On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
The coronavirus pandemic has caused clubs and other performance venues to close down, meaning many of the region’s musicians and other performers are out of work. Musicians are finding ways to adjust to a new socially distanced normal – hosting concerts on online platforms like Instagram Live.
Meanwhile, the nation is dealing with calls for racial equity and police reform, as protests erupted over the deaths of George Floyd, Jacob Blake, Breonna Taylor and countless others. Now, artists are finding ways to use their craft and their platforms to spread messages of racial justice.
We’re checking in with local musicians, Aaron Myers and Christylez Bacon to talk about the protests, the pandemic, and their passions.
Produced by Richard Cunningham
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. The coronavirus pandemic has upended the region's music scene. All music venues, from clubs to concert halls, are closed for the foreseeable future. This means that musicians and other live performers are without a steady stream of income. Meanwhile, the nation is reckoning with how they deal with instances of racial discrimination and prejudice. And during this moment, some musicians are using their craft to spread messages of racial justice.
KOJO NNAMDISo, today, we'll talk with two local musicians about the protests, the pandemic and their passion for music. Joining me now is Aaron Myers. Aaron Myers is a local jazz musician. Aaron Myers, thank you for joining us.
AARON MYERSThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAlso with us is Christylez Bacon, a Grammy-nominated, progressive hip-hop artist. Christylez Bacon, thank you for joining us.
CHRISTYLEZ BACONHey, thanks for having me.
NNAMDIChristylez, I'll start with you. How did you get your start in music?
BACONOh, man, growing up in Washington, D.C., I mean, it's hard not to mess around with music, because go-go is so big. And even when we couldn't afford the instruments, we would just gather buckets and trashcans to bang on them together as a community. So, through that and my mom DJ'ing, I got into music and start rapping and making beats and stuff.
NNAMDISo how did D.C. culture and growing up here inspire your music?
BACONWell, a really special thing in D.C., with go-go, in particular, we have call and response. So, audience participation is important, as important as an instrumentalist is on stage. So, we're constantly building a rapport in the live show with our audience. And they constantly are contributing and they have a part in our performances. So, that stuff affects my music a whole lot.
NNAMDIYou call yourself, Christylez, a progressive hip-hop artist. What exactly is progressive hip-hop?
BACONYeah, so there's a couple of definitions. When I first came up with the title I was taking, like, a page from progressive rock and doing the same for hip-hop. I wanted to take the original, like, elements of hip-hop, like two in particular, like, beat-boxing and rhyming, and then I wanted to take it out of this original cultural context and use it to explore many different styles of music around the world and use that as a tool to bring together different cultures and different groups of people understanding each other.
NNAMDIAaron Myers, I know a little bit about you, because I listen to you sometimes on another radio station, which I shall not name, because I'm not supposed to be listening to it at all. But how did you (laugh) get your start in music?
MYERSLike many people, I got my start in the church. I was first exposed to music in the black church and started playing the piano when I was three. And I was fortunate to come from somewhat of a singing family, around the kitchen table, as is often done in our culture.
NNAMDIHow has the pandemic affected your business? How are you faring without the income from live performances?
MYERSWell, I'm looking at, at this moment -- I've cancelled all of my live performances until -- in-person performances until there is a vaccine. And so you look at -- all of my tours were cancelled, all of my live performances were cancelled. And with that, you're looking at basically some virtual performances that are paid. But outside of that, you're looking at just living off of something that perhaps you've saved.
MYERSAnd with the loss of the pandemic unemployment insurance, this month, particularly, that kind of stuff is completely done with. Whereas we still have to pay money to update our digital and virtual world by creating virtual offices and studios in our homes so that we can still compete on the landscape.
NNAMDIChristylez, you released a new song called "Quarantine" with a virtual release party. We'll listen to a quick clip of that right now.
NNAMDIChristylez, can you tell us the story behind that song?
BACONOh, man. Well, man, the folks at NPR, they reached out to me about doing a song about current times. It could be about any subject in these current times. And I thought the one that I definitely wanted to cover is just like what's happening racially in our cities and in our country, but also with COVID-19.
BACONAnd, you know, I had a situation before we went into this self-isolation period, of my mom, like, getting sick and having to take her down to the hospital and seeing what's happening, then seeing what's happening to us societally. And I just wanted to speak on it, so that's what inspired that one.
NNAMDIChristylez, what's a virtual release party? How is it different from an in-person release party?
