By David Jackson
For The New Orleans Tribune
Singer Owen H. Dunne or OHD doesn’t want to come out of the box with his music. He wants a bigger box.
OHD, who classifies himself as unabashedly Black, queer and proud, believes that pop music has never been a place where gay/trans artists could ever be their authentic selves. He wants pop music to be able to fit all expressions of love, gender and identity.
“The only people who are surviving in this space are in hip hop,” says OHD. “Lil Nas X, Big Freda and Saucy Santana. And while hip-hop is edgy, it was born to challenge the masses. Pop (music) is about money. People don’t think that it’s marketable. Who knows maybe I can do that? I would love to bring that message to the world.”
The New Orleans native will release his debut album “Mine” this Friday (June 18) at Cafe’ Istanbul. The album is an audio representation of his journey as a queer man processing a relationship from beginning to end. OHD’s music is almost hypnotic as his baritone voice reverberates above the track. The electronic loops and drum beats serve as a willing canvas to his voice.
OHD said he began this musical journey during the pandemic when he had time to be introspective and time to serve as lyricist, producer and singer for the project.
“I had a bunch of feelings around this new relationship that I started that was very different than my other relationships,” he says. “I needed a place to compartmentalize this. I was doing background vocals and people said, ‘You have a great voice.’ So, I started making music.”
OHD lists Frank Ocean, James Blake, Nina Simone and Sam Smith as influences but his sound is backed with an electronic ballroom vibe which includes elements of rap, hip-hop, R&B and a big dose of an alternative sound. His music is also influenced by Afro-house, K-Pop & the Vogue scene.
OHD is unconfined in his approach as an artist. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree in fine arts in filmmaking from Columbia College in Chicago. He also creates music videos and theatre staging. OHD performed at the New Orleans Film Festival in 2019, released an EP in 2015, and served as producer on seven of his 10 tracks on “Mine.”
“I make music because as a creative, I’m compelled to create,” he says. “For me, it’s not just about being authentic. It’s about the message that people react to. In this space of pop music, it will always ruffle people’s feathers. People hold that as an assault on what they hold dear. It’s easier to point the finger at the person who is causing you to question your identity, but it’s tough to do the hard work of where these views came from.”
His message is one of inclusion, acceptance and self discovery.
OHD recalls incessant bullying in high school when he came out at 15 years old. According to him, there were only two students within his school’s group of charter schools that openly identified as gay. When asked how that decision impacted him, he said it was an overwhelmingly easy one to make.
“It wasn’t much of a decision,” he says. “I guess it’s just kill myself because of how miserable my life was or just telling everyone. You make that decision every day. I was tired of circumnavigating. In coming out, I received so much backlash from my peers. I would get bullied and people would start rumors. But what I found weird was that every single one of them who bullied me is now out. They criticized me then when they did not have the courage to be it. It’s a hard thing to understand at 15. It’s a process of going through that journey. But when you’ve done it, you get an inner confidence that is unshakeable. There’s a lot of power in that.”
OHD says his new show will bring people on a musical and even visual journey of his world. Three of his tracks are also produced by Lugsoda, St. Wave, and North Carolina electronica DJ Nile Ashton.
He says he chose Cafe Istanbul as a place to perform because of its size, cultural relevance and energy.
“The bigger the show, the further the audience gets away from you,” he says. “I like to bring people into the world that I created. I like these intimate shows like where the music came from like my bedroom or my shared space.”
His music is classified as “House Pop Music” and he promises lots of energy, costumes, and exotic lighting at his CD release party. His favorite song on the 10-track CD is “Love Me Like.” The song hearkens to a 90’s house hook but is infused with the sophisticated electronic sounds of today. Donne’s deep voice on the song is almost a perfect loop that draws the listener into an endless boomerang of sound. But, according to OHD, the song “Never Regret” is the tone or “thesis statement” of the album.
“All of the pain, all of those crappy jobs. All of that brought me to where I am,” says OHD. “That came from such painful things that I can think of. The entire album flows like a movie. It follows the flow of you meet someone, love me this way, this is difficult, you run away, and then you have all of these feelings.”
When confronted with the reality that some people may not embrace his style or the sentiments of the album, OHD simply revisits his experience.
“I think what I’ve learned is to trust yourself. Don’t listen to other people as an artist. Trust the artist and the process. Usually being the only person of color in a traditionally white space, you are taught that your instincts and your voice is wrong,” he says. “I always knew I had something to say musically. It feels like the world gets to see and feel how I love. It brings them to places that I can’t even dream of.”
After performing at his invitation-only show at Cafe Istanbul, the fledgling New Orleans artist will produce a series of music videos and perform at the Baltimore Pride Festival.