“Descendant” Sheds Light on Questlove and Donn T’s Family History
Donn T To Appear At Rajant World Benefit Concert Nov. 8
by Melissa Jacobs
Days before the Oct. 21 premiere of “Descendant,” the new Netflix documentary that traces her family history, Philly songstress Donn T remembered the first time she heard about The Clotilda. During the taping of her brother Questlove’s episode of “Finding Your Roots,” the award-winning PBS series, Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. revealed that their family arrived in America on The Clotilda. “It is the last known slave ship to come into America,” Gates explained.
When it arrived in Mobile, Alabama in 1860, The Clotilda carried 110 enslaved Africans, including the Donn T and Questlove’s third great grandparents. Although they arrived in America as slaves, the siblings’ ancestors went on to create Africatown, an independent settlement outside Mobile. “Descendant,” which won a Special Jury Award for Creative Vision at Sundance Film Festival, traces the lives of the families of The Clotilda’s survivors.
Knowing the details of her ancestors’ suffering has been emotional but activating for Donn T. It ties her directly to UNICEF, which alleviates the suffering of children around the world. On Nov. 8, she’ll headline the Rajant World Music Benefit for UNICEF at City Winery in Philadelphia. “When I was a kid, I remember being deeply impacted by a UNICEF commercial,” she said. “I was healthy and thriving, but seeing those commercials made me aware that not all children had the fortunes and blessings of my experience.”
Charitable work and activism were embedded in Donn T early on. Much of her West Philadelphia childhood was spent watching her parents participate in a variety of efforts, including the civil rights movement. They also taught her to have a world view and use music and art to broaden connections with people of all backgrounds.
“UNICEF was a big part of that,” she remembered. “It was global and unifying, too. I took my allowance and put it into a UNICEF box when I went to a grocery store with my mom.” From that day to this, UNICEF has aided children around the world who suffer from hunger, disease and the devastation of war. Currently, UNICEF’s emergency crisis teams are working to provide 5.2 million Ukrainian children with food, shelter and clothing.
Donn T, who performs with her husband Jake Morelli, seeks to create change through her music and as president of the Recording Academy’s Philadelphia Chapter. “Musicians make natural advocates,” she said. “We have these unique, rich stories that we hope affect the listener or viewer. Basically, we seek to adjust the landscape.”
Her family landscape now forever changed, Donn T said that having a genealogical connection to The Clotilda makes her proud to be descended from survivors, innovators and game changers. She, Questlove, and their mother Jacqui Lewis Thompson went to Mobile for the documentary’s premiere. “It’s a grounding experience to be clear on all the parts of who you are,” Donn T said. “Now, we take those parts into our hearts and use them as inspiration to help other people.”
This story is sponsored by Rajant Corporation. The Malvern-based company and its philanthropic founder/CEO Robert Schena are hosting the Rajant World Music Benefit on Nov. 8 at City Winery in Philadelphia. For more information, please visit this link. Read more about the Rajant World Music Benefit’s work for UNICEF here.
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