Tag Archives: WCP

For D.C. Native Kelela, Musical Empowerment Comes From Vulnerability

The L.A.-based R&B star’s debut album, “Take Me Apart,” is a stark and powerful personal statement.

There’s a moment during Kelela’s new single “Waitin” where she sings, “It’s all I dreamed of, it can’t get started.” It’s a lyric heavy with yearning and anticipation, but if it sounds familiar, that’s because it is: she also sang it on “Bank Head,” her first single, which was released back in 2013. Plenty has happened to the 34-year-old singer-songwriter in the intervening years, and with the recent release of her debut album, Take Me Apart, all that she’s dreamed of is finally getting started in earnest.

Since debuting in 2013, Kelela has quickly become a key figure in R&B, pairing the genre’s sensuality with the future-is-now sounds of club music from around the globe. With her versatile voice and confessional lyrics, she’s found power in vulnerable places and examined the prismatic angles of relationships, from the promise of giddy infatuation to the aftermath of painful breakups. Take Me Apart is her most expressive and expansive work yet, and is the culmination of years of musical growth that began in the DMV.

Kelela was born in D.C., the daughter of Ethiopian immigrants, and grew up in Gaithersburg, listening to and learning from singers like Mariah Carey, Cheryl “Coko” Clemons of SWV, and Amel Larrieux of Groove Theory. She graduated from Magruder High School and studied at Montgomery College and American University, singing jazz standards at venues around D.C.

Singing in jazz cafes soon gave way to singing in a progressive metal band, but Kelela wouldn’t find the perfect fit until moving to Los Angeles in 2010. There, through mutual friends, she connected with Fade To Mind, a collective of DJ-producers at the center of the underground club music world. Her 2013 mixtape Cut 4 Me was a stunning debut from a seemingly fully-formed artist who seductively sang about love, sex, and heartbreak over pneumatic, elastic beats constructed by some of the most innovative producers in the scene, like Los Angeles talents Kingdom and Nguzunguzu.

The juxtaposition of Kelela’s warm, organic vocals and the cold, mechanical productions was by design. “I’m trying to show you how tender I can be in what comes off as such an unkind surrounding,” she says. “The bed I’m sleeping in for all my music is what people wouldn’t expect you to be so soft and tender on.”

That contrast also drove 2015’s Hallucinogen, a six-song EP that explored the life cycle of a relationship. On it, she stepped up her songwriting game and added new contrasts to the mix, teaming with Björk-collaborator Arca for a pair of off-kilter experiments but also delivering radio-ready R&B jams reminiscent of ’90s hit-making label So So Def Recordings. “She wants to have shock elements in her music,” adds Bok Bok, a London-based producer who has worked with her since her first release. “I don’t know why it works so well with her, but I think she finds it to be challenging in the context of R&B and pop songwriting.”

On Take Me Apart, Kelela is unafraid of challenges, in her songwriting or otherwise. The album tells the story of an “It’s Complicated” relationship, full of almost-reconciliations and late night realizations, of pain and healing, of growth and learning. It’s also her richest, fullest offering yet, bounding from club-ready jams like “Waitin” and “Truth or Dare” to melancholic ballads like “Better” and “Turn to Dust.”

In making the album, she collaborated with old friends like Bok Bok, Arca, and Jam City, as well as Romy Madley Croft of The xx, London upstart Kwes, and industry heavyweight Ariel Rechtshaid, forging an album that is part Janet Jackson, part Björk, and all Kelela.

“The sentiment behind Take Me Apart is putting your shit out there,” Kelela says. “It’s an empowering thing to tell somebody to take me apart. If you’re inviting somebody inside in that way, then you are clearly in an empowered position, you are comfortable enough to do that.” To embody that theme in the album art, she quickly realized that she’d have to be naked (“probably the hardest thing to do”) and take photos of the “full-spectrum” of her self-perceived strengths and flaws. “It had to be scary for me or it’s not going to be real.”

Vulnerability, empowerment, and general realness are certainly present in her lyrics, which delve into relationship issues and bedroom politics with equal frankness. Like posing nude, Kelela goes all the way with her pen, often in a way that implicates the people in her life. “It’s something that everybody that wants to be in a relationship with me is signing up for, but when it comes down to it, it can be difficult, like ‘damn, you feel like that’ or ‘I didn’t know it’s like that,’” she laughs. “I’ve gotten direct feedback that it is daunting, and I have a lot of compassion for that, but I gotta keep it real.”

