In Conversation With: Donae'o
Donae’o: pronounced Donay-o to mean ‘gift from God.’ An apt stage name for a spiritual Ian Greenidge who always knew he was going to be an artist. It couldn’t have been anything else, he tells me early in our conversation, “God let me know from early that ‘this is what you are gonna do for the rest of your life’.” The spirituality that is the bedrock of his certainty is one he takes pride in cultivating himself. He mentions that he has always had a strong connection with God and the universe. So naturally, he considers his engagement with music an extension of that spirituality, that connection to God.
The multi-hyphenate artist describes this spiritual connection as a sort of surrender, the kind that requires relinquishment of ego. Kind of like dancing, like truly dancing. Like immersing oneself so deep in the sound that nothing else truly matters but that particular experience. Donae’o suggests that this is what sets dance music apart; “dance music is always about music first and then the artist second,” as opposed to many other genres that are, as he puts it; “about feeding people's ego.” He clarifies; “like there's a lot of good music out there but a lot of it is more about [the artist’s] worship than how good the music is.” The lucrative cult of personality that has almost become necessary for an artist’s success has meant that a lot of music inadvertently sells a lifestyle, usually one of excess. You need not think too hard to see why this is now more than ever- and this is putting it generously- out of touch. Donae’o adds, “in these times, people need to feel good about themselves, they don’t want to be looking at other people’s things and wishing that they had those things or were in that situation.”
The British artist continues assuredly; “that’s why amapiano is doing so well, because the focus is on the music and how the music makes people feel and how that feeling makes them respond.” What has been dubbed the genre of the Summer, amapiano, quickly gained traction over the last two years through the accompanying videos of South Africans dancing in styles that demand a damn-near effortless swagger to imitate. “Like you see the neck thing they do with the lean-back?” And then there’s the vosho, and of course the pouncing cat. All of these paired with the up-beat, house-kwaito-jazz inspired sound from the underground music scene of South Africa, has made amapiano the hottest dance genre at the moment. And naturally, the decorated singer/songwriter and producer wants in. Donae’o dropped She Belongs to the Night, a collaborative effort featuring DJ Supa D and Mr. Taffa, heavily inspired by amapiano. He recently dropped its remix video with singer/songwriter Etta Bond.
But of course, Donae’o is no stranger to afro sounds; “all the records that I like and enjoy making have some level of african drum or groove to them, and as a producer I like producing it.” Although he is often credited as one of the pioneers of UK funky house, Donae’o has been incorporating these afro sounds in just about every genre in the underground UK music scene. He chalks up this constant experimentation partly to the UK’s exposure to music from all over the world; “it's hard not to be influenced by other styles of music when there is so much good stuff thrown at you from different genres and cultures.” But also, as he explains that “until recently British dance genres used to change styles every two to three years.” He chronicles: hardcore, then jungle, then garage, then grime, then bassline, then UK funky, then deep house, and finally, afro house. “So if I wanted to stay making music, I had to move with the times,” he says matter of factly before adding that he doesn’t feel much nostalgia for any of the past genres, even ones he was heavily involved in cultivating, because he enjoyed them thoroughly when they happened.
Although genre pivots are his forte, fans or anyone who has followed his musical journey would at the very least be curious to hear a Donae’o take at amapiano. And yet, there is the understandable worry that when underground grown genres move beyond borders they risk getting watered down, or even worse appropriated. Most recently, an article tried to propose that amapiano had been adopted to Nigerian "afropiano." To this, the artist posits: “things only become watered down if the people that invented it don’t stick to their guns... a lot of people in dance music say that they don't want to do things anymore because the mainstream producers are making it but that's got nothing to do with the people that go to the raves to hear your songs.” His argument is clear: the evolution of music genres requires that it passes through many people’s hands. If each of those hands truly does their own thing, the evolution of the genre will organically cater to all audiences who seek it; “if you just keep making your music through it then there's gonna be different variations...a watered down version for a certain audience and a more underground version for others.”
The prioritisation of the listener and the audience comes up yet again to reaffirm that we, the listeners, are genuinely at the core of Donae’o art. This isn’t as easy as it sounds; when success looks like streaming numbers and award nominations, it takes quite a bit of grounding to keep centering your artistry and fanbase. “I realised a long time ago, my main reason for making music is to make music, and I’m able to do that and have a career from it.” And on what ambition looks like when he is not necessarily chasing accolades, Donae’o says, “I’m chasing a happy life. What’s a happy life to me?” To the artist it’s mostly the simple things. He offers me this allegory: “when I’ve been working all day, the thing that’s going to give me the most joy is finally sitting down,” and while there is no glamour in the mundane act of sitting down “[he is] truly enjoying that moment...I sit down, deeply sigh and know that after a long day, I can finally stop. that ‘s actually a very big feeling even though the situation might not be.”
Donae’o is content. And while he isn’t necessarily chasing obscene amounts of money, it is not lost on him that being able to fund your life through your art-turned-career is still more than many might experience. The multi-hyphenate recently added label owner to the list of hats he dons. With his manager safely running the day to day operations, Donae’o is free to be the creative mind behind the label. For him, this largely consists of signing artists that he is truly excited about; “I just want to find people and be like you're banging fam, I'd like to hear you on one of my riddims.”
Far less mundane but perhaps just as simple, Donae’o loves to laugh, “I try to hang out with as many comedians as possible,” he says. This fact is fairly revealing of a huge chunk of the kind of life the artist leads. An acute knowledge of what he wants, and the will to go for it.