Dedicated Men of Zion – or let’s use the more cool abbreviation, DMZ – is band with a powerful combination of soul and gospel that will make your day brighter, your smile broader and get your feet dancing. It’s infectious, inspirational stuff, packed full of tight harmonies and funky rhythms. The music is traditional in many ways, with a clear heritage in 1960s and 70s soul and gospel, but it’s got a very contemporary feel. It’s music for today. It’s what Music Maker Relief Foundation co-founder Tim Duffy calls “sacred soul.”
And that’s what Bruce Watson of Fat Possum Records recognized three years or so ago, when he signed DMZ to his new Bible and Tire label. [check out our interview with Bruce Watson here.] The band recorded its first album Can’t Turn Me Around, in Watson’s Delta-Sonic Sound studio backed by his all-star band, in Memphis in 2019 and have followed that up now by The Devil Don’t Like It. Like the first album, it’s bursting with positivity, gospel truth, beautiful harmonies and sweet lead vocals.
DMZ emerged in 2014 in eastern North Carolina, a region renowned for its musicality and gospel harmonies. The music made in rural Black churches for many decades has, in fact, been the foundation for so much of the commercial music we’re familiar with. DMZ taps into the deep roots of gospel which its members have experienced in the church, as well as classic sounds of soul and R&B.
Anthony “Amp” Daniels is the eldest of the group, and he’s had a successful a career in R&B down in Atlanta, backing up the likes of Bebe Winans and Toni Braxton, and producing records.
The other vocalists in the band, all fine singers, Antwan Daniels, Dexter Weaver, and Marcus Sugg, are all related by blood or marriage.
I got talking to Anthony about DMZ, the new album and making music. Our conversation sparkled with joy. I asked him first of all, about his musical background. He told me,
“My family was very musical and from a small child, that’s what we did. As a small boy, it’s just music and singing. My mother, she taught me to sing. It’s always been a very serious thing in my home, singing. My mother was more serious about singing than my education! Later she started being more serious about my education, but singing was just so important to her. It came from her father and then from her to my brother and sister and me. So it’s just something we always did.”
I assumed that the singing was really fostered in church but Anthony said that, although he sang in church, it was really his home environment that was his training ground and where his love of singing was nurtured.
“It was a home thing and it was something that we had to do every day. My mother would come in and we would have to sing. In fact, we had to talk in harmony as children! That’s how it was.
“But we started out in the choir, church choirs, and just traveling to other churches and singing. And even when I visited with my grandmother, she would have my brother and my sister and me sing for her all the time. It’s just singing, singing, singing. I love to sing though. So, it wasn’t a problem. I loved it. And I love to sing now.”
Anthony is a talented guy, not only a terrific singer, but an experienced keyboards player, having played in church and then for years with his mother’s group, the Glorifying Vines Sisters, a longstanding Farmville gospel institution. He’s also had a career as a record producer, producing recordings for the Glorifying Vines and also for R&B and pop music artists. His nickname is “Amp,” which I assumed had some association with amplifiers, but Anthony told me he wasn’t entirely sure how he got it.
“As a child I grew up with that. I guess it’s an abbreviated kind of thing. Sometimes it might be hard for children to say “Anthony” and they’ll say “Amp” instead of a “Ant.” It’s a Southern thing. People give you a nickname!”
How, I wondered, did DMZ get started?
“Well, back in 2014, I was working with a relative of mine on his project and it fell through. His guys started leaving his band so I began to recruit some guys that I knew, but the band fell apart. But the guys didn’t wanna quit, so the group became the Dedicated Men of Zion.”
DMZ consists of four singers – Anthony’s son Antoine, his sons-in-law Marcus and Antwan, and Dexter Weaver, his nephew in-law – and four musicians. They perform far and wide in the United States, but Anthony wants to get the band to Europe.
“I performed in Switzerland with my parents and I’m just ready to get back. I’m ready to get back in the UK. I love that. I just want these guys I’m with now to get an opportunity to just experience that. They’ll love it.”
I asked him how the relationship with Bible and Tire, Bruce Watson’s label, came about.
“We actually met Bruce through Tim Duffy of the Music Makers Foundation [check out our interview with Tim Duffy here]. Tim put us together and it was like a great marriage, man. It was fantastic. I love working with Bruce. We just have a great relationship. I mean we’re talking about a third album already.”
Both albums are brimming with musicality, groove and inspiration. They are obviously gospel, but the description “sacred soul” seems to nail it.
“I think so, because sacred soul music is music for the soul, you know. It’s gospel music and sacred soul is like a division of that. It’s very similar to gospel, but I guess it’s just focusing a little bit differently musically. But I love the name sacred soul. I think it describes it really well.”
When people think of gospel music, they often think about a certain musical sound, certain piano chords and a certain feeling from the music. But I wondered, does it need to be more than that? How important for Anthony is the lyrical content?
“It’s very important. Music is good but the message is important. A good song to me has a message. You can have instrumentals, like, for example, a jazz instrumental and all this kind of stuff, and people still call it a song. But to me, a song should have a good lyrical content, a good story, a good message. And it helps if it’s therapeutic. Sometimes you hear music and it’ll take you somewhere, take you back to another time and place in life. You could be in 2022 and you could hear a song and it’ll take you back to 1985 or something, you know? And it’s just a really good feeling.”
Anthony went on to sum up the message in DMZ’s music: “I guess I would say that the message is positive. We want to give a good positive message, we just want to sing something that will lift your spirit and be encouraging.
“We want it to be encouraging, uplifting, inspirational. Just therapeutic. You know, just help to bring people through – sometimes we need that. You can have a bad back and you have to go to the chiropractor, but where do you go when you’re feeling down? When you need to be uplifted, when you just want to get away and free your mind from some other things. We have a lot of things that we go through – people have bills and they’re dealing with sickness and death, but sometimes a good old song will lift you up, make you feel better. Inspire you. So those are the kind of things we want to get across with this music. And make people smile just for a minute anyway.”