BACONWell, let me tell you. The last release party I did was at the Kennedy Center with National Symphony Orchestra, right. That's a 70-piece orchestra. Everybody's there, enjoying the concert, and then we sell CDs. This one, (laugh) here's the difference. We're online, right. I'm on Instagram and Facebook, going live. And then everyone's in the comment section, and I'm just, like, playing this one back to back, sometimes talking about the story behind it, reading the lyrics like spoken word, and interacting with people.
BACONSo, it just, like -- the difference is that I can't see everybody. I can't hug people. I can't dap them up, you know what I'm saying? We can't dance together like that but we have to do what we have to do to be creative to connect with each other and celebrate the release of this here project.
NNAMDIAaron, like Christylez, a lot of artists, and you mentioned this, have turned to virtual performances over Zoom and Instagram Live. What do you think about this new way of performing? Does it feel different?
MYERSIt's very similar to doing television shows. You are not getting the feedback from a live audience, the energy. Usually the musician, especially a vocalist or a headliner, is between the band and the audience. So, you're channeling energy from your band behind you and your audience in front of you. With the virtual performances -- I've done a few where it's an hour in length, and it feels like to me that I've just done a three-hour show. I'm still sweating like I normally would. And it's my hope -- I'm grateful that I have an audience that still tunes in to me, but it's really a pouring out from an emotional standpoint of performing.
NNAMDIAs I mentioned, you host a radio show here in town, and you generally interview other performers. What have you been hearing from them on your show?
MYERSI've been hearing a lot of performers are not in a space yet where they can actually cope. Artists, especially black artists, have been asked to perform and to offer this type of hope through their art during this time. But it's often forgot that we are also humans. We are also feeling the brunt of this. I too have -- I have antibodies myself, and I just had to bury my cousin yesterday in Texas, who died from COVID.
MYERSThe ripple effects of this is just absolutely horrid. And when we're trying to create, it's hard to figure out what am I pulling from while facts are ever changing and while you're still dealing with some things in the city that needs to be done to help your own career and your own industry that could be done to help you through this difficult time.
NNAMDIChristylez, how has the music-making process changed within the last six months? Are you finding it easier to write or make music during this time?
BACONWell, in writing that song that you had played a little earlier, it was a little tough, because usually, I can't write about situations while I'm in them, right. And then, like, everything that Aaron said is so on point. It's so on point. The music-making process is different because we can't go to the studios and these other places. So, we have to go to YouTube University and learn how to mix and master for ourselves, like I did with that song. And then we have to -- and we have to gather the materials that we have and find a way to configure them to create compelling recordings and presentations. So, it's changed. And we have to become even more savvy, in addition, to create art.
NNAMDIAaron, what about the process is more difficult?
MYERSI think kind of to Christylez's point is being in it. Usually, you're able to somewhat speak from a space of resolve once something has been resolved after you can look back on it. While you're in this, a lot of musicians and creators are impacted, as well, in a sense. And there's a rush and a myriad of feelings and emotions going through you that really kind of delve you back into the deepest part of the fear or the hurt and the trauma that we're collectively going through now.
MYERSThat's what I have experienced. I've been able to write during this time, but yet and still, even wrote a book during this time. And throughout each process, anxiety attacks followed. And anxiety still looms because of it.
NNAMDIChristylez, I'll start with you, but this question's for both of you. What was your reaction to the death of George Floyd, and what has the Black Lives Matter movement meant for your music?
BACONWhen I first saw that -- when I first caught that video, because, you know, I don't like -- I don't watch TV, I don't own a TV or anything like that or a service like that. So, coming -- so getting sent that, I was like, whoa, like, please get up off this dude. You know what I'm saying? And then you see the camera, too, where there are two more officers kneeling on this dude.
BACONAnd unfortunately, I have seen this tons of other times too. Like, if you black, you know that this isn't a new thing that has happened. But with our cell phones, now everyone else can finally see what's happening. So, it was so sad to see a young one lose his life on camera right there and people not being able to intervene. Because if they intervened, they will be breaking the law to save a person's life, you know. So, that was tough.
BACONYou know, and I just -- and as far as, like, putting it into the music, I just try to pray over some stuff before I go in and write, like with that quarantine verse and stuff like that, to make sure that I'm not leading anyone astray, and I'm leading people in the right direction. But it sometimes can be hard to do, because you get emotional, as well. And you come from that place of emotion.
NNAMDISame question to you, Aaron. What has that particular case and the Black Lives Matter movement meant for your music?
