On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
For local up-and-coming musicians, the pandemic has meant cancelled shows and tours, and socially distant live performances. Six months into quarantine, we ask: How are musicians in the Washington region faring given their uncertain future?
We hear from musician, rapper, poet and playwright Dior Ashley Brown on what the pandemic — and the protests — have meant for her music, and her livelihood.
Produced by Julie Depenbrock
- Dior Ashley Brown Musician, Actor, Poet, Playwright, Activist; @DiorAshleyBrown
Vernacular: Red/Blue by Dior Ashley Brown
Vernacular magnifies the rapper's fearless lyricism and unpredictable cadence within the threaded hip-hop compositions inspired by the 60s and 70s funk, the arrangements immediately motivate the listener into a Call To Action. More Releases by this Artist ✖ Authorize To add tracks to your Spotify account, this website will need your permission.
KOJO NNAMDIThat's D.C.'s own Dior Ashley Brown performing her song, "Vernacular." For local up-and-coming musicians like Brown, the pandemic has meant cancelled shows and tours, socially distant band practices and livestream performances on platforms like Facebook and Instagram. It's a whole new world for musicians who depend on live shows for their income. So, now, six months into quarantine, we ask, how are musicians in the Washington region faring given such an uncertain future?
KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to discuss what the pandemic and this summer's protests have meant for her music and her livelihood is the aforementioned Dior Ashley Brown. She's D.C.-based. She's a musician, rapper, poet, playwright, actor and activist. Dior Ashley, thank you for joining us.
DIOR ASHLEY BROWNHello. Thank you for having me.
NNAMDITell us about the song we just heard, "Vernacular." How would you classify it?
BROWN(laugh) I would classify it as a premonition to what was to come. I feel like, you know, my music has always been warrior music and has always been kind of conscious. And I've always wanted to inspire and drive others, you know, towards working inward and outward, positively, for change.
BROWNAnd so, the song, to me, speaks into a lot of what is happening currently. And sometimes -- when you played that, it surprised me. Sometimes it chills me, it's like, oh whoa, like, wow. (laugh) There's definitely a war out here for sure.
NNAMDIYou're a D.C. native and the graduate of Duke Ellington. And you've been dubbed a “hip-hop polymath” by the Washington Post. When did you first know you wanted a career in music and the arts?
BROWNWell, I started with theater. I was doing theater at Duke Ellington University. Music has always been my backdrop. I was singing Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey when I was a child, like, to the top of my lungs. And hip-hop kind of found me in that. And when I started getting into theater and I'm crafting my art as an actor, just music kept speaking to me. And my friends were like, oh, you're so dope. I love how you spit. You know, you got to pursue it more. And I was just like, I don't know, you know.
BROWNAnd then later down the line, I just kept, you know, writing these poems. And it felt like just the right time to continue to articulate my story. And then I was going to venues and spinning my work as poetry, and hence the poet there. And I just was like, you know what? Let me try to add this to beat. So, I would say about the mid 2000s, I decided that I really wanted to pursue my career as an MC.
BROWNI was all up and down U Street hosting events at Lounger Three, Thursday Night Networking. That's where artists convened, and how I was kind of like literally tightening my craft as an emcee and live performer, which is way different from being an actor. (laugh)
NNAMDIDior Ashley, I'm wondering how your life has changed over the past six months.
BROWNWell, it was a blessing that at the top of the year my D.C. Music Summit happened, February 1st, 2020 at the Eaton Hotel. We had about 300 attendees that included also panels, volunteers. A lot of the D.C. music industry from radio personalities to Songbird owner to Grammy Board -- D.C. Grammy Board associates. And it was awesome. It was great. And I thank God, my lucky stars, that we were able to pull that off February 1st, just a month before this all came to be.
BROWNAfter that, I had a show at the Kennedy Center. It was finally my show on the Millennium Stage to present my work. And it was just a day or two before the actual shutdown of quarantine, and it's been shocking. I thought that this year my career would expand and go to new heights in different cities. And this album and the video would just be flowing. And it's been a shocking stop. But, at the same time, there was a lot of internal shift happening. And I had to realize, how do I exist on this digital plane so that I continue to get my message out?
NNAMDIGlad you mentioned the digital plane, because how has the nature of performing and sharing music shifted, changed for you?
BROWNOh, my goodness. So, at first, I couldn't even see, you know -- I saw everyone going on Instagram but the way that my performances are an experience, you know, I've been told they energize people. It propels them through their week. To see their emotions and the connection that I'm used to seeing with people in a space from hollering to laughing to singing with me. There's nothing, nothing at all like that yet in the digital plane.
