idea comes to you, and you try to capture it, within that moment. I look at it like, as a writer, it's my job to write, regardless if I don't feel inspired. By writing, I'm practicing and getting better at my craft. So when the times comes from inspiration — which to me, is God — that spark can work through me. I'm ready. I've already been in this place. Ready to receive.
 

In our early exchanges in preparing for this article, Danami said to me, “I love that you are covering 'unpopular' topics like this one.”

Danami has never been one to hide the fact that his life as a man, husband, father, graphic designer, writer, storyteller, and musician is guided by a deep and abiding relationship with Jesus. It’s easy to overlook, or doubt, a Medium post entitled "Trusting Jesus to Book a Tour" when the mainstream — both politically and culturally — has so effectively erased the presence of faith from our public spheres. We see musicians in strictly public spaces like live venues and social media, and when those artists express anything about something as heavily policed and personal as their faith, it tends to raise eyebrows.

 

There are no hymnals, and only one Bible in sight.

The last slit of golden sunlight slides through the modest stained glass.

A woman, in all black and an ornate bonnet, wants to sit in my row. Instead of waiting for me to exit into the aisle, she just squeezes past.

As the last song — “Hallelujah is the highest praise” goes the refrain — comes to a stirring close, the pastor approaches the front. It’s his anniversary month, so he’s invited a roster of guests to deliver the sermon in his stead for the entire month. The way he puts it, “Some folks want a preacher, and some want a pastor.”

The congregation affirms him. The pastor begins to monologue his welcome. At one point, he says, “I’m just glad we’re all here. Everybody just wave your hands.” And the congregation affirms him again.

Danami is invited to the stage to offer the testimony with the offering.

His story is about starvation, near-eviction, and grants. It’s about God stepping in for his most recent tour, where he saved hundreds of dollars on a van rental, and found new fans (Naminees) in places he never expected. The band accompanies the flurry of plates and credit cards with traveling music. It’s the chords from a previous song; it takes me a while to notice, and then locate, the voices floating up from the congregation.

 
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So many songs are about relationships. What happens when you and Jesus break up?

That would never happen. And if it does, it'd be because of my own lack of information and my feelings. It'd be my call, not because he pushed me away. He loves me too much to push me away.
 

Danami spends most of rehearsal listening. The band will play a chord, then another. He’ll direct them to play that chord again. No, the other one. And what if you had that note on top?

Every now and again, a band member with more formal musical training that Danami will mention a term. “Tonic,” or “counterpoint.” Danami asks them to explain before they move on.

Then Danami will have them sit in a vamp of a chord progression. He’s usually somewhere between sitting and standing, rubbing his bowed head, eyes closed, or with his arms folded across himself and fixing his sight upon an unseen horizon.

 

Danami is best experienced live. His band exudes energy and warmth, led by his knack for storytelling. The music begs for an audience. They may take some convincing when it comes to dancing, but they almost always come around.

Because they have to. That’s how Danami knows his music is working.

 

After a set of songs from a full choir and a new set of musicians, today’s guest preacher takes the stage. He’s dressed in a silver-gilded, collared jacket that Prince might have worn.

He starts his sermon with his fingers of his left hand on the bottom of the microphone, resting it against his chin as he speaks.

It doesn’t last long.

Suddenly, the microphone is in his right hand. He’s got his fist and his mouth all over the grill. He inhales violently, loudly, at the end of every phrase. He’s hyping the audience, with his wild pacing back and forth across the stage. “Every time you feel the enemy on your heels, you put your hand on your mind and and say, ‘I belong to God,’” is one of my favorite lines. That is, until, “When the praises go up, the blessings come down.”

It’s at this point that I start to lose my faith in coincidence.

 
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Do you see inspiration and God's word as linked somehow?

Yes and no, because that idea that they're linked: I'm growing into that. They've never been linked before. A good portion of my life I've been a Christian, but only the last couple years I've been deep in my faith. I have the bulk of my life that's based upon what society says. I get deep in my faith and I'm like, "Hold up. This thing that the world is saying that this is? That's just you, God, manifesting."
 

The full band never occupies the room together for the rest of the evening. The guitar player has to leave for another rehearsal. The horn players retreat upstairs to watch the presidential debate. The rehearsal fizzles out with a few more jams and chord progressions. I hang back with Danami to pick his brain.

The conversation is scattered. We talk about his faith and mine, our obligations to empathy. Danami starts to muse upon the idea of seeking his audience elsewhere, east of the Mississippi, and his experiences on tour, noticing the differences between the Black audiences he would play to away from home and his predominantly white audiences in the Twin Cities.

He doesn’t seem bothered — he’s just in the process of making peace with that reality.

 
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What's the best way for white people to acknowledge the Blackness of their music?

Props where props is due. Credit to the people who created it. In America, the powers that be have stripped African identities and stolen a lot of things that Black people did. When Black people come up with something, there's a sense of pride. There's pride because everything else gets stripped from us. You can be a part of this, but acknowledge what this is. It's like not getting the sample cleared. You acknowledge by sharing the history. [...] Name-drop. That gives validity to what you're saying.
 

As the preacher begins to wind down, tissues are passed around the congregation. Straightened hair and perfect makeup are no more.

I look over to Danami in the sound booth, rubbing his hair, eyes closed, one foot up on his chair.

The pastor’s wife offers her closing words (“Here comes my kind of music. Oh Lord, let it come!”) and the band strikes up again. There’s one more round of offering and giving, one more three-song set. Still more people greet me, this time with a little extra twinkle in their eyes. Behind my smile and my “thank you,” I’m turning over this thought in my head:

Those of us music journalists who like to compare concerts to church ain’t seen shit ‘til they’ve experienced what I just experienced. I feel like I’ve watched and listened to the weight of hundreds of years of musical and spiritual development as it collides with human voices and bodies. I feel like I’ve laid eyes upon the origins of the music that our whitewashed society loves to dance to, but so often fails to value. On this day, a line has been blurred.