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Courtesy of Daniel Massillon

June 2, 2020

How a Cornell Senior is Redefining Gospel and Christian Music in Quarantine 

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A few weeks ago, Abi Bernard ’19 shared how creating music was a way for her to process this transition and also be hospitable to friends and peers both near and far. While for Bernard, quarantine offered her a chance to dive into an art form relatively new to her, for Danny Massillon ’20, quarantine allowed him to cultivate a skill he has long been developing. Inspired by an eclectic mix of musical influences from Gospel, Christian hip hop and Chris Brown, the Biological Sciences major has put in work, dropping a total of five tracks: “Listen,” “Still,” “Appui,” “Open” and “Sweet,” having produced and sung on each one. Don’t let the one word titles deceive you; while they are equal parts introspective and thoughtful, each song feels like a big budget affair, with full and rich production that warrants multiple listens to catch the sonic idiosyncrasies. Massillon, or stage name Daniyyel, develops remixes of Gospel songs or Contemporary Christian tunes but these soulful interpretations give life to older lyrics in these trying times.

To call Massillon’s songs “studio quality” would not be histrionic. He’s converted his suite in Keeton House (now vacant of his suitemates) into a producer’s haven. His MacBook is sandwiched between two speakers, barely leaving any room for his headphones which dangle dangerously on a keyboard which is also threatening to fall off the desk. He has a second monitor where he flips through various drum kits and beat packs he’s accumulated over the years. As I ask about his equipment through FaceTime, he rattles off some technicalities by memory: He runs a free version of Ableton Live and shares a whole host of other technical words that mean nothing to a neophyte like me. But to the trained musician’s ear, his equipment reflects a seriousness and dedication to a craft that requires a special sort of discipline to match ambition. He gives a brief insight to the projects he’s working on: “I wanna make an album, a project of covers, and another tape I’ve been working on for a while called Dreamer in Babylon.” His litany and tone seem like they create verbal accountability, filled with determination.

Massillon’s focus and prolific output is indicative of an innate instinct for turning to creative pursuits in the midst of adversity. “I’m always thinking about music. Melodies, loops, lyrics — you name it,” he says. While he began his music career when he was three by crafting melodies, he soon got drafted into his Church choir and took voice lessons in Elementary School. Songs from Chris Brown like “Dreamer” and “Forever” inspired his sound until he got into production when he was 13. By then, he shared that whenever he was depressed about something, from family troubles to a broken relationship, he’d turn to music to create. This cultivated a reflex for creativity whenever he faced hardship.

Indeed, as soon as classes were cancelled for two weeks, when quarantine time came, Massillon instinctively began to tinker and work on tracks. While the act of processing change is usually personal, Massillon shared that the process has been very spiritual and cathartic. “I’m not saying that just so I can plug faith into this article,” he laughs. “But this time creating in quarantine has been very spiritual because there hasn’t been anything I’ve worked on within the past few months that hasn’t been influenced by me talking to God or inspired by time in prayer or in devotion. In any moment of crisis, we go to our instincts. For me, that’s the church… I want to update these songs and show how they can speak to the moment we’re in.”

There’s no better example than “Still,”  a remixed version of Hillsong United’s song of the same name. Massillon is joined by Chloe Chidera ’20 and Nitori Henderson ’19, both of whom are members of Baraka Kwa Wimbo, Cornell’s all-female gospel a cappella ensemble. The original version of the song is worship classic, and while Massillon retains those elements, his version feels more collaborative and improvised; he, Chidera and Henderson seem to be ministering to themselves even as they speak to the listener. The “I will be still and know you are God” reverberates throughout the song with Chidera and Henderson taking turns and acts as a declaration of God’s faithfulness while also a challenge to oneself to remain grounded in faith even when circumstances are constantly shifting.

