A Different War wasn’t necessarily the record Danielia Cotton set out to make, but it was the album she needed to make.
The six-song EP, released earlier this summer, is prescient. She wrote and recorded the songs over a year ago, but tunes like “She Too” and “Better off Without You” echo some familiar themes at this point in the country’s history.
“Sometimes you write and you just have the luck of your content falling into thematically the right time,” she said. “You couldn’t have seen it coming.”
Cotton, a Hopewell native, has spoken and written extensively about her experiences as a Black woman growing up in a predominantly white town. She’s never written an explicitly political song, and A Different War was never intended to be a statement record, but she couldn’t deny that the themes and some of her life experiences are relevant to movements and moments that have defined this decade—#MeToo, Black Lives Matter, the Trump administration.
So she decided to break her silence.
That decision—and Cotton’s awakening—was an intense undertaking. She challenged herself to a little self evaluation. That included a lot of thought about Motown-era Black singers who sang about racial injustice and the politics of the 1950s and 60s, she said.
Part of that inspiration came from her sister, Cathy, who Cotton says is a fixture in the Hopewell-Pennington area. She’s active in local politics and with area organizations, and her influence on the record is apparent, Cotton said.
“I was afraid, I gotta say, to really voice my opinion,” she said. “And that made me almost sad inside of myself that I would be afraid of the backlash. I was like, ‘When did I become this fearful person who didn’t want to be political?’ I think that’s what happened to a lot of people. And then you get worried, and I’m like, ‘What am I doing this for?’ Am I only singing to be liked? What do I want to put out there? It made me question my shit on such a deep level that I had to ask that of myself.”
Wading through that discomfort ended up being the right move, and Cotton said she’s more politically conscious than ever.
“Silence in this moment, you can’t say ‘I don’t want to,’” she said. “I’m in it. I’m working on the campaign, I’ve made cold calls. I’ve done everything that I never thought I would. It’s like my mom said, ‘You can be scared of spiders, but when a spider gets on your child, you just pull it off.’ I think what’s happening now. In a beautiful way, our eyes have been opened to our power as a people.”
It’s the least she can do when she thinks about the activists from eras past, Cotton said.
“All the great people that protested, they gave up their lives,” she said. “They knew they might never see the fruit of their labors or their work, but they did it anyway. And that, I think, we’re not that kind of people. We’ve become a selfish kind of nation. This awoke in us, ‘No, we’re a team, and we have to fight for each other. For our kids.’”
The idea of working for a better future is important to Cotton, and it’s always stuck with her, but especially over the last four years.
“If we want to change what happens when you walk into a room as a Black person versus what happens when you walk into a room as a white person, then we have to fight for that,” she said. “We have to fight for that as a people if that’s the world we want to live in. This current presidency has made all of this prevalent, and now we’re like, ‘Oh, shit, there were really bad people out there, and they’re coming out now. They’ve just been hiding.’ This is a threat. It will continue. It will be a continuous fight, I believe, for probably as long as I live, but it doesn’t mean we can’t forget ahead.”
That’s personal for Cotton, who has a two-year-old daughter. She wants to help create a better world for her to grow up in, especially as a Jewish woman of color—her father, Cotton’s partner, is Jewish.
That her daughter could face racial injustice and anti-Semitism is a grim thought for Cotton.
“I’m a mom late in life, but I just look at her as a biracial Jew and I’m like, ‘Oh, shit.’ And she’s a girl. But if she was a boy I’d be afraid. If she was a Black biracial boy I’d be afraid. But she’s also a Black, biracial female. She’s already in school at two. We’re arming her with knowledge, which is always a part of Judaism. Knowledge is power. It should be that way for everyone.”
Intersectionality fuels Cotton’s activism, too. The things she’s fought for don’t start or end with one identifier—race, gender, religion are all intertwined.
“As women, too, we’re still fighting for equal pay,” Cotton said. “We’re still fighting to be considered equal on so many levels. One of my best friends, she is the main breadwinner in her family, by far. This is where we are as women. We can run a country. Bear a baby if you can. Don’t underestimate us, too. I think these songs were sort of like a people and a minority that I feel, and not to say that women are a minority, but that we deserve that, to be looked at in that way, too. I think something awoke in me, silently, without me even knowing it.”
A Different War was a personal undertaking for Cotton, who also peppered the EP with lyrics about love and life.
“We all have significant others, and that’s always a struggle, too,” she said. “People that you have relationships with that are not great, but in some way, they help define you, because you’re better as you come out the other end of a bad thing. And then loving somebody so much that once you know what that is, if you didn’t have it, you think you would just shrivel up. And forgiving. In any great relationship, it’s a continuous forgiving cycle. So that’s all, in six songs, I think it sort of covers life. It ended up a little six-song power punch.”
Cotton, her partner and daughter live in the Tribeca neighborhood of Manhattan.
Much of Cotton’s family still lives in the area—a testament to their resilience, Cotton said. She was one of only a handful of Black kids in her school, and some classmates didn’t let her forget it. She and her family often heard racial slurs and faced many, many racist taunts and microaggressions.
Cotton especially remembers an experience from her younger years. Her choir teacher had the class sing “Cotton Needs Pickin’,” a “cotton-picking” song with roots in the 1940s.
“I never forgot that melody, because I was the only Black kid in class,” she said. “My name was Cotton, and we were singing this song, and the kids were throwing shit at me.”
She questioned her teacher internally but kept the experience to herself. She worked through it—and other attacks on her race—with her mother, both then and now. And it’s led to a lot of learning.
“You just get up and fight all the time because I had to,” Cotton said. “I always talked to my mom, ‘You’re so unsympathetic.’ But she said, ‘Danielia, are you bleeding? Then you’re fine. Keep going.’ When I got older, I would say to her, ‘That was so mean.’ And she said, ‘Danielia, I would go upstairs and lay on the floor in the closet and cry. But I didn’t want you kids to have to pick me up. I didn’t know what to say, so I tried to be, like, okay, so he said you were a [n-word]. You can’t change his mind. Just keep walking.’
It’s also led to a lot of reflection on her part. A child shouldn’t have to toughen up and fight for themselves like Cotton did. But that’s what happened. And she wouldn’t change anything.
“I think I am strong and the fighter I am because I had to constantly deal with that,” she said. “Would I have chosen that life? No. Would I change who I am today? No. I wouldn’t have found music in that way. I wouldn’t have wanted to escape. I just wouldn’t be a lot of who I am. I kind of look at it that way.”