At the forefront of funk-soul-rock act Black August's infectious groove was Danielle Ponder, a fireball of soul, of consciousness, of action. The Rochester band was at its best, playing great shows, drawing big crowds, when it surprisingly opted for a fade to black.
Ponder was in law school at Northeastern University in Boston for three years. "We were still trying to perform and do everything we could," Ponder says. "But the guys, they wanted to do music 100 percent of the time — all the time, eat, sleep, breathe it. So they kind of had to do what they had to do." Members Ronnie Young and Bobby Reese moved to Atlanta, where Ponder says they now work with Jadakiss and Roscoe Dash. Ponder got her degree.
And now she's back in Rochester, where the practice of criminal law satisfies her constant drive to right wrongs and advocate for those less fortunate. However, the real crime would be denying people this 31-year-old belter's beautiful voice. Ponder's pipes soar with soul, affection, and conviction. It's both gut-wrenching and exhilarating. And her songwriting packs an immediate punch amidst its budding vulnerability. So she's formed a new band: Danielle Ponder and Tomorrow People.
"It's an ode to artists," Ponder says. "Whether they're musicians, lyricists, novelists, whatever they do — they create the future. They're tomorrow people, because they create our tomorrow. The whole idea of being an artist, I think, is to create something that's not here yet and to bring forth something new into the world. Forward-thinking people. And I guess not just artists, but also people who aren't stuck in the past and are really just trying to push the envelope."
According to Ponder, the two halves that make up the whole woman — the lawyer and the artist — complement each other. In fact, they aren't all that different.
"I always call it a left brain-right brain thing," Ponder says. "Law school makes you think more logically about things, things that have order and structure to them. There's case law you have to look at when you're looking at elements of the crime that's laid out for you. But at the same time there's room for creativity in the law. Especially in the law I do, criminal defense, telling someone's story. And in songwriting, you're telling someone's story. And good songwriters can make the whole audience say, 'Wow, I remember when I was there, I remember when I was in that situation.' And a good lawyer can make the jury, or the judge, or whoever, say, 'I could've been in that situation.' To elicit empathy from people is when they start clapping their hands harder or they understand where your client is coming from. So to me, all of it is storytelling. It's telling stories that evoke some type of emotion from people."
"Every day I get to advocate for someone's humanity," Ponder says. "I get to tell a courtroom why this person is a human being, why this person should be treated with compassion. And I try to do that in my music as well, whether I'm talking about political issues that affect the black community, other minority communities, women... It's to say, 'Here's where we're coming from,' to get compassion from the audience."
When Ponder speaks of love, however, the tough customer fades, replaced by a young lady with the wonderful look of uncertainty love puts on all of our mugs. Ponder's passion is certainly something you want on your side. But who advocates for her? Who has got her back?
"When it comes to love...love is a difficult thing," she says. "Like Tracy Chapman said, 'I make a fool of myself in matters of the heart.' I connect love in some ways to oppression. Sometimes we get into relationships where it's hard to advocate for what's good for us. I definitely think I'm getting better at it as I get older, knowing what I want and getting it. Heartache is real, but love is a beautiful thing, it's a beautiful struggle. It's beautiful but it can hurt at the same time."
"I think I used to only want to write songs that showed me as very confident and righteous and spiritual," Ponder says. "I didn't want to write about love and heartache because it would show my weakness. The fact is I'm doing myself an injustice if I can't express everything I'm feeling in my songs just because I want to impress someone else and I want people to think, 'Oh, she's so together.' So my songs have become more personal and vulnerable as I grow up and care less about what people are thinking about the lyrics."
Ponder has been noodling around with music-editing software GarageBand, toying with the idea of a Black August reunion, working with Tomorrow People in the hopes of hatching an album by the end of the year, and advocating for those less fortunate. Ponder says they're all passions that leave her little choice.
"The choice is to be an advocate or shut up," she says.