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Homegoings #4: DonnCherie (Transcript)

A thin grey line.

A conversation with DonnCherie on compassion, artistic authenticity and taking Blackness back.

This is the fourth installment of Homegoings, a special series from Brave Little State that features conversations with musicians of color who live in Vermont. Follow the series here.

Note: These transcripts are provided for accessibility and reference. If you are able, we strongly recommend listening to this episode here. Please check the audio before quoting in print, as the transcript may contain minor errors.

The transcript

This episode contains profanity.

[Myra Flynn] DonnCherie, you also are an accountant, correct?

[DonnCherie] No no, not an accountant. I'm a bookkeeper.

[Myra Flynn] You're a bookkeeper. Excuse me, a bookkeeper! I don't know — it’s tax season, I don't know the difference! [Laughter]

That’s DonnCherie — setting me straight!

And I kind of had a big moment in adulting, in learning this difference. Maybe many of you already know this, but an accountant can only give you insights based on your bookkeeper’s records of you.

So while your accountant is there to keep track of your money, your bookkeeper is kind of there to keep track of YOU. Their records are a finite recording of all of the little daily choices you make. Your food, your clothes, your bills, your art — choices that make you authentically you.

When she’s not making her lyrically-sophisticated soul-folk music, Burlington-based DonnCherie is keeping the books for other artists of color in Vermont. And might I say, in a time and place where we might feel kind of disappeared, it’s nice to know that there’s a DonnCherie out there keeping track of us — authentically.

[DonnCherie] I'll be completely blunt here. I think artistic responsibility is to be authentic, wherever you are, like, whatever — whatever spot you've landed on right now, is to just be authentic in it.

More from Brave Little State: Homegoings: Bobby Hackney Jr. On Rough Francis' Punk-Rock Inheritance

Welcome back to Homegoings, a special series from Brave Little State. I’m Myra Flynn. Since the one-year anniversary of the murder of George Floyd, we have been sharing conversations with Vermont musicians of color, and taking a deep listen to one of their songs. In today’s episode, I talk with DonnCherie about compassion and artistic authenticity.

I guess I’ve been doing a little bookkeeping myself, in these episodes of Homegoings. I’ve been keeping record of Black art, and the four pillars of response in a post-Floyd era: grief, joy, rage and healing.

Today, DonnCherie graciously let me keep her books. And the longer we talked, the more I realized how she doesn’t just align with one of these feelings.

[DonnCherie] I am all over the place when it comes to thinking about Black death, specifically at the hands of the law enforcement.

She cycles through them all. And often.

Grief:

[DonnCherie] You know, this is not the first ugly, horrific thing that we have had to absorb because, you know, white America just didn't want to see it.

Joy:

[DonnCherie] On one hand, I'm very proud of how the community came together...

Rage:

[DonnCherie] And I'm very broken … about the loss of these folks to their families. Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, like … I'm heartsick about it. And then that leads to rage, and I am furious and fearful.

And healing:

[DonnCherie] I am a practicing witch. So I find my comfort in nature ... hanging out with my pets, writing lyrics… as long as I can ground, then I'll be OK.

DonnCherie helped me realize that these feelings are not mutually exclusive.

[DonnCherie] ...it just spirals, again and again and again. And then I right myself and get it under control, just to go through it all again.

And at the center of that spiral is our humanity.

DonnCherie says that living here in Vermont has a lot to do with preserving hers.

[DonnCherie] So let's say the world is on fire around me. And yet it's springtime outside here in lovely Vermont. And everything is green, and there're like a zillion birds outside my back door right now, and I'm watching my dog chase a bee around the yard, and I have this moment of calm and contentment and a song comes out of that. I can guarantee you that that also connects with somebody... who is wistfully wishing that they were sitting on their back porch looking at the same scenes, you know what I mean? So I think artists’ responsibility is to just be authentic in the moment. And who whoever we are, and however we arrived, and that's it. And the world just kind of has to deal with that.

Nina Simone once said, “It’s an artist's responsibility to reflect the times.” But if you’ve taken a good look around, it’s hard to miss just how different times are looking these days.

A lot of us, and our art, have been inside, for a long time. And that time has coincided with a surge in racial awareness.

So in a place like Vermont, where Black performers are already used to being in the spotlight— that spotlight has kind of turned into a microscope, and that doesn’t always feel great.

More from Brave Little State: Homegoings: Senayit Tomlinson On Art As A 'Way Through'

So I had to ask DonnCherie, now that stuff is starting to open back up, how can we task white audience members with taking care of us?

How can you keep our books?