Massillon’s vocals coat “Still” with a warmth that binds the song together yet with a firmness that rattles with conviction given the song’s message. Massillon shares that the track was inspired by Psalm 46:10 which states: “He says, ‘Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.’” Massillon recalls when he first had the idea to remix the track: “Everybody was leaving campus at the time and I was like, I’m actually saying like, I’m going to be still, I’m going to be here in this space. Even in the midst of uncertainty. What will remain when everyone leaves and goes away? What will I turn to?”

“Appui” is such a track that captures this atmosphere of uncertainty and is an example of a creative new take on a song that was foundational for Massillon growing up. “Apui” is a cover of a song called “There’s Not a Friend Like the Lowly Jesus.” Massillon explains: “I learned this when I was five or six and my mom taught me a new melody over the phone and I couldn’t get it out of my head.” He smiles. “Then I recorded it. Simple as that.” “Open” and “Sweet” (the latter also featuring Henderson) are characterized by this new energy; there’s a glee that comes with collaboration and the production fills the space with percussion and multiple layered vocals that make it anthemic.

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While Massillon enjoys creating original material (the aforementioned Dreamer in Babylon is his debut album), he sees a special personal importance for releasing covers in this time. “The songs that ‘Still’, ‘Open’ and ‘Sweet’ are all based off of are deeply familiar to me. Music now is a way of remembrance and documentation. In times of crisis, what is pressed out of me? I love the arranging because I don’t have to necessarily come up with something out of nothing. I’m just taking something that I already know and embellishing it. It’s a way to remember and hope and a reminder that the messages we tell ourselves have timeless value.”

Massillon explained how in his approach to making music, the collaborative process with friends has also fostered a sense of camaraderie than ever before. “There’s a song I was working on with a friend Rebekah that hasn’t come out yet,” he shared, “It may never come out but that’s okay because that was for us. It allowed us to connect, to celebrate, to mourn — in a way we can’t always do in conversation. It’s not like we thoroughly planned it out at all; we were just working and vibing with the music.”

It is evident that faith plays a key role in defining music for Massillon — for him, while it might be tempting to lose faith or be upset at God in this time or be frustrated, he sees it only as a way to draw closer to faith and to what anchors him. Storms have a way of winnowing away and revealing what truly matters. He poignantly shared: “Man, COVID-19 is just another thing in a recent string of events that has happened in 2020 that has rocked my world. I was battling a concussion in the Fall, then in December I did worship for a conference in front of 1,200 people to usher in the new year, coming back from that concert I got into a car accident, and then later my grandfather died.” He pauses to let the madness and craziness of the past two semesters sink in.

He shakes his head and sighs. “You know in life, we’re not promised that things will always go our way. We know pain is coming. And thankfully for God, this was not a surprise to Him or unaccounted for to the person I have faith in. Pain may take an unexpected permutation but rarely in life will it be as unexpected as we thought. The blessing and beauty is that through music, through crying out, I know God will talk back. Music is a tool to remember and to work through the expected yet nevertheless painful hardship we’re enduring.”

When we finished the talking, Massillon had shared he had six classes worth of lectures to sit through. Not even fully knowing what that means (being a humanities student with mostly socratic style courses) I shuddered, telling him to let me know when track #6 drops, not expecting it till much later. Only a few days later I got a text message from him with a file titled “Light of Darkness.” The sample is from a Haitian gospel song he shared. I couldn’t help but chuckle a bit as I ran back to the instrumental several times, amazed how he turned this Creole melody into a hip-hop beat. It’s at the same time perfectly fitting.

This month would have been Massillon’s time to celebrate graduation, and while the end of the semester is happening in a way he didn’t expect, he refuses to stop worshipping despite the unprecedented circumstances. Indeed, it’s often said that idle hands are the devil’s workshop, but Massillon’s hands are far from idle, as he worships and works for personal remembrance and God’s glory.

 

This is the second installment of a two-part series featuring Cornell students who are making music during quarantine. Read part 1 here.

 

Zachary Lee is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at zlee@cornellsun.com.