Kelela certainly keeps it real, in her music and outside of it. Last month, she wrote an eye-opening op-ed for Resident Advisor entitled “Being a visible black woman in the music industry” that explored a wide range of issues surrounding how her music is created, funded, released, and consumed. “There’s a way that I’m always challenged when I collaborate,” she wrote. “It happens less and less the more I’ve expressed this dynamic, but it’s a lot.”

“Every single peer of mine that is a woman has had to go through that,” she says of being challenged by male collaborators. Despite speaking out, Kelela believes this type of behavior “will never stop happening” because “boys are socialized to be that way.” She points to the studio experience, where female artists are likely to be paired with men who have technical know-how, and the power dynamic that creates. “My experience is always going to be intersectional,” she explains. As both a black person and a woman, she always “experience[s] some sort of shit—it will never not be something.”

In that way, she’s not alone. Albums like Solange’s A Seat at the Table and TV shows like Issa Rae’s Insecure—both of which feature Kelela—addressed similar issues concerning black women in America. Kelela notes that A Seat at the Table and Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. have helped set a context for Take Me Apart, for which she’s grateful. “It’s a little bit easier to be creative, to be very sincere about what I want to say, and to say things that are vulnerable, because some door has already been kicked down.”

What Kelela is too modest to say is how she has helped kicked down that door, as well. “Cut 4 Me” quickly became a touchstone for artists working outside of the R&B mainstream—alongside music by FKA Twigs, SZA, and others—and Take Me Apart elevates her art to an even higher level, bringing the underground and the mainstream even closer together. “She’s trying to create a bridge between those two worlds,” says Bok Bok. “In the same way Janet [Jackson] occupied that space between pop and R&B, I think Kelela could be one of the greats in the canon.” As she sings on the rainswept “Jupiter,” “I think I know me now,” and it’s only a matter of time before many more people know her, too.

Originally published in the Washington City Paper.

IDK Gets Personal on His Debut LP IWASVERYBAD

The first proper album from the DMV rapper slyly references his influences, but shines when he gets personal.

Everything that IDK does is high concept, from his name (short for “Ignorantly Delivering Knowledge”) to his mixtapes (2015’s SubTrap, short for “suburban trap” and/or “trap music with substance”). That continues on IWASVERYBAD, a full-length soundtrack LP that serves as his debut album (in the hip-hop world, the distinctions between albums, mixtapes, and even “playlists” have been meaningless for several years).

This time around, the concept is a familiar one, detailing how a middle class kid from P.G. County (born Jason Mills, fka Jay IDK) ended up in jail, turned his life around by rapping, and dealt with a strained relationship with his mother. It shares the day-in-a-life DNA of Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City and YG’s My Krazy Life, but with the middle class perspective of his contemporaries (Chance the Rapper, J. Cole, and Childish Gambino) and his main influence, Kanye West.

The influence of those artists shines through on IWASVERYBAD at almost every turn. Across the album, IDK shares the tumbling consonant flow of Lamar and the too-clever wordplay of Gambino, while also reworking a handful of classic Kanye lyrics and an iconic line from Ludacris’ “What’s Your Fantasy?” (sung here by Shawna, who featured on the original). Which isn’t to say that he’s a biter: Hip-hop is a genre always in conversation with itself, and IDK’s meta references are too self-aware to be swagger jacking.

Beyond the on-the-sleeve influences, IDK is at his best when he’s getting personal. “I’m just a middle class n***a whose class was a mixture of them spellin’ bee winners and them P.G. killers,” he explains, a mix that left him in somewhere in the middle, a “good-home-I-don’t-give-a-fuck trap n***a.” The album opens with a Greek chorus of teachers, cops, and authority figures leaving messages for his mother about his latest misbehaviors, of which there were plenty; he’s not kidding about that title.

The psychodrama that plays out on IWASVERYBAD is how his relationship with his mother strained under the weight of his behavior, a chicken-or-egg game that he explores on the poignant “No Shoes On the Rug, Leave Them At the Door.” Was misspending his youth why his mother came home after work and never hugged him, or the other way around? “I used to think all the time, if I could be a good boy, she’d probably love me a lot.” (Damn.)

He delves even deeper on “Black Sheep, White Dove,” a eulogy for his mother, who passed in 2016; he posits that knowing she was ill prevented him from getting close to her and doing the right thing. That revelation is the final puzzle piece, and even the hardest listener will shed a tear when he wonders, “Mom, where you get them wings from, pretty?”

The narrative of the album may be familiar, but IDK’s bag of tricks keeps it compelling, whether he’s toying with a non-linear narrative, hiding messages in reverse, detouring with a dance floor track, or mixing tracks seamlessly. As for his featured guests, it’s more of a mixed bag: Chief Keef is the perfect pick for the ignorant-as-hell “17 Wit A 38” and Yung Gleesh adds a different DMV flavor on two tracks, while DOOM and Del The Funky Homosapien feel tacked on to “Pizza Shop Extended.”