[DonnCherie] Listen, listen, and look, look for us... and then elevate those voices... buy their stuff, you know, support them. Tell your friends, elevate them on your social media, you know, like, share the things, lift them up. You know that, that's, that's how they can show up authentically.

Listen for us. Look for us. Elevate us. And another thing — get pissed.

[DonnCherie] Like sometimes, even if it pisses you off, art is supposed to make you feel, right. Go to dinner after the show. Talk about what you heard. What you thought, how it made you feel, and then go further than that, you know? Figure out why — anyway, I'll pull my soapbox back now. [Laughter]

When we come back, we’ll hear from DonnCherie on Black fallibility.

As we do in each episode of Homegoings, we’ll take a deep listen to a song by the artist we’re featuring. In a bit, we’ll hear DonnCherie’s song, “For Keeps.” But before we do, I want to continue unpacking her values around authenticity.

Because as with all Black musicians, in order to understand our art, you need the proper context. You need to understand us.

I was talking with a friend the other day about Black excellence, a term that’s been hashtagged and trending for a few years now, under pictures of Beyonce and Jay-Z, dressed to the nines and living their best lives.

I think I’ve used it a couple times.

But my friend quickly fired back at me: ”Black excellence is bullshit! Because it’s pressure. If everyone who is Black has to be excellent, there’s no room for Black averageness, or Black mediocrity. You know, how white people get to be all the time. There’s no room for normal.”

This blew my mind. Being Black and mediocre in this world, has always been one of my biggest fears, and it hurts to think of how long I have tirelessly fought to overcompensate for that. I never knew mediocrity was an option — even sometimes.

And DonnCherie says she’s all about relaxing the reins on that particular form of pressure. Authenticity, and a deep understanding of self, is her Black excellence.

[DonnCherie] I totally stand for Black fallibility. Let me explain… I think that, that pressure to look the part, act a certain way, be polite so that you're not seen as angry, to be amicable in a situation that is not safe, just so that you don't seem like a threat. I think I've fallen into that so many times in my life where I was afraid to use my voice. And then when I did use my voice, disaster struck.

She says sometimes lessons learned in painful ways can be a gift.

[DonnCherie] ... and something clicked in me the last, I think it was just like the last crappy job I held. That was, that was part of it, where I just realized that, OK, disaster was going to strike anyway. And I know that I was afraid of it. And that I'm treating them as if they're holding the treasure. Right? What I would say to another artist: You are the treasure. And what they are is an obstacle. So you have to move them out of your way, even if you have to get angry to do it. And if they're going to view you as a threat, they were going to do it anyway. So take a deep breath, step off the ledge, and just be who you are, show up as you and the right people are going to see you. And they are going to surround you with all the support you need.

[Myra Flynn] I'm, I have to say I've cried at every one of these interviews.. And it's just been so wonderful to unpack some of this. This, this Blackness and these burdens that we carry through, you know, this catharsis, like just through these interviews. So thank you. That's beautiful... I think we all need to hear it. 

More from Brave Little State: Homegoings: Rivan Calderin On Hip-Hop As His 'Oxygen Mask'

Black. I’ve taken back the word Black for these episodes, and here’s why.

I get a little worried about straying too far away from the storytelling of the Black experience when we bring up George Floyd. All you have to do is watch one Spike Lee movie to know that these issues between police and Black people have been around for a long time.

So I think it’s important, in these conversations, to talk about Blackness. It’s not an outfit we can change. We are cloaked in our Blackness, and this cloak determines how we are treated, how we are feared, and how we are killed.

But DonnCherie says she still refuses to downplay her Blackness in any way, shape or form.

[DonnCherie] I have dreadlocks that are down to my waist. I am, I don't know, I’m bronze-skinned. Kind of scarred, couple of tattoos.

Especially when it comes to her looks. Not only is she Black, she wears the color black all the time.

[DonnCherie] I am generally head-to-toe in black, because I feel comfortable in it. Unless I'm dancing or modeling for some, some artist or other that, that needs more color.

This authentic way of being and looking, takes work. DonnCherie recalls some moments that reminded her that when you’re Black in Vermont, you can be yourself — but you might not always get away with it.

After all, some people are still grabbing Black people’s hair.

[DonnCherie]: I had a woman grab my hair and get mad at me because I looked at her like she was just —Yeah, yeah, it was like that. I'm looking at the expression on your face, and it was like that. [Laughter]

[Myra Flynn] I can't help it. I can't help it… That's crazy. She got mad at you for it?