MYERSWell, I even wrote on Facebook this morning, we just saw this happen almost again with Jacob Blake, who's also fighting for his life right now. We grew up seeing pictures of lynch mobs, the white people posing next to the hanging and swinging body, "Strange Fruit" sung by Billie Holiday, "Suppertime," sung by Ethel Waters. We've seen this and experienced this.
MYERSThe first act of -- before Black Lives Matter was a thing. The first protest I saw back in '93 was when Craig Thomas was killed, and, of course, was murdered in Corsican, Texas by the police. I see this. I was angered. I'm reminded that this crop of young people today and this Generation Y, they're not putting up with it. They're not taking it. I was encouraged. I have been emboldened to be able to express my frustration more clearly and loudly on all of my platforms, and my displeasure in how this American experiment seems to have failed the black man in many senses of the word.
MYERSHowever, the music, how it's affected my music, it's given me a space where I now know that the hurt and pain that I've put in every lyric was not just conceived in my mind, that it was a reaction to an actual event that was happening in our culture and our society that we're experiencing as black people.
NNAMDIHistorically, Aaron, jazz and hip-hop have often been used as vehicles of social change, or to reflect the desire for social change. Are you using your craft to inspire social change? And if so, how?
MYERSAbsolutely. Absolutely. First of all, I try to use the platform, my platform to ensure when I'm either online now doing my shows virtually, as I did with the Kennedy Center, to speak about not only what's happening now as far as the unrest, but exactly how one can be a part of the solution. I try to use my platform knowing that there's some government leaders who do like my music and listen to my music.
MYERSEvery week, I've used my platform to gather musicians around the city and music stakeholders around the city to create solutions for musicians here in D.C. We sent the mayor and the city council the Music Venue Relief Act, and this is something that would help music venues stay open during this particular time. And we've also -- we're requesting that the D.C. Council would speak to musicians about...
NNAMDIOh, Aaron's going in and out. While we try to reconnect him, Christylez, are you using your craft to inspire social change? And if so, how?
BACONOh, yeah. I mean, my whole mission statement as an artist, period, is cultural acceptance and unification through music. And through, like, international collaboration, collaborating with musicians, artists from different countries, like, race ethnicity, all of that, we're creating avenues for each other to know truly about each other's culture instead of the media's depiction of just one little color of this spectrum of a culture, you know.
BACONAnd then also getting on, like, Instagram and stuff and doing racial reconciliation conversations. It's just like, look, the reason why I, like -- people have all these visions -- all of these misunderstandings about what Black Lives Matter and then all these other things mean is because they don't know enough from the actual people. They might be scared to talk to the people.
BACONInstead, you know, through the music and through these conversations, we give people spaces without being judged or feeling condemned, where they could truly, like, ask and inquire about these things. And we can educate them, and vice versa. We could ask them questions about things. So, through collaboration I feel like we could understand each other, know each other, find out where we truly agree, and truly make change on these things.
NNAMDIAaron Myers is back. Aaron, please finish the statement you were making.
MYERSYes. We have -- we have gathered musicians and music stakeholders in the city to really try to introduce to the council the Music Venue Relief Act, as well as calling on the mayor's office to reach out to those businesses who are in the music economy to give them at least a weekly business update while giving musicians health updates.
MYERSA lot of people don't understand how when you think of having live shows in the future and coming back to this, what we will see will be our new normal, we are concerned about our health, too. Earlier on in this pandemic, we heard of so many musicians who were being sick and infected because they simply were dealing with stagehands, stage crew and also audiences that were infected and did not know it.
MYERSSo, we would love to hear up-to-date health facts from the health department while the city council and mayor are giving updates to the music community about what the reality of coming back would look like. I try to use my platform, because I know I do have government leaders who listen to me in that realm, but also trying to empower musicians to be able to advocate for not only their own health, but the health of their race and their community to their audiences, also.
NNAMDIIndeed, that was my next question to you. How can musicians use their craft for purposes of raising people's consciousness or for activism?
MYERSWell, I've always believed, first of all, that when I look at a jazz audience, specifically, you'll have a person in the audience who may be 16, 17 and 18 and a couple that may be 80 or 90 years old. You'll have a room full of people who could be business owners, but also people who are just lay workers. And so you have these people who come together because of the music.
MYERSAnd, in that space, if you can show what togetherness looks like, what coming together in that moment, how that feeling could last after they leave this room, how that one business owner may listen to a lyric in your song, they may think of diversity when hiring in the hiring process. Or when a son or a father and mother hears your music or sees your performance, and then if their kid comes out to them, they may be more accepting or loving. Or when that white couple hear your music, they're more understanding and loving and advocates for their black brothers and sisters.