But overall, IDK and his producers have crafted a sonically expansive record that sits nicely on the rap landscape while offering something personal.
Like other middle class rap stars, from Kanye to Cole to Drake, IDK’s need to be taken seriously—on both his tracks and in the streets—keeps his creative fires burning. On IWASVERYBAD, that motivated him to take a familiar concept and make it his own, on his terms. When he says that “they say lyrics ain’t cool no more, I’m like sheesh, I guess after this shit drop I’m might peace,” let’s hope it’s an empty threat.

Originally published in the Washington City Paper.

Listen to the Dark Doo-Wop of Cinema Hearts’ Burned and Burnished

“Cinema Hearts frontwoman Caroline Weinroth was a theater major in college, and when it came time to name her band’s second album, she looked to the world of musical theater for inspiration. Burned and Burnished is a riff on a line from The Fantasticks, the world’s longest-running musical. In that show, two fathers fake a feud so that their children will fall in love. They plot a mock abduction, hoping that the boy will save the girl and end up together, which they do, by the end of Act I. But in between acts, as the fathers and their children are frozen in a happy tableau, the narrator explains, “For the story is not ended/ and the play is never done/ Until we’ve all of us been burned a bit/ And burnished by—the sun!” Their happiness doesn’t last, of course: when the ruse is revealed, the couple breaks up and spends the second act learning about heartache and the harsh realities of the real world.”

Read more in the Washington City Paper.

Mat Men

In less than two years, NOVA Pro has become the D.C. area’s preeminent indie pro wrestling organization.

It’s Friday night in the middle of February, and the Annandale Volunteer Fire Department is electric. There’s the scent of fried food and the sound of butt rock in the air. A couple hundred people are seated around a deep blue wrestling ring, surrounded by wrestlers hawking merchandise off card tables. Promptly at 8 p.m., the rowdy crowd is treated to three hours of everything from a half-ton tag team to a pair of female Hot Topic devotees. The crowd eats it up, chanting, cheering, booing, and throwing streamers overhead. This is pro wrestling, in all its carnivalesque grandeur. This is NOVA Pro Wrestling.

Independent pro wrestling (known collectively as the “indies”) is the scrappy, low-budget cousin of World Wrestling Entertainment, the billion-dollar company that made everyone from Hulk Hogan to The Rock to John Cena into stars. Until the rise of WWE in the mid-1980s, a collection of territorial promotions that ran shows out of arenas, civic centers, and armories across the country controlled pro wrestling.

Eventually, WWE became the only game in town. The monopolization of pro wrestling led to a renaissance in the independent wrestling world, the spiritual successor to the territorial era, albeit on a smaller scale: the arenas replaced with VFW halls, the TV deals basically nonexistent. These promotions would become home to a new generation of wrestlers and wrestling fans who loved pro wrestling—not WWE’s homogenized brand of “sports entertainment.”

Two of those fans were Northern Virginia residents Mike King Jr. and his son Mike E. King. Pro wrestling was a family tradition: Big Mike had watched with his father and grandfather, going to wrestling shows at the Baltimore Arena and the Capital Centre in Landover. He started taking Little Mike to indie wrestling shows when his son was 6 years old (earlier if you count the one that he attended at the Capital Centre in utero). Because indie wrestling didn’t really exist in Northern Virginia—the closest shows were in Richmond or the Baltimore area—they would spend nearly every weekend driving up and down the East Coast and as far west as Indiana for their wrestling fix. “Some kids play soccer or baseball on a traveling team,” says Big Mike. “We liked to do wrestling.”

In early 2015, after thousands of miles on the road, the Kings “buckled down” to figure out what it would take to start a “homegrown” wrestling promotion in Northern Virginia. Big Mike wasn’t daunted by the paperwork the task entailed—he’s an office administrator by day—and they got to work, booking the first NOVA Pro show in September 2015 at the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia.

Little Mike had a vision for NOVA Pro Wrestling that combined all the things he loved about indie wrestling around the country. He wanted the classic pro wrestling storytelling of Southern promotions and the buzz-generating “dream matches” that fill the cards in Northeastern promotions. Every NOVA Pro event—the February show was their tenth—has built on that vision. Helping to execute that vision is Brad Stutts, a veteran of the North Carolina pro wrestling scene. “Wrestling is like a sideshow or a circus,” he explains. “If you don’t like the lion tamers, maybe you’ll like the jugglers, and if you don’t like the jugglers, maybe you’ll like the fire dancers.”