BROWNThe chat box is cool, you know, but usually an artist works off of that emotional catharsis they're getting from the audience. It's a beautiful, you know, back and forth. And so, transitioning online is a new experience and something that I'm actually moving into it like an art. So, I've been very, very selective and very thoughtful in that process.
BROWNI did finally invest in a piece of equipment to be able to sound a little bit better online so that I could be on IG Live, so I could be in the Zooms and really enhance experiences with people who already feel disconnected to arts, you know, and really be able to connect with them.
NNAMDIHow has this affected, for instance, the FLOTUS band? Tell our listeners what the FLOTUS band is and how this pandemic has affected the FLOTUS band.
BROWNOh, man. Absolutely. So, for FLOTUS, First Ladies of the Urban Scene, we've been working, collaborating together, making a lot of projects. And what really hurts is that we've had to pare down tremendously. I was hired to do a livestream, and in the space -- it was a friend of mine who has a live stream set up in his home. And we really had to be thoughtful about being in his home. So, it was pared down from a normally six-person band to now three, myself, keyboard player and a DJ.
BROWNAnd it really -- it was still beautiful. The livestream was still awesome, but we're unable to rehearse because, you know, it's COVID and, you know, we have to wear masks and the masks are challenging and breathing is challenging when you're wearing the mask. And then, you know, people's emotions go up and down, because they're like, am I putting my safety at risk? And, essentially, they are. So, you know, it has hurt us a lot.
BROWNAnd we would normally be, you know, gigging, having festivals back to back, that has all stopped. I remember doing Anacostia River Festival one year and doing the Funk Parade one year, or a few years. And it just really hurts that the things that we look forward to during the summer, to actually, you know, sustain, pay our rents and things like that, has halted.
NNAMDIHow about the all-girl supergroup, Iza Flo? What's going on with Iza Flo?
BROWNSo, Iza Flo...
NNAMDIIza Flo, I'm sorry.
BROWN...is named after Isabelle DeLeon. Isabelle DeLeon is an awesome drummer locally who was like, oh, let me call all the supergroup girls, all the girls from all the awesome bands together, and let's do this Tiny NPR Desk. It's interesting because we kind of came in on a digital plane, because NPR Tiny Desk has a contest where, you know, you have a band or, you know, solo artist who auditions their work. And that's how we came together.
BROWNWe were going to do this video, send it to NPR, which we did. And then everyone was calling us like, you guys are an all-girl band? Come out. So, we did the opening of the Carnegie Library, Apple store at the Carnegie Library, where we opened up for Backyard Band and a few others. And we also did D.C. Rocks at the 9:30 Club. So, you know, again, we were doing festivals, we were moving. We were a brand-new band being that we were a supergroup from other bands, and it's really hurt us tremendously not to be able to, you know, continue to create and do that new venture.
BROWNYou know, we were coming up with ideas and some of us live, like, incredibly far. Some of us live in Virginia, deep into Maryland and a little bit of us in D.C., so it really hurts. We had singles we wanted to put together, and we're such a huge band, you know, again, we'd be going to an intimate recording space in someone else's home with their family, essentially putting them at risk. So, yes, it has halted us, as well.
NNAMDIHere is Evan in Georgetown. Evan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
EVANHi, guys. Great topic. I play in a local band myself full of, you know, other weekend warriors (unintelligible) 9 to 5 jobs. But I essentially started putting my PA together on the sidewalk in front of my house. I rent a little house in Georgetown. And as soon as I started playing, you know, it looks like "Field of Dreams" build it and they will come kind of thing. Neighbors would come out, and you would not believe the kindness that we got in response.
EVANYou know, people -- actually the point that your guest was talking about, about the value of that live performance, as opposed to online. You just can't beat it. You know, the messages about how, you know, you've saved our week, you’ve gotten us through this tough time. And so, what we've potentially done is since we started on these sidewalk shows, we've moved now to the National Parks land of a park in Georgetown called Rose Park.
EVANAnd on Saturday nights, we have a permit from the National Park Service. And we get out there and we put our masks on and we make sure that everybody's distanced. The people come out, they put out towels, and they listen. And it's been wonderful, and we encourage other bands to do it.
NNAMDINice, innovative plan, Evan. Thank you for sharing that with us. Dior Ashley, it's got to be a strange experience performing without an in-person audience. How has the livestream changed how you perform and how you interact with your audience?
BROWNAbsolutely. So, I am a person who, you know, posts on Instagram, Facebook and, you know, let's people know what I’m doing. I definitely self-promote a lot of my work and what I'm doing. But now it's a lot more constant. Now I'm thinking about the two different times of day that I probably need to connect with my audience to keep them energized, to keep them engaged.
