R&B and soul singer-songwriter Dominique Morgan, 33, has emerged as an urban music force with multiple Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards nominations for his Love Chronicles album.
His tunes of love and loss come from personal experience: an abusive relationship, homophobia, both parents passing, incarceration.
Alfonzo Lee Jones, founder-president of Icon One Music, the local label Morgan records on, says the artist has “absolute determination.”
Music is Morgan’s passion and sustenance. When he bravely came out at 14, he leaned on music for solace.
“It was an important part of my secret life. I spent a lot of time in my room listening to music. No one knew this was my salvation, this was my safe space,” Morgan says. “I was very closeted about music. I didn’t sing in front of people. But I had this desire to perform. I wrote songs in a notebook I hid under my bed. I was just very insecure and being a performer is the ultimate exposure.”
He got up enough nerve to sing in Benson High’s mixed chorus and to audition for its Studio Singers show choir.
“I was frightened to death to audition. I didn’t know how to dance in time, I didn’t know how to read music, I felt so behind.”
He made the cut anyway.
“It was the first time I had been chosen for something and somebody saw something special in me. That experience was amazing. It opened me up to discipline, group dynamics, being a leader.”
Though his parents accepted his sexual identity they didn’t want him dating. At 16 he got involved with a 21 year-old man. Full of rebellion, Morgan left home to live with his partner. He says he silently suffered abuse in that co-dependency before finally leaving at 19.
“I really had no self-esteem. The relationship tore that completely apart.”
Broke and feeling he had nowhere to go, he lived a gypsy existence between Omaha and Lincoln
“I did not want my family to see me.”
He committed nonviolent crimes – stealing cars in a valet dodge and writing bad checks. He slept in the cars and attended to his personal needs in public and dormitory restrooms.
“It was how I was surviving.”
His desperation led to many poor choices.
“I have this need for people to like me and to want to be around me. I was constantly putting myself in precarious situations because of that.”
He let friends think he was going to school.
“I had to keep up a facade with them.”
He did the same with a local boy band, On Point, he joined.
“It was my first experience recording in a studio and performing outside of high school. It was bittersweet. I was enjoying it but I knew it wouldn’t last. I knew eventually it would blow up in my face.”
The pressure of maintaining the illusion grew.
“Those internal thoughts are hell. All these balls i was juggling. I found myself in a cycle. I didn’t want to face how bad of a situation I was in.”
Once again, his only comfort was music.
“It was how I got through each day. It was just peace for me.”
Wracked by fear and blinded by denial, he says, “I reached a point where I knew I couldn’t go on much longer like that. I just didn’t know what the stopping point was for me.”
Getting arrested in Lincoln in 2000 was that point. Assigned a public defender, he pleaded no contest to several counts of forgery and theft. Unable to make bail, he sat in Lancaster County Jail months awaiting sentencing. The judge gave him eight to 12 years.
Morgan’s reaction: “My life is over.”
His next tour months were spent at the state correctional system’s Diagnostic and Evaluation Center.
Life in stir came as “a complete culture shock,” he says. “I couldn’t let anybody know I was frightened because you can’t show any weakness. Besides, I was out. I was young, gay and black – three strikes against me. So I came in fighting. I wanted them to respect me. I was watching boys get raped, people be sold, stabbed, beaten with padlocks. I was like, I just want to make it home.”
He didn’t pursue an appeal – “I thought if I fought it I was going to go crazy” – and instead accepted his lot.
He served in Omaha, Tecumseh and Lincoln facilities, sometimes segregated from the general prison population, for his own safety he was told. Other times, he mixed with convicted murderers and rapists.
While incarcerated his father died suddenly. He’d been Morgan’s only regular visitor. Morgan stopped calling home. Hearing freedom on the other end only made his confinement worse. “It was too much for me.”
He turned to music to cope.
“It was like this wall burst in my head and these words, these songs, these melodies just flooded out of me. I thought, One day I want to sing my songs. Music kept me going. It was my saving grace.”
He wrote the songs in long-hand, with a pen, in notebooks and on kites (internal request forms). He utilized mics and mixing boards in prison music rooms, buying access to the gear via handmade checks he covered with the $1.21 a day he made working in the kitchen. He earned a culinary degree he uses today as a caterer.
In a prison talent contest he revealed music chops he’d kept on the down low. The prospect of using those chops on the outside kept him sane. After serving eight-plus years, he got out February 2009 and cared for his ill mother until she died that December.
“It was devastating.”
His youngest sibling, Andrea, came to live with him.
He tracked down Icon One’s Alfonzo Lee Jones and began writing songs for the label. Jones admires “the soul and feeling” Morgan puts into his writing,” adding, “Dom paints a vivid picture with every song he composes. You can feel the emotion. That’s powerful.”
Morgan says in Jones he’s found “more than a producer – he’s like a brother to me.”
Meanwhile, Web and radio hosting gigs brought Morgan to the attention of East Coast artists he’s now working with.
His music took off as a recording artist and live performer, he says, once he stopped trying to position himself as a gay singer-songwriter. That transition came with his outreach work for the nonprofit LGBT advocacy group, Heartland Pride.
“I am a singer who happens to be gay. I can still be myself through that but I let the music speak for itself.”
His life and career were rudely interrupted last fall when informed he’d not served the mandatory minimum for one of his charges. He found himself detained four months at the Diagnostic and Evaluation Center.
“It was like watching my life die. It almost killed me wondering how much of my life is slipping away while I’m gone.”
A parole board review set him free in February.
During that limbo he was removed from the Pride board for not disclosing his criminal past. That prompted a Facebook post by Morgan laying out his troubled journey and hard-fought redemption.
“I can’t be OK and love who I am now and be ashamed of such a large portion of what made me who I am,” he says. “I felt I needed to own my story. I wanted people to really know where I came from.”
He’s since co-founded Queer People of Color Nebraska. It seeks to start conversations in the African-American community and larger community about the challenges of being black and gay in America.
His advocacy for equal rights led him to co-direct a recently released “Black Lives Matter” video.
“I want to do it loud and proud,” he says.
The release party for his new album, Loveaholics Anonymous – Welcome to Rehab, is April 25 at The 402 in Benson.
Follow Dom at www.facebook.com/dniquemorgan.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.