In that spirit, NOVA Pro has certainly tried to deliver something for everyone. They’ve brought in high-flyers and hosses; local upstarts and nationally-known veterans; men and women. In the first year, storylines explored a put-upon wrestler’s battle with his money-loving manager; a tag team bromance that toyed with pro wrestling’s dueling homoeroticism and homophobia; and a blood feud between two men vying to be the face of the franchise.

The latter pitted North Virginia natives Sonjay Dutt and Logan Easton LaRoux against each other. Dutt, a 17-year veteran was the hero, or “babyface,” while LaRoux was the villain, or “heel.” Each successive meeting raised the stakes, a Jenga tower of no-holds-barred and tag team matches that culminated in a steel cage match (at the JCC, optics be damned) last September. It was the highlight of NOVA Pro’s first year and the essence of the promotion: wrestlers at the top of their game, working in their backyards.

The 34-year-old Dutt—“The Original Playa from the Himalaya”—was born in D.C. and has spent almost all of his life in Northern Virginia. His parents emigrated from India in 1979, and the spectacle of pro wrestling was one of the first things his father saw on TV.

“As far back as I can remember, pro wrestling was always on in the house,” he says. “I fell in love with it right off the bat.” Turned off by the rigid structure of high school baseball, he started wrestling with his friends, gaining his first bit of notoriety at 16 when he appeared on The Best of Backyard Wrestling VHS tapes. He started training properly two years later and signed with Total Nonstop Action Wrestling (a distant second-place promotion to the WWE) at 21 years old.

Since then, Dutt has wrestled hundreds of matches around the world, including many in the indies that the Kings patronized, and their connection goes way back: One of Dutt’s first matches was at the very first indie show Little Mike attended. Dutt had been friends with the Kings for years when they reached out about starting a local promotion, and it wasn’t a hard sell. “There’s something appealing about growing something locally,” Dutt says. He offered to help however he could.

That meant anchoring NOVA Pro shows with LaRoux, a 27-year-old who calls Fairfax County home. Like Dutt, LaRoux has been wrestling since his teens, driving the miles and putting in the work (often at “real shitholes”) that it takes to break into the wrestling business. It really started to click a few years ago as he developed the Logan Easton LaRoux character, the self-described “Champion of the One Percent,” who is billed as coming from “a gated community located within a gated community that is surrounded by yet another gated community in Great Falls.”

At first, LaRoux was a little hesitant about NOVA Pro. “I didn’t know what to expect,” he admits, “because the reality of Virginia independent wrestling can be fat guys in t-shirts doing scoop slams.” Thankfully, NOVA Pro isn’t like other Virginia indies, and LaRoux embraced the opportunity to work with Dutt. “I think he’s by far the most underrated wrestler working today,” LaRoux says about Dutt, who he calls “the godfather of NOVA Pro.” Dutt is proud of the year-long feud as well, saying, “it has created a star in Logan.”

But if a star is born in Northern Virginia, is it bright enough to be seen in the pro wrestling world at-large? Years ago, the answer would probably have been no: Guys like Dutt and LaRoux—who are billed generously at 5’8” and 5’11”, respectively—were rarely regarded as WWE prospects.

That has started to change. In the 2000s, the WWE started poaching some of the indie stars that the Kings had followed around the country. Since then, the indies have been a pipeline of talent for the WWE, and in recent years, the hiring of wrestlers who didn’t fit the typical mold—men and women not traditionally tall, taut, or telegenic enough— increased to a fever pitch.

Dutt is at peace with the fact that—despite the successes of his 17-year career and the changing landscape—he had never received a tryout with the WWE. “Life is just about timing,” he says. “But anything can happen.” And he’s right: he recently spent a few weeks at the WWE’s Orlando Performance Center, helping to train recruits and produce events.

It’s unclear if that will be the extent of his work with the WWE. All he can do is keep performing. “Other than the bumps and bruises, I feel like a million bucks,” he says. His full-time schedule still includes dates with NOVA Pro, ones that present him a unique opportunity: the chance to have his children see him work. The first match his six-year-old daughter saw was a no-holds-barred match with LaRoux that included some steel chair shots. “I told her ‘daddy is out there with friends, we’re having fun, don’t worry,’ and that’s all I needed to say,” Dutt explains. “She was fine—she loved it.”

The then-five-year-old was a natural, getting in LaRoux’s face and cheering for her father. She was also at the match in February … as was Dutt’s 12-week-old son. “My daughter really wanted to come and my son is too young to be with a sitter yet, so my mom brought him,” Dutt says. “He did amazing. I’m surprised that nothing really freaked him out!”