BROWNAnd, you know, lucky enough, like, right when the quarantine happened, everyone was trying to figure out their space. And I was on -- I never really went on Instagram live. I was normally just on Instagram posting a picture or in my stories. And I went live and, I mean, it was a whole new opportunity to go on live with Fat Joe and to go on live with LL Cool J. And I was able to tap into those lives, and it was exciting. The energy was real high. Easy Street from WHUR brought me on to perform live.
BROWNAnd, you know, lucky enough, like right when the quarantine happened, everyone was trying to figure out their space. And I was on -- I never really went on Instagram live. I was normally just on Instagram posting a picture or in my stories. And I went live and, I mean, it was a whole new opportunity to go on live with Fat Joe and to go on live with LL Cool J. And I was able to tap into those lives and it was exciting. The energy was real high. Easy Street from WHUR brought me on to perform live.
BROWNBut you have these moments where you're, like, pausing, like, hey, so how's the audience doing? (laugh) And then you're depending on maybe a friend in the audience or someone to say something in the chat bar. Or maybe the person interviewing saying, oh, yeah, they're liking it, you know. And before you would hear the claps or, you know, the breaths or, you know, whatever. You know, you would normally hear that that would feel that you can move forward.
BROWNAnd now, you really have to go in internally and ask yourself, okay, you know, I need to be present in myself. I need to trust this process, and I need to believe in myself enough to, you know, create this experience, this moment, without needing that audience there. So, it's a beautiful challenge. It's a beautiful challenge to work internally, but it's also very nerve-racking. (laugh)
NNAMDIHow have the nationwide protests and conversations around black lives matter impacted you and impacted your music?
BROWNOh, wow. It's always been a part of my mission to -- in my music to advance people of color and inspire black women and girls. My music is for everyone to hear, but especially people of color. I want them to feel inspired and feel confident. And so, it made sense for me to go into the -- to speak more on this movement, but now being more intentional.
BROWNSo, I created a campaign called More Music for the Movement. You can hashtag that, hashtag #moremusicforthemovement. And, you know, I wanted to be intentional in saying, look community, I really need your help to push this work, to get things mixed and mastered, to get a video done. And so far, that has been the realm to live, which is creating more constant music, and to also create visuals to match with that work.
BROWNAnd how it's inspired me totally is that, you know, when I heard the young boy Keedron Bryant, who's a new artist and star now, came with a song "I Just Want to Live," I really connected with that. You know, it really brought tears to my eyes to hear a young black man saying, you know, I just want to live. You know, can I just live a full life? Can I, you know, expand my life?
BROWNAnd so, from there, you know, I was inspired and wrote a piece and collaborated with that work online in honor of him, inspired by him. And that just was, like, you know, the spirit moved through me and said no, it is time. You need to create a movement and let them know that we need more music to drive home these messages so that we can like -- I was thinking about Martin Luther King.
BROWNI was thinking about James Brown and how, you know, the music and the message coincided and inspired and, you know, moved things forward in the past with the civil rights movement. And I wanted to do that today. And so, I came up with that campaign and have been really diligent and intentional about the messaging, about inspiring the advancement and preserving black lives.
NNAMDIGot to tell you and the listeners, the big boom you heard in the background was, no, not me hitting on my bass drum. That was actually lightning and thunder that you're now hearing in the background. (laugh) I'd like to play a song that you performed with DJ Nate Geezie. It's called "Breonna."
NNAMDIThis song is a tribute to Breonna Taylor, who was killed by police in her own home in Louisville, Kentucky this past March. Dior Ashley, why was writing and performing a tribute to Breonna Taylor so important to you?
BROWNAbsolutely. Nate Geezie is the producer of that beat. He called me, he said, Dior, I'm writing this song, and I want it to be about Breonna. And it was important to me, identifying as a black woman, and also showing our vulnerability and the scope and the landscaping. I really wanted people to see her humanity and also celebrate her, celebrate her -- celebrate her beyond what had happened to her, and that not be, you know, the only sentence to her name, you know, that she was killed by the police.
BROWNAnd I really -- really wanted to have a messaging of hope and love, and I wanted everyone to feel the hug, you know, really feel embraced by her energy and feel that she was ever-present with us, you know, because she is. Because what she has done has moved us forward, along with George Floyd. And many, many other names have moved us forward in the fight for change.
BROWNAnd it was important for me to identify as a black woman and connect and show her vulnerability and also to increase the moniker that we need to protect black women. We need to listen to black women. We need to love black women. We need to appreciate black women.