I wanted to know about the faith component of the music. You can have a nice song that has a nice feel about it that might make you feel good. But DMZ songs are more than that, there’s a faith component to the songs.
“Well, yeah, there’s definitely a faith component, we’re dealing with faith and belief. But it gives hope and it’s still encouraging and it still can be uplifting [to anyone]. It’s a feel good. When we were in Switzerland playing, some people didn’t speak English, but they were still saying it felt good. One woman told us, my daughter doesn’t speak English, but she wanted to tell you that she really enjoyed it. So sometimes you don’t have to understand it and it still feels good.”
I asked Anthony about the new album, The Devil Don’t Like, which is very, very good, the levels of production, song arrangements and musicality all very high. It was the band’s second experience of working with Bruce Watson of whom Anthony has said has “a way of pushing an artist to get the best out of them without the artist ever knowing that they are being pushed…the guy is just extraordinary as a person as well as a producer. Trust me when I tell you an outstanding band and a great producer can really bring the best out of an artist and a song. Bruce’s vision of preserving the originality of sacred soul music is educational, unique and inspiring.”
On song selection, Anthony said, “Bruce sent us songs and asked us to select ten. So we listened to them and selected songs that really felt good to us, ones we could really hear ourselves doing.”
Most of the songs, I didn’t recognize, but there’s a great version of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s Up Above My Head. I can imagine a congregation or an audience singing along with it and also God’s Got His Eyes On You. I was intrigued by the title track, The Devil Don’t Like It, which funny enough, isn’t very much about the devil. Most of it is about God “putting his hand on me.” You just get that little phrase at the end.
“Yeah. And that’s the ironic part about that song. It’s a very small portion of that song. But I guess it’s a catchy phrase. But when I first heard that song, I said, I’m doing it!”
The harmonies on the album are stunningly good, but so too are the lead vocals – beautiful, modern-sounding singing. I’m Going Home is a great example, where the lead vocalist is to the fore and the harmonizing kicks in here and there to support. Who, I asked, takes the lead vocals?
“Well, mostly we share the lead parts. Everybody in the group can sing lead and everybody has their own style of singing. We’re all different and everybody sings it their way. I love it that variety, you know – it’s one group with multiple talents, so you don’t get so tired of just hearing that same thing over and over. You need to have a variety, you know?”
I was intrigued by A Change Is Gonna Come. We’re all familiar with the famous version by Sam Cooke from 1964, which came right in the middle of the civil rights movement and was clearly about events of the time. So I wondered what DMZ’s song is all about.
“When we heard that song – my son sings that song – and what we got from it, and what we feel with the conditions in the world…to me, it’s about hope, you know? No matter what we’re going through, especially with all the bad stuff – change is coming. And I know Sam Cooke’s version was totally different but it’s still the same message. When we look at the conditions, the bad in the world, the message is don’t worry, don’t give up. Change is coming. It’ll get better.”
As a non-American, someone who doesn’t live in America, I wondered if there was any particular reference to today’s America. Is there any particular change that needs to come?
“I would love to see change in America. Of course there are some things I would like to see changed. No matter how many times people tell you things are equal, things are not equal. If we had more equality, treating everybody the same, instead of, you know, separation, I think that would really solve a lot of the issues that we have.
“Everybody being treated equal, regardless of race, colour or whatever. We should just treat people like people, everybody just as humans. We know that there’s some bad everywhere. It doesn’t matter about ethnicity, black, white color, whatever. You have bad everywhere. But everybody’s not that way. So I would just love to see every person being treated the same. Regardless. You know what I’m saying? That’s one thing I would love to see change.”
Does America need to make a more progress with that?
“Yes, I think so. I really believe in that. I just wish that it would happen. I wish that there was some way that it could. Even with a job application, just as simple as that – why do we have to put our race on a job application? It doesn’t matter – if a person can do a job, then a person can do a job. But there’s just so much division, you know?”
Again, as a non-American, I was intrigued to ask Anthony about the divisions in church life in the United States, where there are black churches and white churches. Would it be better if it wasn’t that way?
“I think it’s historical. It’s just the freedom of religion. But if we’re both in the same belief, in the same faith, why can’t we worship together? Instead of you gotta be over there in that black church and I’m here in a white church. We’re worshiping in the same faith, but we can’t do it together. So much division, so much separation and it would be so much better together.”
Anthony told me that he saw a little bit of movement towards people worshipping together, towards integration, but he sensed that people can be afraid and so division continues.
We finished off our conversation talking about the music. Anthony was enthusiastic about the band that Bruce Watson had put together for the album – really, the backing band sounds superb.
“We had studio musicians working with us and they were fantastic and their attitudes were awesome. Just awesome musicians. And just the greatest guys to be around, that whole band and I love them. Bruce Watson put those guys together. That’s his studio band. We went into the studio and no one wanted to leave.
“You know, studio work is hard work. They want more than you can give sometimes, but you gotta give some more. But those guys made it so relaxed for us. And Bruce had a way of just pushing you without you even realizing you’re being pushed. It’s cool. He’ll nudge you, all smiles, and he’s just trying to get the best out of you. I love it.”
Like most musicians, the pandemic put paid to DMZ performances, but things are picking up for the guys now, with up to twelve dates a month. And Anthony’s raring to go.
Like the music DMZ makes, Anthony Daniels exudes sunny positivity. If you get the chance to go see these guys, don’t hesitate, and in the meantime, go pick up a copy of their two albums. The devil may not like them – but you will, for sure.