Time will tell if his son enjoys watching wrestling as much as his sister, but Dutt has an idea how that might turn out: when the time is right, “he might want to get in and fight, too.”

Originally published in the Washington City Paper.

How Church Night Is Bringing Their Wacky, Hilarious Gospel to the Masses


A pastor in cargo shorts. A youth minister wearing a rictus grin and a fanny pack. An adult altar boy in bike shorts with the mark of the beast on his forehead. They are Reverend Dr. Stevedore Maybelline Bidet Esq., Kathy Piechota, and Randy St. Oates Jr. And this is their Church Night.

What follows for the next two hours at the Black Cat’s Backstage is a church service like none other. The irreverent reverend spits fire and brimstone throughout a call-and-response sermon; the church lady recalls smoking meth on the way to Burning Man and leads the flock in a Tears for Fears sing-a-long; the altar boy (or “altered boy,” as they pronounce it) speaks in tongues and serves a shot of whiskey and a tater tot as communion. And they’re not alone: there are a pair of stand-up comics, a flying spaghetti monster burlesque dancer, and a capacity crowd of parishioners.

If it still isn’t clear, Church Night is not a real religious service: it’s a comedy-variety show that updates Dana Carvey’s famed “Church Lady” Saturday Night Live sketch for the Tim & Eric generation. For more than three years, the Church Night crew have turned bars and clubs—in D.C. and beyond—into ad hoc altars. They’ve also turned their show into an award-winning web series, which, if the success of web-to-TV series like Broad City and Drunk History is any indication, could be the first step in bringing their gospel to a global audience.

Church Night began in the summer of 2013, when Linsay Deming (AKA Kathy Piechota) was tapped by You, Me, Them, Everybody host Brandon Wetherbee to produce a show at the Wonderland Ballroom. Before then, she had been hosting a “wacky” variety-potluck show at St. Stephen’s church with her band SweetBread Jim’s, bringing together music, comedy, burlesque, and even edible food sculptures.

“I loved that she made it a family affair, both figuratively and literally,” Wetherbee says. “It wasn’t just music or art or food or poetry or whatever that made it great, it was the curation and variety behind it.”

The Wonderland show would allow her to take things to the next level. “I wanted to make a variety show that had a through-line that would keep the audience engaged,” one that would create “an immersive experience that took people out of their own reality,” Deming says. She realized that a church service is the perfect format for a variety show.

Deming soon recruited her friend Landon Letzkus and his roommate at the time, Jeremy Frank. Letzkus had already developed the Stevedore Maybelline Bidet character for another project and knew he could easily make him into a pastor, while Frank—who studied theater and dance at George Mason University—would be perfect as the show’s scantily-clad altar boy (it was his decision to make Randy mute). They held their first show in April of 2013 at Wonderland to a packed house. “I think we’re onto something with this,” Deming remembers thinking.


Church Night quickly established the rituals and structure of a real religious ceremony: attendees are entreated to high-five their neighbors; Deming’s character plays keyboard for a pop music hymnal; Randy gives out the shots-and-tots communion. The trio believes it is the ritualistic nature of their show that has made it so popular with audiences. “People like that aspect of going to church,” Deming says. “It’s all the other nonsense they don’t like.”

While the group did some less-than-extensive research when first crafting Church Night (“We went to, like, two-thirds of a church service,” Deming admits), all three have religious backgrounds. Deming grew up in Sioux City, Iowa and went to a Methodist church, but moved away from religion when college exposed her to new, secular ideas. Frank grew up in a “really, really small” Orthodox Jewish community in Newport News, Virginia, but—like Deming—chose to live a more secular life in his late teens.

And while Rev. Bidet’s Southern-fried sermons suggest that Letzkus had a Baptist upbringing, that couldn’t be further from the truth. His parents are members of Sufism Reoriented, a spiritual community with an ashram in D.C.’s 16th Street Heights neighborhood; Letzkus was its only child.

“I was terrified by how abnormal this was, especially in D.C.,” he explains, “but my parents went to great lengths to explain that spirituality was up to me.” As a rebellious teenager, Letzkus enrolled at St. John’s College High School, a Catholic military school in Chevy Chase. That didn’t stick, either: “It made me wary of both organized religion and the military.”

Despite the differences in their religious backgrounds, the three principals of Church Night all appreciated the community that a place of worship can provide. Both Letzkus and Frank speak highly of the communities where they grew up.