[DonnCherie] She got mad at me because I stopped what I was saying and looked at her like she had lost her mind. The idea that you can reach out and touch another person. So it was like, wow, wow, you're touching me? What is going on?

Black hair in Vermont deserves its own episode. But for now, non-Black Vermonters, can we all just make an agreement to stop touching it? Like, let’s just stop that.

If you want to get close to Black musicians without actually touching them, their music is the right place to start.

And when I think about that same authenticity that shows up in DonnCherie the person, the bookkeeper, the fashionista and the Black woman, I think about her music.

It’s not necessarily that she is genre defying — it’s that I don’t think any of the genres out there do her music justice.

Her first love is the blues, and her others are rock, folk and reggae.

So, as we start talking about her song “For Keeps,” and soon have a deep listen, I’m creating my own genre descriptor for her.

Honey-soaked pain.

And about those four pillars I keep mentioning? Joy, rage, healing and grief? One of them didn’t make it in this song at all.

[DonnCherie] Well, I can say that joy does not show up in this song. The song is a callout, it is the ultimate what the hell is wrong with us? Like, what is going on with humanity, that like we're literally pissing in our own pool so to speak, and not understanding the connection of our actions with what's happening in the world?

And if you think “For Keeps” was inspired only by Black issues, you might be wrong. She says this same neglect, abuse and murder we see in Black communities is really just a mirror of sorts, reflecting how we treat our world.

[DonnCherie] “For Keeps” came at a moment, I was watching this documentary called Blackfish. And it was about whales and stuff in captivity. And it doesn't seem like it connects, I know. But it just, it hit home for me, it struck a nerve in me that we don’t have any respect for them… we don't have any respect for the environment, for ourselves, for animals, for our children, for anything, like we just don't care.

And DonnCherie says that this current racial awakening, while it’s good, it’s also a little sad.

Like what kept you asleep for so long?

[DonnCherie] “For Keeps” came from me just going, what is going on? Wou know, wake up, like wake up, we don't get our proverbial shit together, we're gonna fail, like, the Earth is just gonna shake us off like so many fleas, reinvent herself and go on. We're going to be messed up, you know? There's only so much sustainability we have as human beings.

In thinking about how I’d like to end this series … for now … I like to think less about solving some of these systemic issues we have talked about here, and more about finding ways to keep these important conversations top of mind.

I like to think about compassion.

With buzz words like “murder,” “accountability,” and “reckoning,” I fear white people are doing one of two things: attacking each other, or attacking themselves.

Neither is useful.

So in order to stay in the fight, DonnCherie recommends compassion — yes for others, but begin with yourself.

[DonnCherie] So that's where “For Keeps” came from, it came from this frustration, and this ferocity. And then I found compassion for others by looking at my own fallibility, by looking at my own culpability, like, I'm also part of the problem. So there's a verse in there, that 'there's plenty of blood on my hands, but the bones are steel here in my stance,' like, I get my own culpability. Let's move. You know?

We started out this series talking about how people die, and how people grieve. But what about how we live? In the spirit of DonnCherie, let’s close with a little bookkeeping:

Are you pretending racism doesn’t exist in Vermont?

Are you listening, without being defensive?

Are you reading, researching and learning?

Are you having hard conversations with the people closest to you?

Are you being compassionate with yourself and others?

Are you supporting Black business and Black art?

On that last one, we got you. DonnCherie says to get in the zone, grab some of your favorites...

[DonnCherie] Yeah, wine helps. [Laughter.] Vibe out on what's being said there and figure out, you know, what can I do with that? You know, where can I go?

Now, let’s take a deep listen to “For Keeps."

["FOR KEEPS" by DonnCherie]

Credits

Thanks for listening to Homegoings, a special series from Brave Little State. To check out the lyrics to DonnCherie’s “For Keeps,” see the original art for this episode, and explore the rest of our series, head here.

Homegoings is a production of Vermont Public Radio, created by the Brave Little State team: Josh Crane, Elodie Reed, Angela Evancie and me.

This is our final Homegoings episode, for now. Should we keep the project going in some way? We’d love to hear your feedback, and any recommendations you might have for future interviews. Get in touch with our team by writing to hello@bravelittlestate.org.

In the meantime, we are going to keep answering your questions about Vermont, our region and its people. As always, our journalism is better when you’re a part of it:

We’ll be back soon with more people-powered storytelling. Until then, be brave.

the word homegoings written in white lettering, with a yellow crown over the "m," surrounded by cutouts of black and white lilies and carnations
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR

Homegoings is a special series from Brave Little State that features conversations with musicians of color who live in Vermont — about Black grief, resilience and music.

Explore the full series here.

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