TELLING STORIES TO FIGHT FOR JUSTICE WITH MUSICIAN AND ACTIVIST, DANIELLE PONDER
Telling stories to fight for justice and a better world, that’s what Danielle Ponder does. Whether she uses her powerful voice on tour or in the Public Defender Office, Danielle doesn’t let fear drive her away from her purpose and her passion. In this interview, the Rochester, NY Native who you can also find on our playlist A Fall Story tells us about her skill set, her inspirations and healing through music.
koladapina : How have you been with everything that is going on, especially in the US?
Danielle Ponder : It’s been very heavy, just being in the pandemic but also dealing with racial injustice and with a president that is overtly racist. It’s just a lot. America feels very shaky right now. Like, the whole thing could collapse at any moment. But, I’m trying to keep my head together by building community with other activists in my town, organizing and things like that.
You used to work in the law industry and a couple years ago you decided to fully dedicate to music. Now you’re returning to the Public Defender Office. Is it linked to everything that is going on or did you just want to go back to law?
I was coming back just to work part time to help with some recruitment efforts. But then when I came back, things kind of blew up in the US. So it kind of expanded my role into doing training, recruitment and inclusion. It turned into a bigger role than I was initially thinking it would be.
Do you find any similarities between law and music?
Yeah, you know, I always say that a good attorney can tell a story very well. They can tell a story in a way that the audience connects and feels empathy with the person that they are speaking about. And artists do the same thing. Artists have the job of telling a story in a way that solicits empathy from the listener. So I think both being an attorney and being a musician is about the art of storytelling.
When and how did music take such a huge place in your life?
I’ve been playing music for a long time. When I was 16, my father gave me a guitar. At that moment, I started writing songs and played this very raggedy beat up guitar. Then around twenty one, I was in my first band. And every since then I’ve been in different bands, just touring and performing. Once I got a hold of it I’d never want to let it go.
“When you feel afraid, you let that feeling ride, but you do what you gotta do. I just think it’s how you show you love yourself. You show you love yourself by committing to what your passion is and what your purpose is.”
What would you say was the trigger that made you feel like it’s time to fully dedicate to music and pause your law career?
So in 2018 I had several shows, like every weekend I had a show. And I had done three European tours at that time. It got to the point where I had to decide I just cannot do both jobs. At that point I started taking felony cases. So the cases were more serious. I knew there was no way I could do these cases, that I was still learning some of the legal aspects and do music the way I was doing it. I just knew it was time to wrap it up. And it was the best decision I ever made. But I didn’t know a pandemic would come. What a time for the pandemic to come around, right? I know that music is my first love. It’s the thing that makes me the happiest and it never disappoints me.
Was it a difficult decision to take?
Yeah, it was definitely difficult. I had a lot of anxiety around it. I remember I would push the date further and further and further away. But what I did is I scheduled a full European tour in May. That was a 30 day tour. So I knew that I would have to quit my job. I kind of set it up where there was no other way I’d have to quit. So I think I quit May 5th and May 8th I was off to Europe.
What was your favorite place to tour in Europe?
I wish I could say it was Paris (laughs). I love Paris, I feel like I could live there, but we haven’t had great luck there yet. My favorite place to play is probably Hamburg, Germany. I really loved the people there. I developed friendships with folks. So when I go there, it feels like I’m going home.
That’s nice. Going back to your career change, what advice would you give to someone who would also want to change his/her path to a more creative, artistic, but also uncertain type of job like you did?
It’s going to sound cliché, but it’s just the truth that you only have one life and it’s a short amount of time. I knew for me I would regret it if I did not give it my all. I knew I would be on my deathbed, like, why didn’t I just focus on music? So I think you’re going to feel fear and anxiety, but you feel those things and you go forward anyway. I think that’s the most important skill set we can have. When you feel afraid, you let that feeling ride, but you do what you gotta do. I just think it’s how you show you love yourself. You show you love yourself by committing to what your passion is and what your purpose is.
I guess then the hard job is to find your purpose…
…Exactly, don’t waste your time.
And what have you been listening to lately?
Lately I’ve been listening to my new single called Little Bit (laughs). I’ve been listening to Moses Sumney. I like him a lot. Just really smart and really innovative guy. I’ve been getting back to some Stevie Wonder. There’s just a little bit of everything on my playlist.
Do you think artists should take a stand and use their art in the fight for social justice?
Maybe 10 years ago, if you would have asked me this question I would have said unequivocally yes. But when I think about black artists especially, I think they should do the art that is authentically them and that it’s healing to them. So for some black artists, that might be music about dancing and going to the club. That might be what they need to survive. Not every artist needs to carry this burden of having to speak about political things, because I think it can be heavy especially for black artists.
But then I think there are some of us who that is how we heal. We heal through expressing our pain, through our music. So for me, I definitely feel it is important to talk about what is happening in the community to reflect the times. But I don’t think that takes away from someone like a Cardi B who gives us music that we can dance to. Sometimes you just want to dance (laughs). Artists can play a role in different ways in liberation. The biggest thing artists have to do is be true to themselves and be authentic. However that comes, go for it.
Last question I would have for you is, what can we wish for you?
What can you wish for me? Listen, I need lots of money (laughs). I am looking to be an internationally known artist. I wanna be able to sell out shows all over the world. And I want to be on the level of Brittany Howard or…. I’m not going to say Beyoncé (laughs). Give me a Brittany Howard, I’ll take that (laughs). Something to that level would be awesome.