“We live in a relatively secular circle of friends, and none of us are particularly religious now, but church is really great at bringing people together, looking out for each other, having this core group you can count on seeing,” Letzkus explains. “Maybe the most baffling part of [Church Night] is that we set out to do a comedy show and we ended up with something adjacent to a religious experience,” says Frank, although Deming adds: “But ours is based on absurdity, not on substance.”


That absurdity has forged a community of Church Night fans—whether they have religion in their background or not. Kusuma Prabhakara has been going to Church Night for about two years, and says that she has never ascribed to and was not raised under the auspices of any belief system. For her, it’s Church Night’s satire of organized religion’s hypocrisy—“the bullshit fundraising, the highly-flawed selling salvation to the desperate, the over-the-top theatrics, the forced modesty, the pandering drivel”—that keeps her coming back.

On the other end of the Church Night spectrum is someone like Katie Beard, the daughter of missionaries who grew up in the Baptist church. For children of pastors and missionaries, there are two paths in life: following in their fathers’ footsteps or discovering the secular world. “I have blue hair and tattoos,” Beard writes, “so you can imagine which way the pendulum swung for me.”

But even as she has moved away from the church, Church Night provides a “safe space” to revisit the religion of her youth like “a modern-day 700 Club.” “They are helping me to relive these situations in ways that can make us laugh at ourselves,” she says.

Still, the makers of Church Night take great care to walk the line between transgressive, loving parody and reverence for the good aspects of religion. “We don’t want to make fun of faith or belief in something spiritual or bigger than yourself,” Deming explains. “We’re just taking the structure of church to make a show about these morons who are using religion for their own personal gain.” Or as Frank puts it: “They’re dumb as shit, and sometimes they ask the lord for guidance but he’s got other stuff to do.”

While religion provides the structure of the show, the Church Night crew stresses that it’s all in service of their comedy. Deming is influenced by Mr. Show and Amy Sedaris and grew up doing sketch and improv; Letzkus watched Saturday Night Live with his family and eventually got into underground favorites The State and Stella; and Frank points to the physical comedy of The Carol Burnett Show as a key influence. The format of Church Night allows them to provide different flavors of entertainment: sketch, stand-up, and burlesque; jokes about everything from bodily functions to more biting material about politics. “We want to span the gamut of comedy as much as we can,” Deming explains.

To that end, the trio launched Church Night TV, a five-episode webseries that they produced with filmmaker Theodore Jones, who is also Deming’s husband. The idea was to bring Church Night to the cable access format, adding guest interviews, commercial plugs, hot dog breaks, and segments like the Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee-inspired “Inside Kathy’s Volvo” and a spoof of The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia. With no real budget and full-time jobs, the show took a year to make, but it was worth it: Not only did it strengthen their character work and writing, but the series won awards at LA Webfest and was an official selection at Miami Webfest and Webfest Berlin this year.

“Our dream would be to get Church Night to a place where we could have a show on TV or streaming or whatever and tour the live show,” Deming admits. “That’s the dream, but why wait?”

Doing Church Night TV DIY-style let them cut their teeth and left them with a digital calling card that can open Church Night to new audiences. “It takes a little while to find the people that are into what we’re doing,” she explains. “We’re not for everybody. We’re the opposite of cool.”

Originally published in the Washington City Paper.

Are Abhi//Dijon R&B’s Next Breakout Stars?


“Last month, Abhi//Dijon tweeted, “we are r & b to the core and will wear that label if people need it but trust we intend on turning the genre and everything else inside out.” It was a bold, confrontational statement from the duo, which is comprised of Ellicott City-raised, Los Angeles-based musicians Abhi Raju and Dijon Duenas. But with the release of their latest EP, Montana, it definitely reads as a mission statement.”

Read more in the Washington City Paper.

Can Sofar Sounds Bring Intimacy Back to Live Music?


No matter how transcendent a concert at 9:30 Club, Rock & Roll Hotel, or U Street Music Hall, the live music experience is plagued by the same distractions: overtalking conversationalists, smart phone documentarians, boisterous drink-orderers. But while this may feel like another problem with the New D.C., it’s probably universal. “No matter if you’re in Jakarta, Melbourne, or Chicago, it’s the same issues,” Rafe Offer concurs. “Live music has become background noise.”

Read more in the Washington City Paper.

Meet The Grand Ancestor Sound System, D.C.’s First And Only Custom Built, Jamaican-Style Stack

“During the day, the wholesale warehouses around the oasis of gentrification that is Union Market bustle and brim with commerce and action. At night, it’s a different story: Heading northwest on Morse Street NE leads to an abandoned market and bare loading docks surrounded by panel vans and off-duty food trucks.

