Wale and Rare Essence
Photo by Lars Niki/WireImage for The Recording Academy
Go-Go Given The Royal Treatment At Inaugural D.C. Block Party
Jeriel Johnson says there are "incredible artists" everywhere. "But we know that some of the greatest ones are right here."
The executive director of the Recording Academy's Washington, D.C. chapter spoke with enthusiasm in a red-carpet interview just before the chapter’s inaugural Block Party on May 10. On a Friday evening, the micro music fest kept the crowds entertained at City Winery in trendy neighborhood Ivy City. Emceed by local radio personality and former BET host Joe Clair, the evening of back-to-back concerts starred artists with ties to D.C., Maryland and Virginia: rappers D.R.A.M. and Chaz French, singer-songwriter Kevin Ross, art-pop vocalist Angelica Garcia, pop outfit MAKUTA and D.C. go-go masters Rare Essence—with a surprise cameo from rapper Wale.
Just before sunset on the third floor of the year-old concert space and hub for oenophiles (in a building once home to nightclubs Dream and Love), guests in Louboutins and blazers took seats at picnic tables to hear Brooklyn-based MAKUTA. Helped in part by their loud sartorial choices (think: ABBA meets Spice Girls) and touring drummer Christian Zawacki (a Virginia native), the family quartet played a string of rock-infused pop tunes. Doug Makuta, born in nearby Norfolk and lead vocalist of the band, has another tie to Virginia: He’s signed as a songwriter to ole-Bluestone, a collaboration between rights management company ole and Virginia-bred producer Timbaland.
One of the standout performers of the night, Angelica Garcia, is definitely one to follow. Within a minute of fading up a few soft notes on her Roland wave sampler, Garcia had the audience under her spell. She stood entirely alone on stage with a Tori Amos-like intensity, bathing the room in a rich aural tapestry of looped harmonics.
"I appreciate how lively every [D.C.] show has been," Garcia said before the show. "It's been cool that the crowd has been so mixed and diverse that people are usually very welcoming of my music." The artist’s father is from Mexico, and Garcia names Mexican ranchera singer José Alfredo Jiménez-Sandoval as one of her go-tos for inspiration.
The night was also a celebratory one for local musical education. In an interlude between sets, Johnson, chapter president Von Vargas and other local GRAMMY leadership members recognized a few regional schools for their contributions in music education: T.C. Williams High School (Alexandria, VA), Kelly Miller Middle School (D.C.) and the Richardson School of Music (Takoma Park, MD). They also presented Ottley Music School (Hyattsville, MD) with a $1,000 check to support their program.
The D.C. area has made as indelible mark on rap, with artists such as Shy Glizzy, Rico Nasty, Innanet James and D.R.A.M. gaining increased national attention in recent years. Chaz French is well-deservedly also on that list. Clad in an unassuming ensemble (tucked-in mustard polo, high-water tweed pants and black-and-white Adidas), French was dynamic and unapologetic in his rooftop performance. After abandoning a small balcony stage—saying, "It’s too far; I've got to feel the energy"—French joined the crowd below, delivering a short but feverish set, including a moment when he let his young daughter, Akai, take the mic on recent single "Handful."
But, as several interviewees mentioned, D.C.'s most sacred genre is perhaps the spirited, funk-based go-go. The music found itself in the national spotlight on May 7 with #MoeChella, a public demonstration and concert attended by thousands and now just one of several #DontMuteDC rallies popping up in response to local controversy: Due to noise complaints, a D.C. cell phone store that had played go-go for decades was temporarily barred from doing so. It’s an issue that resonated with many residents, a symbol of the seemingly boundless gentrification that’s redefined the city in recent years.
"Some of our members and our board were out there that night during the rally, and I think a lot of people have since come to us," Johnson said. "There was emergency legislation that they were trying to pass in October of 2018, called the Amplified Noise Amendment Act. And as a chapter, we stood against that. We felt like the underlying idea was to ban live, amplified street performances.
"That is what this city has been built on," Johnson said. "It's just been great, all these months later, we’re still at it, and the community’s still at it, and we’re doing everything we can to rally around local musicians."
Just before 10 p.m., D.C.-bred rapper Wale stepped out to introduce Rare Essence but stuck around for a live collaboration of the artist’s GRAMMY-nominated "Lotus Flower Bomb." The legendary go-go group, founded in 1976, recently dropped "Don’t Mute DC," a musical defense of go-go and its history.
"This is where go-go was born, and this is where go-go lives," Wale told us earlier in the night. "That’s the unique gumbo … our Trojan horse in the music game, essentially."
As the band moved on to play its own polyrhythmic take on Ashlee Simpson’s "Pieces of Me," it was difficult to find someone who wasn't dancing.