NNAMDIThroughout history and today, music has been instrumental to activists. Do you think that in this period that we're going through the intersection of music and protests, it’s particularly important?
BROWNAbsolutely. You know, when I went to the March on Washington, and BeBe Winans was singing a song called "Black Lives Matter." You know, he sung that after Breonna Taylor's mother spoke, after George Floyd's brother spoke. And we know that what music does is it is a comfort, it is a warming, it centers us. You know, it's universal. You know, it's the one thing that kind of can transcend through race and status. And, you know, I feel it's so necessary to kind of have on replay, you know, how important it is to be a part in changing our world. And, yeah, yeah.
NNAMDIAllow me to go to Sylvia in McLean, Virginia. Sylvia, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SYLVIAHi, Kojo, thank you for taking my call, and thank you for having Ashley as a guest. I wasn't familiar with her work before, but I enjoyed listening to her songs and will look forward to more of her music. I'm an avid live music fan, from small, independent acts to big mainstream artists, and I'm truly passionate about the issues you're talking about today.
SYLVIAIt's not just the venue owners that are suffering, but it's their employees like the bartenders, the bouncers, the box office staff, the sound and mic techs and the stagehands. And, you know, the musicians have all lost their income as well, as Ashley talked about. And a lot of the bigger acts have, you know, huge staffs and stagehands. And they've all lost all of their income.
SYLVIAI've written to my representatives twice about this. I've donated to some GoFundMes for artists, but there's only so much, as an individual, that, you know, one person can do. And the live stream and the web performances are nice, but it's not even close to the same experience as going to a live show and sharing in the communal experience of song and dance with friends and strangers.
SYLVIAI mean, I just really wish the venues would be allowed to open with restrictions, such as, you know, reduced capacity and mask wearing, so that people can have the choice to attend events as long as, you know, they're taking reasonable safety precautions. It’s heartaches for all the people, all artists, not just musicians, but, you know, actors, etcetera, who are really, I think, suffering some of the -- you know, having some of the worst experiences as a result of the pandemic.
NNAMDIIndeed. Dior Ashley, what ripple effects has this crisis had on the whole D.C. music scene? And do you think there'll be long term damage?
BROWNI do. I do think there will be long-term damage. I think that we don't really know what we're looking at. I mean, the fact that some of our favorite spaces, like Marvin's Nightclub, for me, named after Marvin Gaye, is, you know, such a special place for me and deeply in our history. And also when it comes to, you know, the audience that we've curated at that space that actually comes to enjoy music almost every day, just like the Kennedy Center.
BROWNYou know, I feel like we were just at the beginning of expanding our spaces while we were just fighting for spaces. You know, we were fighting for artist displacement right before this pandemic. You know, we were fighting for creatives to have platforms, and especially for local creatives to be able to advance. And so, when this -- with this shift I do, I do feel -- I mean, I don't even know after all the -- like your other guest said, you know, the funds for unemployment have been tapped. They are, you know, starting to go out. Like, what are we going to do then?
BROWNYou know, it's already been really hard to get people to value curatives and value artistry, you know, and invest in that artistry. You know, I do an event called the DC Music Summit. And even there, we're trying to inform people to value the arts. But when people are hurting, when they can't work, when they can't, you know, be able to take care of their families, the last thing they're thinking about is what show they're going to go see, you know. So, we really -- I do feel -- I do feel like it's going to have lasting effects.
NNAMDIWhat are you doing to guard your own mental health as this pandemic drags on?
BROWNI have to keep creating. I have to keep creating. I have to stay active. I'm collaborating with other artists. I have started working on my health, because it's the one thing (laugh) -- one of the things that we have to do to maintain. So, I've been very intentional in working out and paying attention to how I eat, and learning how to breathe and breathe deep. And also, you know, having counsel, talking with people about the issues, not being afraid to talk about, you know, what's going on inside. Because there is anxiety. There's anxiety that our world has shifted. How am I going to eat? I went to college to be an artist and to perform in front of audiences. That is the last thing that I could...
NNAMDIGot to interrupt, because we're almost out of time. You can find more of Dior Ashley Brown's music on our website, kojoshow.org.
NNAMDIThank you so much for joining us. That's it for the show today. Our segment on local music venues was produced by Ines Renique. And our segment with Dior Ashley Brown was produced by Julie Depenbrock. Coming up tomorrow, D.C. Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie joins us to talk about Metro's woes, election readiness, police reform and public safety. Then we hear from Virginia Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw on the latest from the General Assembly special session on pandemic-related and police overhaul proposals. Until then, thank you for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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