One night in July, I headed towards one of these warehouses for a party. I felt lost amid this industrial and commercial decay until I turned a corner and heard the bassline and patois of reggae gradually getting louder. This must be the place. Past industrial mixers and slop sinks is a dark room strung up with Christmas lights, a DJ table butted up against a speaker cabinet that measures 10 feet tall.”

Read more in the Washington City Paper.

On Its Debut Album, Technophobia Channels ’80s Darkwave


“There is something strangely familiar and comforting about Technophobia’s debut album Flicker Out—especially if you’ve ever gone long stretches wearing only black or stayed up late watching John Carpenter films just for the soundtracks.

As Technophobia, Katie and Stephen Petix craft darkwave dirges full of icy arpeggios and pneumatic death marches, their analog synthesizers and drum machines battling as Katie unleashes operatic vocals, incanting gothic poetry. The duo’s music draws from the tried-and-true tropes of synthpop and industrial, connecting the dots between early Ministry and Pretty Hate Machine–era Nine Inch Nails to contemporaries like Cold Cave and Light Asylum.”

Read more in the Washington City Paper.

Comic Release: D.C. Comedy Scene is Gaining Steam, But Can it Rival NYC And L.A.?


The basement of the Big Hunt is nicknamed Hell’s Kitchen, thanks to its devilish decor, claustrophobic ambience, and red-light glow. The name was especially fitting on a recent Friday night.

A capacity crowd was there for an alt-comedy show, but the mood was tense, as if the people assembled didn’t sign up for an evening of absurd, surreal, and awkward bits about parental sex and nuclear winter. For some, it was comedy nirvana; for others, comedy hell.

“It felt like a lot of first dates were going bad in there,” says comedian Jamel Johnson, who performed that night. “Generally there are two kinds of audience member: one that wants to laugh and another that challenges you to make them laugh. You see the latter more often at local shows. Fools just act different when they’ve never heard of you.”

The audience might not have heard of Johnson before, but that will probably change soon. The six-year veteran is on his way to Los Angeles, where he’ll be one of a number of growing fish who have fled the District’s small-pond comedy scene for better opportunities in L.A. or New York.
For decades, the District has been a proving ground for comics on their way to bigger and better things. Mike Birbiglia, Dave Chappelle, Martin Lawrence, Patton Oswalt, Rory Scovel, and Wanda Sykes are just a few of the comedians who have started their careers here. In recent years, rising talents Aparna Nancherla, Seaton Smith, and Brandon Wardell have followed.

That tradition was the focus of the 202 Comedy Festival, held in April. “We wanted to have a festival to celebrate all the great comics who have developed in D.C. over the years and to get everyone back in one place,” says Sean Joyce, the comedian and promoter who co-produced the festival, which featured more than 100 comics across 18 shows on four days of programming.

But while the festival had a decidedly local bent—about three-quarters of the festival’s talent was based in the D.C. area—its opening and closing shows were headlined by some of D.C.’s most successful recent exports. That comics have to leave D.C. before they become a headliner at a local festival says something about the state of comedy in the District, but it doesn’t paint a complete picture of the local scene.

The 202 Comedy Festival was the culmination of Joyce’s groundwork: Under his Underground Comedy banner, he produces stand-up shows every night of the week and has built a new infrastructure for D.C. comedy. With shows held primarily at the Big Hunt and Bier Baron, his mini-empire provides local comics with much-needed stage time at places besides the D.C. area’s establishment comedy venues (the D.C. Improv and Arlington Drafthouse).

“Thanks to Sean Joyce, there’s this whole level of comics that can get up every single night and really try to do unique and interesting stuff,” says Brandon Wetherbee, the host of the You, Me, Them, Everybody podcast and managing editor of Brightest Young Things.

Nancherla left D.C. for L.A. in 2010, and recently returned to headline 202’s closing show. The District’s comedy landscape now looks different from when she left it, she says, but the spirit remains the same. The McLean native, who has written for Late Night with Seth Meyers and Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, says that D.C.’s DIY attitude is what makes its comedy scene great. “Whoever is active in the scene helps structure which shows are going on,” she says. “A lot of the stage time would be people putting on their own shows.” But eventually, playing the same circuit felt “stagnant,” and Nancherla felt the itch to move.

“When I started here, there were a lot of people that I felt were upperclassmen to look up to,” she says, “but when you feel like you’re the upperclassman, then it’s time to leave.”

Johnson is the next D.C. “upperclassman” whose time has come. He has earned a reputation as one of the best comics in D.C., whether by himself or as part of his “avant-garde musical comedy band and variety show” Romane & Lettuce.