MYERSI believe that your platform can be used, and we must use our platforms to empower our white allies to speak and become antiracist -- empower them to become antiracist, but also to empower black people, marginalized people, people of color to be able to hold their chest out and to hold their heads up, to be proud of who they are. But to also not smile in the face of the oppressor, but to say, I do not like what's happening. I don't have to like what's happening. And my voice can help make it better for those who come behind me and maybe for those who are here right now. That's what my platform must be used for, as an artist.
NNAMDIChristylez, do you believe musicians have a responsibility to be active for social change?
BACONIt depends on the artist and their reasons for doing things. You know, I think all of us, we have our roles. Some of us, like Aaron and myself, we feel compelled to, like -- to help people out, and doing our music and to lift people up and to educate, as well. And there might be some musicians who create from a space of, like, the joy in their hearts. And so we need this music to educate and all that, as well, and for social change and activism.
BACONAnd then we also need cats that are just, like, okay, we going to listen to this to party, because we do need to sometimes unplug from all these things that're happening in the world, just to go back and power up. You know what I'm saying? So, all of us have our different roles, and we all make one body in music, you know, to help out the human experience.
NNAMDIHow about you, Aaron? Do you believe musicians have some kind of responsibility to be active for social change?
MYERSI believe that you have a responsibility. One can't force someone to do it. And I believe that responsibility takes on many different levels. One person may use that responsibility by the music they curate for a show. One other person may use that responsibility by simply writing, but not singing. Another person may use that responsibility by actually using their voice during the music-making process. But other people may use the full breadth of their platform, social media, email lists, so on and so forth, to really get in there to affect social change.
MYERSSo, what that activism looks like is really and solely up to that artist. But we must remember that artists are people, too. Some artists are just as shy and scared and timid and traumatized as the population. And so you have to gauge it artist by artist. I would hope that the art itself and the music itself would give the artists the strength they need to speak out against what's happening right now, and to speak hope and encouragement to those on the frontlines of the protests. And then to also speak some clarity to those folks who are afraid to speak out but are now silent.
NNAMDIWe got an email from John who said: I was delighted to see that your show today includes a focus on local musicians meeting the moment. Fund by Photo sells high quality prints of live music photos. Our purpose is to provide visibility to artists and keep fans engaged while raising funds to provide food, clothing, shelter and other services to D.C. citizens who need help because of the COVID-19 pandemic. We donate 100 percent of the net proceeds to our nonprofit partners, We Are Family, D.C. Central Kitchen and Bread for the City.
NNAMDIBut, Christylez, they talked about doing photos. Washingtonian Magazine named you one of the most fashionable people in D.C. in 2018 (laugh). And your style is, indeed, distinctive. Anybody who's seen you around town would know it. Can you describe your style and what it says about you in about 30 seconds?
BACONOh, in 30 seconds. It's just an amalgamation of things that I like and just like, you know, me dressing how I want to dress to show up in the world. If you see me, you know I got an afro. So, that's really reminiscent of, like, you know, black power era and stuff like that. Just really accepting self and how my hair comes out of my scalp and stuff like that. And I always just try to put my best foot forward when I step out of the house, you know. Because I used to wear hand-me-down clothes with holes in it (laugh) growing up around the way. And so, there it is.
NNAMDINot now. He's a very stylish man. Aaron, as we go out today, we're going to listen to a little of your music. The piece you'll hear is titled "What's a Man To Do." Aaron, tell, us a little bit about that song. What's the inspiration behind it, in about 30 seconds?
MYERSI wrote that song on a park bench in Los Angeles when I was homeless. I was living in my car. And I didn't know what to do in that moment. And I was seeing so many people walk by with what appeared to me having everything together. And then someone walked up to me and asked for directions and then gave me the understanding that I must appear to have had my things together, as well, but I did not. And so I was just looking at the circumstances around me, and that's how that song came around.
NNAMDIWell, Aaron Myers, Christylez Bacon, thank you both for joining us. Let's hear a little bit about "What's a Man To Do."
NNAMDIThis segment with two local musicians was produced by Richard Cunningham. And our conversation about the start of the fall semester was produced by Ines Renique. Coming up tomorrow, activists are planning a March on Washington this Friday on the anniversary of the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. Organizers are calling this year's event the Commitment March: Get Your Knee Off Our Necks.
NNAMDIFor our latest Kojo in Your Virtual Community, we explore the history of the original March on Washington and what activists hope to achieve with Friday's march. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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