Donnie Johnson was generating buzz on Atlanta’s local music scene even before his debut CD, an indie production called The Colored Section, dropped late last year. And now that Giant Step/Motown Records has rereleased it, the rest of the world will understand why the underground has been raving about him for years.

While some compare his style with another Donny (Hathaway), he credits contemporary gospel singers such as the Clark Sisters and Commissioned as his biggest musical influences. He grew up in Atlanta, the son of preachers whose strict religious upbringing left him little room to pursue his dream of becoming a soul singer. “As a teen I went through that whole church-versus-the-world complex,” says Donnie, 28.

Donnie left home (and the church) at age 20, hitting the local open-mic scene and performing with people like India.Arie in the late nineties. Today his concerts are part gospel revival, part unity rally, with fans singing along to his Black-and-proud anthems (“Beautiful Me” and “Cloud 9”) and love songs that avoid the typical R&B male bravado (“Heaven Scent”). And he’s getting used to all the attention. “I was walking through the park and this girl went off,” he recalls. “She took my hand and told me she loved my music. It’s kind of scary, but it makes me feel wonderful.”

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