“Jamel Johnson is the funniest stand-up comic in Washington, D.C., in terms of consistency and quality output,” says Wetherbee. “Even when he’s performing stuff I’ve seen a dozen times, I still enjoy watching him.” He adds that Johnson’s intangibles—his ability to read a crowd and play any type of room—have made him the “litmus test” for D.C. comics.

Johnson, a 28-year-old Woodbridge native, works relentlessly, performing at eight or nine shows a week. Not only was he on four bills during the festival, but Johnson was coming off a major week: He opened for Louis C.K. at the Lincoln Theatre and was part of a show Kevin Hart filmed in D.C.—a new Comedy Central stand-up showcase called Hart of the City.

“The Kevin Hart thing was very unexpected,” Johnson says. As part of the show, he filmed both a stand-up set at the Big Hunt and a conversation with Hart at Ben’s Chili Bowl. “I didn’t get a lot of one-on-one time with the man, but he was very chill and definitely about his paper.” (That’s an understatement: In 2015, Forbes calculated Hart’s one-year earnings at $28.5 million.)

The bookings were the most recent in a string of shows that have put Johnson on the path to L.A. He started performing there back in 2014, an experience he compares to “seven people talking about what award show they wrote for, and your boy.” But despite his outsider status, he was able to get on shows like The Meltdown, the popular stand-up showcase hosted by Kumail Nanjiani and Jonah Ray that has spawned a Comedy Central show of the same name. After gigs like that, Johnson knew a change in location would soon be in the cards.

“When I went to L.A. and had success getting on shows, I was like, ‘fuck, I’m gonna do this here now,’” he says. “It wasn’t because of the ceiling [in D.C.]—the reason was because the money aspect. I feel like six months in L.A., if you’re really grinding, who knows.”

Johnson says he has “no goal and no plans,” but has “never been this busy before in [his] life.” And while the move will mean leaving his hometown, he seems excited for a new set of challenges in a place that appreciates the novelty of a “new guy” on the scene.

Even as D.C. prepares to graduate one of its best, the city has no shortage of underclassmen ready to fill the void. A handful of “the city’s brightest 20’s-ish comedians” were the focus of It’s Lit, a show hosted by Shelley Kim (she originally wanted to call the show Fuckboys and Poets, but decided to go with the more marketable name). The 23-year-old started doing comedy during college, and even though she’s not seasoned enough to make a move yet, Kim sees one in her future. “I think it’s possible to have a comedy career outside of L.A. or New York, but those cities just have more opportunities to do comedy full-time.”

Apparently, no matter how long you’ve been a comic in D.C., the twin sirens of the coastal capitals are irresistible. But that doesn’t mean D.C. must suffer as a second-class comedy city. In fact, the District’s status as a feeder system for the big leagues keeps the scene from stagnating, offers audiences a wide variety of styles, and lets comics find their voices away from the eyes and ears of industry professionals.

Plus, there are more opportunities to perform and watch comedy in D.C. than in recent years. “In the late ’90s and early 2000s, if there was one open-mic location a night, that was a lot,” says D.C. Improv owner and manager Allyson Jaffe, who has seen the D.C. scene grow during her nearly two decades at the Improv. “Now there are multiple places running open mics every night of the week.” The club is still the preeminent venue in D.C. for national headliners, many of whom now bring their own opening acts. That’s led Jaffe and her team to get creative with their programming, booking local comics for weekend showcases in the lounge and mid-week shows in the main room.

Bars like Wonderland Ballroom feature long-running shows, theaters like the Howard and Lincoln nab marquee names, and venues like the Black Cat and 9:30 Club are booking more comedy shows than ever. In April, Arlington Drafthouse opened a downtown D.C. location modeled after the legendary Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. And while the 202 Comedy Festival offered a hyper-local approach to booking, Brightest Young Things’ Bentzen Ball has given national comics a reason to visit every fall, with about a score of slots reserved for local comics each year.

“People don’t necessarily think about D.C. as a comedy town, but the audiences are really smart, passionate about the world, and well-informed, and they make for good comedy audiences,” says Nancherla. “The scene has been active in various forms for so long that it just sustains itself in different iterations.”

Many of those generations were on display across the 202 Comedy Festival’s four days, often in the same show. Johnson opened for D.C. success stories like Nancherla and Smith at the Black Cat, and relative newcomers like Kim opened for new successes like Wardell in the Big Hunt basement. It was a winning formula, with several shows selling out and packed houses every night of the festival.

“It was more than we could have asked for,” Joyce writes. “We would be crazy not to have another festival next year.” And if history is any guide, some of the names will be familiar—even if they had to leave D.C. to get that way.

Originally published in the Washington City Paper.