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Singer with rare eye disease runs Philly co-op music studios | We the People

The co-op requires member musicians to complete at least two hours of community service a month.

Danie Ocean, 33, performs outside of Seven Stones cafe in Media.
Danie Ocean, 33, performs outside of Seven Stones cafe in Media.Read moreSTEPHANIE FARR / Staff

Shadows, half lights, and muted colors: That's how musician Danie Ocean — who was diagnosed at age 16 with a rare degenerative eye disease that's left her legally blind — sees the world day-to-day. But the world she envisions is a far more vibrant place.

"What I feel and what I hear is a world of things that other people can't see," she said. "I've become so much more emotive now. I don't have the same fears."

Ocean, 33, is the co-founder of Working While Playing, a co-op-style recording studio with locations in Germantown and West Philly that allows musicians access to studio space, staff, and equipment for a low monthly membership fee. In exchange, members must commit to at least two hours of community service each month.

"It's so expensive for artists to do what they do, and as a result, people are losing the love of it," she said. "Money should never stop people from doing what it is they love."

Ocean, who lives in Media, was diagnosed as a teen with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that affects the retina and how it responds to light. She majored in psychology at Chestnut Hill College and spent a year with AmeriCorps's City Year program in Philadelphia.

An AmeriCorps instructor gave Ocean, whose real name is Danielle Jackson, the nickname she would later take as her stage name. She reminded the instructor of Frank Sinatra's character, Danny Ocean, from Ocean's 11.

After AmeriCorps, Ocean got her master's degree in social work from the University of Pennsylvania and spent eight years doing clinical therapy and social work at schools in Philadelphia.

A vocalist who plays guitar, bass, and "a little keys and drums," Ocean has been performing since she was 22 at Philly venues like Chris' Jazz Cafe and World Cafe Live. She co-founded Working While Playing with her friend Adam Monaco in 2010. In doing so, Ocean married her two biggest passions — music and service.

"We needed to help musicians help the community and vice versa," she said.

Some musicians complete their community service by playing for free at fundraisers. Others spend their hours helping fellow members with their albums.

Ocean said the Working While Playing model is sustainable through membership dues. The organization has about 40 members and 10 to 15 staff members who volunteer up to 15 hours a week each, she said.

Paul Mack, 66, a recent retiree and amateur musician from Mount Airy, joined Working While Playing in fall 2016 and took vocal lessons from Ocean for an album he released Oct. 29.

"She…sees it as her life mission to encourage people's musical dreams," Mack said. "She exudes optimism about whatever you are trying to do."

Why Philadelphia?

"[B]ecause we really do experience all seasons here you get people who've got some grit to them. You know, they've got some moxie….I think Philadelphia we kind of, we're realists, we can accept what's real about things. It actually makes it a really cool place to lay roots and foundation for music because I think music just reflects life."

What’s been a classic Philly moment for you?

"I'm walking out of Chris' Jazz Café and I bump into this guy who says 'Hey do you know where I can get a good Philly cheesesteak?' and I was like, 'Well, I'm walking in that direction, so I'll just walk with you.' … and I said, 'Well what do you do.' He said, 'Well, I'm actually a musician too, which is why I stopped you, because you're a musician.' And I said, 'Oh, well what do you play? Would I know the band?' He was like, 'Have you ever heard of India Arie?' and I was like, 'Aaaa!' So it was one of those moments where I was like 'You know, you take the time for the City of Brotherly Love and you never know who you're going to meet.' "

If you had a wish for Philadelphia, what would it be?

"My wish for Philadelphia is that it accepts its role of being the red-headed stepchild of all major cities. Just let it go. We've got quirks, it's fine. You know, let's just be who we are."

Know someone in the Philadelphia area whose story deserves to be told — or someone whose story you'd like to know? Send suggestions for We the People profiles to Stephanie Farr at or call her at 215-854-4225. Send tips via Twitter to @FarFarrAway.

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