It was an interview with Michael Jordan that helped Donney Rose learn the art of moving on. The outspoken basketball legend was evaluating the next crop of athletes destined to take his place, saying, ultimately, “I could still beat that guy.”
Rose, a veteran of the Baton Rouge hip hop and poetry scene who has spent years as an event promoter, was feeling ready to call it quits, to focus on his own endeavors and let the younger talents step up.
And he was going to do it with a bit more grace.
The difference between Rose and Jordan, besides skills on the court, is that while Rose has occasionally been able to fit in his own gigs locally and on the road, he’s mostly been the team player rather than the star athlete.
“Every time I promoted anything, it was the artist first,” he says. “I want that focus to shift to Donney the artist.”
Through his Soul By Demand Productions, Rose produces regular events like the Lyricist Lounge hip hop showcase and the weekly Soul’d Out Sundays at Gallery Bohemia, which features a new headliner each week plus an open mic. “We’ve been able to funnel a lot of great artists through town,” he says of those events.
Rose books the acts—many from out of state—does the promotion and often emcees the events, while also helping cultivate and mentor some of the top local performers in the process.
What could once be viewed as an underground scene in Baton Rouge, the types of shows Rose books are now finding a home in prominent venues and bars around town, and seeing names like Marcel P. Black and Luke St. John on the bill at local festivals and events.
“Some of these kids are doing their own openings, they’re running their own shows now,” Rose says. “They don’t have to count on me to do their shows.”
St. John, a hip-hop artist in his early 20s, remembers sitting down one-on-one with Rose to weigh his strengths and weaknesses. Rose offered him tips on how best to distribute his work.
“He’s something like a personal advisor offering an astute critique on not only the content produced, but also how the content is managed,” St. John says. “His supporters’ admiration is a testament to his work.”
Rose started doing promotion around 2002, at 21 years old. “I looked around and saw what the scene was. I wanted to add something that might not have been there,” he says. “Ideally, I wanted to reach all kinds of different audiences and cross-pollinate and create the Baton Rouge I wanted to see.”
During that time, he also saw the need to help local youth creatively express themselves—finding a common thread between the craft of poetry and the hip-hop artists the kids were into. He and Chancelier “Xero” Skidmore, a veteran local performer in groups like the Michael Foster Project, helped establish the WordPlay teen writing program at Big Buddy with WordPlay’s founder Anna West.
The program teaches teenagers to write and perform their own poetry and culminates in the All City Teen Poetry Slam Festival. About a year ago, Rose and Skidmore took the program out on its own, setting up an office in the Shaw Center and launching Forward Arts.
“That first year, we were getting a lot of attention,” Rose says of Forward Arts. “We’re definitely trying to fine-tune it from the business standpoint.”
That includes establishing a strong board of directors, raising funds and setting up residencies in local schools, where Rose, Skidmore and others lead writing workshops as part of a regular English curriculum. They currently host residencies in seven schools, a summer poetry camp and an adult writing workshop series called Verse Lab.
While Forward Arts seems to be taking the precedent now for Rose, he also wants to perfect his own craft as a poet and performer, booking more shows for himself and maybe even publishing a book of poetry by the end of the year.
In August, Rose will celebrate his 33rd birthday with what he intends to be the final Soul By Demand event—a Capital City “Tee” Party at Quarters on Aug. 10 with music by the Michael Foster Project.
After that, he’ll be another patron of the arts, and maybe take the stage himself more frequently.
“I want to be able to graciously bow out, to really effectively bow out,” he says. “I want to focus a little more on myself. I’m not completely done.” donneyrose.com
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the recent news of Gallery Bohemia’s plans to shut down at the end of June. Soul’d Out Sundays was originally slated to end in August at the venue, but instead finished its run June 30 with an open mic and the all-girl band Nikki Spence & The Help from New Orleans.