After taking a couple of shots of D’ Usse to take the edge off, we walked a couple of blocks up from where I parked my car near Union Market. It was a slightly breezy Monday night, and as we approached, my friend CJ whispered, “I don’t know about my outfit, the colors kind of clash.” I reassure him, “I like your outfit, I think it’s cool” and in my head, a sigh of relief that I am not alone in my anxiety. My friend CJ, a local underground photographer, had joined me to attend “Open Mic,” an event by Open Gem USA hosted by Nature Boi, at the Song Byrd. As we began to approach the entrance a girl shouts, “Hey I remember you guys!” My friend and I begin to squint and smile because at the young ages of 23 and 26, we’ve seemingly lost a tremendous amount of memory of our days at Phelps High School. Anyway, the girl recalls our faces from high school; we laugh, and she asks “do you want to meet people?” I, being a bit socially anxious, quickly try to decline but my friend is all for it. We’re quickly pushed toward a small crowd of artists and a producer. We shake hands with 2 and begin an interesting conversation with the producer, who turns out to be from London and has only been in DC for the past two days.
We discuss normal things like the weather – we describe the DMV weather as “kind of bad,” but I try to point out that he “came at just the right time, during spring, when it’s not too hot or too cold.” I interject that I want to get a drink and get inside because I have a friend performing, Jevon Yager, a local DC rapper. So, we all go inside, find a comfy space to stand, I order a beer and begin observing all that the show entails. As I look around, the dark yet colorful room, I notice not only the diverse crowd but also the diverse performers. There are DC and PG natives, sporting thrifted vintage Polo Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger, signatures pieces of DMV natives. This, along with the hand-painted jean jackets, and head-to-toe black goth outfits with intriguing black make-up to match, represent a few of the elements of the “DMV art scene”.
I brought my focus to the stage and began to listen to the current performer, O Dawg. He energetically hopped on stage, with a zesty unbuttoned shirt and began to belt out what sounded like a mixture of a hip hop and Latin mashup. Think Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” a catchy dance type of vibe. The crowd, feeling his energy and the flow of the song began to bounce their bodies and nod their heads, as he belted out lyrics that described his anguish for a past lover. To top it off, O Dawg, screamed “get back!” and did a backflip. Next, Loso Baby, almost as equally energetic, performed what sounded like a soulful play on “It Wasn’t Me” by Rik Rok and Shaggy. Loso energetically sang of his sexual infatuation and experience with a woman, a theme that was familiar to many, if not all. The alternative sounds were a refreshing taste, after, for one, not being at an art event for a while, but also because of the energy the artists brought and the fact, that the artists were mostly all from the DMV. I was reminded of the importance of being able to enjoy and take part in events like this because of the positive uplifting environment it fostered for not only black people but artists as well.
The next performer was a bit more alternative than the other performers, and with his bright orange backpack, shimmering eyeshadow, eloquently painted nails, and orange shoes, I along with my other 2 friends that had joined me near the stage, quietly anticipated what was to come. He introduced himself as Sharrum, and quickly moved into his performance, a hardcore rock, alternative rap kind of vibe. Think, Yung Lean and Lil Peep music, mixed. He seemed so into it, his music I mean; it was inspiring to watch. I felt a connection to his difference and his expression of it. It was honestly one of the most memorable of all the performances.
After the performance, we stepped outside for a smoke break and discussed a bit about what we saw. I looked around and took in the environment, the outfits, the energy, the music, the time, the place. It was fun, I mean a relief from all that was going on in my life, and made me think about transitions. It made me think about the way my younger self experienced those events, worrying about fitting in and looking like an artist, as opposed to now, just observing and enjoying them. The intermingling the artists were able to do with the audience before and after their performances also reminded of the connections that these art events were able to create. Throughout the performances, the DJ, Nature Boi, gave words of encouragement and reminded the crowd and fellow artists to network and make connections, despite their inclinations to be to themselves. In the art world, and in the DMV area, individuals are taught to keep to themselves, for protection from violence and people just trying to come up off your blood, sweat, and tears. Nature Boi’s words remind us that while protection of oneself is important, taking advantage of the situation and making connections are important as well.
We went back inside and watched a few more performers, and after a performance or two, my back reminded me again of the old Milaka that had no problem standing up during these performances but the new one who was older and needed to sit down. To get some relief, I whispered to my friends my plans, they followed me to find some seats, and CJ whispered, “my feet were starting to hurt too.” This reassurance not only let me know that I wasn’t alone in not only my physical pain but my psychological pain as well. Older age, even though I’m only 26, social anxiety, and the everyday turmoil that comes with young adulthood stood in the middle of this experience but the experience itself took the edge off and redefined what it all meant. The next performer, Voyce, defined or performed this eloquently, when he sang his song “Sometimes,” which vividly painted a picture of hard times, depression, and drinking to numb the pain.
So, keep your ear to the ground and your eyes on social media for the latest local artistic events because you never know the hidden gems that these events may reveal. These performers may not be the new hottest artists on the front of magazines, yet, but they bring a different element that those artists don’t quite bring. They bring their alternative take on music, their authentic selves and provide a sound that we can still all relate to. They bring that DMV element: fashion that’s a mix of hood yet posh, a personality that’s fun yet intellectual, with lyrics that are free yet persuasive. While it’s nice and even necessary to go out and enjoy an organic local performance, being able to find some understanding, even clarity, woven into a lyric or two, can be just what you need to relax your mind.
Check out Nature Boi’s upcoming shows and stay updated by following him on Instagram @opengemusa