Dani Cleveland: Omaha’s First Lady of R&B | From the “I Am” Series

[Editor’s Note: This is the first installment in Dominique Morgan’s “I Am R&B” and “I Am Hip-Hop” series, meant to showcase those genres’ untapped and under-recognized talent in Nebraska.]

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It was an unseasonably warm day in February 2013 as I walked into the Hilton Ballroom for the Omaha Entertainment Arts Awards. I was so proud to be nominated for both “Artist of the Year” and “Best R&B Artist.”

As I sat with butterflies in my stomach, I listened to them read what was, at the time, the  Best R&B/Soul and Gospel category. When they said my name — although I had been actively performing for two years and had released two albums — you could have heard a pin drop. At that moment I knew there was a disconnect between R&B, soul and hip-hop genres in our community. As time went on, I have been fortunate enough to become a part of the larger music community in Nebraska. Still, I see some of my peers who have influenced me, who have inspired me and who I have worked with, be under the radar. My goal and with the “I Am” series is to gift the readers of Hear Nebraska with some of the extraordinary talent that our scene has to offer. Consider this your road map, an invitation to explore the different facets of what R&B and hip-hop can look like, feel like and sound like.

The first time that I saw Dani Cleveland perform was at The Vibe back in 2009. This was a weekly event where musicians and spoken word artists came together to share their art. Backed by Lewade Miller and his band, she began a sultry rendition of “When You Touch Me” by Brandy. As one of the hugest Brandy fans on the planet, I sat ready to be disappointed that someone was going to ruin one of my idols songs … and then Dani opened her mouth and every bit of soul and feeling that she had in her body came forth. I fell in love with her as an artist that day, and six years later it hasn’t changed. I thought that no one would be more appropriate to kick off the “I Am” series than her after all we don’t lovingly call her Omaha’s “first lady of R&B” for nothing.

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Dominique Morgan: When did you first consider yourself an artist?

Dani Cleveland: When I was little I always wanted to be a artist I just  didn’t know if it was going to be painter , sculptor or in some other medium, I just knew I had a passion for it. I gravitated  toward music. I decided I was officially a musician in my mid twenties. I knew I could really make this happen.

It was at Papa G’s and one of my friends Chad Stoner (acclaimed Omaha Jazz musician) had  a band and they were collectively known as Project Soul. One night they were messing around and called me to the stage. Now at the time I was known as a church singer so I was a bit embarrassed but I went up and we just grooved. We sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and at the moment I knew that was where I needed to be. 

The other moment when it became clear to me that I was doing what I was meant to was when I had a song called “Voicemail” that I hated. [Laughs.] I hated to sing it, hated the reason behind it and I hated to hear the record. But when I sang it so many people said it spoke to them and they could relate. I realized music is healing and I am the doctor. Dr. Dani. [Laughs.]

DM: How would you describe the “Dani Cleveland” sound?

DC: Ketchup and mustard. You know how they are great together and tastes good on anything you put them on? I feel like my music will go with anything. It’s jazz with a twist of soul or maybe the better description is soul with a twist of jazz…the soul is the foundation. It’s about my journey and I hope that people like it.

DM: What artists influence you?

DC: One of my favorites is Kristina Johnson, but Daphne Woodall gives me my life! She is such a amazing singer. She is a inspiration to me fully. Her stage presence and delivery is immaculate. As far as inspiration in the industry Mary J Blige, Chaka Khan and Anita Baker. Musical theater is important to me, too .

DM: How so?

DC: My first legitimate show was The Wiz in Lincoln back in 2007, and I played Dorothy. I loved being in that show I had the chance to really work with  and be around great artists. It became a eye opening experience for me. There was a space where I could be myself totally and feel so comfortable. 

(Dani and I did a run of The Wiz with the John Beasley Theater in 2010. She played Glinda in that cast)

DM: You are currently working on a new project, what does a Dani Cleveland album like/sound like?

DC: Well, eight or ten songs that can be played from front to the back and on repeat. I want it to resonate and invoke some kind of feeling. I definitely want to celebrate men, especially men of color. I want to give the public a eargasm. I want it to be consistent. From the beats to content to the marketing … Oh! Harmonies are so important. Harmonies can completely make or break a song in my opinion. I want it to be like hot butter melting down your ears.

Content-wise, the album will be based on the jilted lover. Heartbreak. These songs are about that process for me and overcoming.

DM: Where are you at with that process?

DC: I have few songs ready for the studio. But unlike other things I have done before, I want to be in charge of making this dream come true. I have to take the reigns. Guide my own destiny musically.

DM: Who do you plan on working with or better yet who would you love to work with on this project?

DC: On the production side, I love Big Wade and Alfonzo Jones. When it comes to other artists, I would love to do a girl power song with Shauna B, Felicia Webster and Tyi Hakem. Devel Crisp is so stellar. Peedi Rothsetten and Ill Child: He is one of the dopest in the cities. The 9’s and Luke Kellison.

DM: What sets you apart from other artists? What can you do that no one else can?

DC: I trust my gut/instincts and I never try to be like anyone else. And I don’t mind it.

DM: Why is R&B not larger in our music scene? As a working artist in our community for 15 years, I’d like to hear your perspective.

DC: People really don’t invest in potential, they invest in stardom. I think there is a lack of promotion and lack of support for each other as artists. We need to create a space of camaraderie and genuine love among us. We could have such a good camp out of this city we just need to pull together.

People have to like you to put you on. You have to play the game I don’t want to but you have to hustle,there is  no other option. You have to shake hands and kiss the babies. Some don’t like that but you have to decide whether you are serious about this or not.

That being said, you have to be grateful. Just as it can be given to you it can be taken away in a heartbeat.

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Find Dani Cleveland online:

Instagram: @missdanicleveland
Twitter: @cooldanity

And here’s Dani’s playlist of influences and favorites: