Good day, my beautiful reader! Today, I’m talking about a Donny Hathaway album, and I have three reasons for doing so. Firstly, I want to highlight a lesser-known Black artist. Secondly, without Donny Hathaway, many uber-famous Black musicians couldn’t have done what they’ve done. And thirdly, the tragic and beautiful story and music of Donny Hathaway are, in many ways, emblematic of the larger story of Black music.
To get into this article and Hathaway in general, I strongly recommend that you listen to his 1990 song “Someday We’ll All Be Free.” Seriously, do it right now! Have you done it? I can’t talk about it until you listen to it … OK, here goes.
“Someday We’ll All Be Free” is perhaps Hathaway’s most famous track, and it isn’t hard to see why. The lyrics were written as an homage to Hathaway’s personal struggle with mental illness, and he reportedly broke down in tears upon hearing it for the first time in the studio. The song has become a Black anthem, representing the struggles both Hathaway and his community faced — addressing them all with a high-flying faith: “It won’t be long, take it from me, someday we’ll all be free.”
Hathaway’s vocals soar over a shimmering background of arpeggios from his keyboard, a free-floating guitar line and a firm bassline. The instrumentals give Hathaway all the emotional weight he needs to deliver his sermon. Hathaway doesn’t negate the struggles of the world; rather he provides a forceful and poetic statement for resilience and adaptation to a world that “spins around,” always trying to throw him off.
Let’s talk about the album around it. In 1973, Donny Hathaway released “Extension of a Man,” his final studio album. The album wasn’t certified, and the biggest hit, “Love, Love, Love,” peaked at No. 44 on the U.S. charts. And yet, it was a central part of Hathaway’s discography and went on to be incredibly influential, inspiring generations of artists and changing the direction of American music.
While working on the album, Hathaway was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. He underwent severe mood swings that he could only ease with a cocktail of 14 different medications he had to take twice a day. In the six years after the release of the album, he was hospitalized several times, and on Jan. 13, 1979 he jumped from his fifteenth floor balcony. He was 33 years old. The album is a product of a man desperately struggling with his demons, showing the world the beauty only he could make for the last time.
“Extension of a Man,” and Hathaway’s discography in general, was extremely influential. He was a central figure in the foundation of soul music and one of the most important singers in the history of gospel music. His unique blends of jazz, gospel, soul, R&B, rock and Motown have been a significant contributor to the sounds of Black music since his death.
Ultimately, Hathaway’s influence extended much further than his limited discography. He can be heard in artists such as Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, George Benson, John Legend, Alicia Keys, Aaliyah and, of course, his daughter Lalah Hathaway. His music has been covered by literally hundreds of artists from as diverse paths as Micheal McDonald, Chris Brown, Pentatonix, The Backstreet Boys, Destiny’s Child and Sergio Mendes.
All of this influence is for good reason. The album comes with incredible range, featuring glorious symphonic harmonies, achingly beautiful R&B standards at their best, several unbelievably gorgeous instrumental tracks, slow ballads that let Hathaway pour his entire soul out to the listener — and some fantastic gospel tracks to boot.
The album thematically centers around love, unity and the beauty of God and the universe He created, enabling Hathaway to create a wealth of powerful moments. The instrumentation is flawless and stands as a testament to Hathaway’s incredible talent as an arranger and composer as well as a musician — every song has just enough going on to keep you constantly engaged without being overwhelmed.
On this album, Hathaway is at his absolute best. His unique voice is incredibly powerful, and his unbelievable talent on the keyboard provides the listener with no end of moments where you have to sit back and ask yourself, “damn, how on earth is he this good?” Hathaway’s voice is spectacularly expressive, constantly shifting from the bottom to the top of his range and always providing a distinctive tone and immaculate vibrato to each note in line with the lyrics and vibe of the song. Hathaway is always emotional, reaching out to the listener, pulling them into the song and ending every phrase distinctively and impactfully.
Throughout the story of Donny Hathaway, we can see themes that come up over and over again in the broader stories of Black music: his lack of commercial success despite his influence, his ability to blend so many different aspects of Black culture, his constant work to create life and beauty from a place of struggle and despair, his devotion to making music for his community and his tragic death. So this Black History Month, let’s celebrate Donny Hathaway, one of the most important artists of the last century.
Rowan Gray CM ’26 is from Sharon, Massachusetts. He wants you to know that all Oxford commas in this piece were violently deleted by his copy editors.