January 14, 2019

“I Went from Working Retail to Creating My Own Job”: Meet the Musicians Playing on the Streets of Chinatown

By Margaret Barthel


The Metro stop in Chinatown is ground zero for lively music performances and the people who stop to enjoy them, but it’s also the focus of complaints from residents about amplified music playing late into the night. The D.C. Council has been considering a noise ordinance aimed at the street musicians playing in the District.

Kojo and his team headed to the Gallery Place-Chinatown neighborhood recently to talk to residents and to meet the musicians. 

The trip — and the episode of the The Kojo Nnamdi Show that went along with it — provided a window into what it’s like to be a street musician in D.C.

Why play on the street? It’s an ideal place to begin building a rapport with listeners, according to several performers Kojo spoke with.

“It gave me a really good connection with the audience. I think that’s what most performers want and yearn to have in this city,” says Aaron Myers, a former street musician and the co-founder of the Capitol Hill Jazz Foundation.

In fact, Myers considers playing on the street as an important part of building his career. He described using street performances as a promotional tool for gigs he used to play at a club in Dupont Circle: he’d take his act–and some show fliers– to a variety of different neighborhoods, ending in Dupont right before his show was scheduled to start (beyond Gallery Place-Chinatown, several musicians said they’ve found good performance spots in Dupont, Georgetown and U Street). “Then [I’d] walk the audience that was around me down to the club,” Myers told Kojo.

Several current street musicians have also parlayed street music into other opportunities. Tommi, a singer who performs five days a week on D.C. streets, had a video of a performance go viral in 2017, and since then has been adding more traditional gigs on top of singing on the streets. “I went from working retail to creating my own job, making the same amount of money,” she says.  

Vanny, a singer and guitarist whose work has also been popular online, explains that street music has allowed her to practice her art entirely on her own terms. “I’ve been able to build a career independently without the help of a manager,” she explains. “I’m exposing myself in a raw and organic way.” And as a full-time college student, the added income helps her afford the textbooks and supplies that she needs.

But there are downsides to street performance, too: musicians sometimes face harassment or even theft. “You have to constantly look at your tips, constantly look at your equipment to make sure that’s not being harmed,” says Myers. When Kojo spoke to Vanny and Tommi during performances in Gallery Place, both were accompanied by their fathers, who help keep an eye out so their daughters can focus on the music.

Vanny speculates that any harsh treatment faced by street musicians traces back to the misconception that people who play on the street are doing so as a last resort. “I’m not homeless at all. But that’s what people automatically think when they see you performing on the street.”

But the musicians we spoke to said that rudeness was the exception, not the rule. “People have really grown to love it, especially during the summer time,” says Tommi. “And [tourists] really enjoy it. They’re like, this feels like New York City.” Several of the businesses near the spot where she performs in Georgetown have also been supportive.

Building a strong street music culture is something that Tommi is proud to share with residents and visitors alike. “It’s a beautiful thing. It’s becoming a culture here. We’re creating a music scene.”