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“You like funny stories?”
Picture a brown box, unassuming and unpretentious in its presentation, yet massive and statuesque on the corner of V and 9th streets northwest. You would never know what goes on inside unless you already know what’s going on inside.
That’s what you get from this DC landmark. It’s a building: no signage, no windows, no impression that it even wants anything to do with you… Until it opens up and lets you in.
Now on the inside… well, that’s another story. Because inside is a story, decades in the making. It’s history, romance, drama and action all packed into a big brown box. Today, it’s a Washington monument, right up there with Ben’s Chili Bowl and The White House.
It’s the place Alanis Morissette would rock when she was testing songs that ended up becoming Jagged Little Pill. Where Dave Grohl wasn’t the Dave Grohl when he first blessed the stage, but just another kid from down the street, who eventually got his shot with Dain Bramage, which was before Foo Fighters, before Nirvana, hell even before his Scream days. The place where Public Enemy gave a sneak preview of their eventual hit, “9-1-1 Is A Joke” (because, you know, only in 1989 was that the case).
So there I was, standing in front of the general manager of this epic place, putting forth my best effort to try and become a part of this history. What better way to get on a person’s good side than to tell them a story, especially one that contained something in it for them at the end. People in power always like it when there’s something in it for them.
And so that’s why I asked: “You like funny stories?”
I didn’t wait for her to reply before I went on: “I don’t mean funny ha ha. I mean funny like serendipitous, meant-to-be type funny. The kind of funny that makes you believe that someone somewhere is looking out for you.”
She gave me her attention through squinted eyes that actually kind of made me a bit nervous. She might’ve been older than 50, but looked active. She was tall, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I found out she’d been a decent basketball player at one point in her life. The music geek in me naturally thought of Sue Sylvester from Glee, which didn’t help the intimidation factor. But I took a quick breath and refocused on my story. It was a good story–one with the kind of ending that might earn me a lifelong friend in this woman!
I proceeded with confidence, head up, shoulders back: “So last night, a car was driving along Lime Kiln Road in Leesburg, Virginia when suddenly it smashed into a deer. Or a deer smashed into it. Either way, there was an accident. The driver wasn’t hurt. Thank goodness. In fact, he got out of the car when he realized it wasn’t going to move because of the carcass trapped underneath it…”
I felt her impatience looming as she started to take a deep sigh.
“Wait, it gets better,” I interrupted. “So apparently someone called the cops. They got there and immediately caught the stench of alcohol emanating from him with every breath. He was less than a mile away from his house and they arrested him for driving under the influence. Can you believe that? By the way, the deer didn’t die from the hit, but the cop had to put it out of its misery–”
“Got about 90 seconds,” she cut in.
“The driver… was 23-year-old Jim Nightengale,” I revealed, fighting the urge to smile as she stared at me for a moment before dropping her head with a deep breath.
She obviously already knew what I was telling her, but now she knew that I knew. But I finished anyway, you know, for good measure:
“Oh, yeah, he was also driving on a suspended license. So. Can’t leave the state of Virginia anytime soon. Now here’s the funny part. Not ha ha, but the other funny. Gavin Degraw is going to be here this weekend–”
Without warning, she started walking away from me. But I felt like I had her on the ropes now! I was this close to getting what I came for, so I followed, walking closely behind her, still talking.
“And since Jim Nightengale is obviously going to be unavailable–”
“How the hell do you know all that about Jim?” she barked as she stopped and turned back to look at me.
Her gaze caused me to miss a breath, but I quickly recovered and came back with a body blow, dealt with a smile that showed absolutely no signs of weakness: “I know a lot of things. Like, I also know that Gavin Degraw is going to be in Chicago the same day for another event, and according to my sources, the earliest he can get to DC would be 6 pm. Reagan, Dulles or BWI–no matter which airport he’s flying into, there’s no way he can get off a plane, get here and be on that stage by 7 o’clock.”
And for a split second–she probably didn’t even notice it, but I did–she looked down, and that’s when I knew I had her. All I had to do was go in for the knockout:
“And that’s with perfect traffic,” I said. “You need an opener and Nightengale is out. But someone somewhere is looking out for you…”
I couldn’t read the look on her face, but I chose to think it was one of admiration. She was a woman of power. I was on my way to being her coeval someday. I had played this whole thing flawlessly, so I stood there refusing to break eye contact as I waited for something like an old, “Atta girl,” given my approach to solving a problem for her that she didn’t even know I knew she had.
Now, I’m not usually this smug, so let me provide you with a bit of context so you know how I got here…
Sometime during one of the golden ages in music… an aspiring music mogul–who we’ll just call “Tom”–fresh out of grad school at Berklee, planted his feet firmly onto the Yellow Brick Road. Or better, the gum-stained asphalts we call the sidewalks of New York.
It wasn’t long before Tom was embracing life in a quaint, overpriced Manhattan apartment. More nights out than in with the city that never sleeps. And embracing his new gig as an A&R rep at… let’s just call it, “Big Music Company.”
Those nights out on the town were part of the job as an A&R guy: go to a few clubs, listen to a few voices… He was on the lookout for something with what he simply called, “it.”
“It” could come in any form: boy, girl, tall, round… Any form, of course, except old. He never worked with anyone over the age of 26.
So let’s say he found your typical cute, white, guitar-playing 19-year-old Joe Schmoe on the stage in some dive bar getting panties thrown at him–literally and figuratively, doesn’t matter. If Tom liked him and thought he had “it,” then he figured you’d like him.
So he’d invite him to his office, introduce him to a few other “Toms” like himself. Then he would offer him coffee or water along with a recording contract.
He may or may not say the exact words: “Sign this. It’s the only way anybody’ll care about your music,” but that’d surely be what he meant.
So, Joe Schmoe, smitten by the idea of being a star, now has Big Music Company working for him with all its money, its power, its respect. Their job? To make sure you not only know Joe Schmoe, but that you BUY Joe Schmoe.
For ages, this was just the way business was done–the proverbial blueprint to music success.
That is, until technology changed everything. Making music no longer required millions of dollars, thousands of hours and hundreds of people. In fact, folks no longer even needed stores to sell or get a-hold of it.
So, after one album that achieved the sales equivalent of plastic rather than platinum, Big Music Company would see no reason to continue working with Joe Schmoe.
Because here’s the thing: by the turn of the century, with just a few hundred bucks, a few hours, and the help of a few friends, the same thing Joe signed his life over to Big Music Company to do? Could be done out of an apartment.
In fact, with so much of the business being done in apartments, dorm rooms, and coffee shops… Big Music Company eventually saw no reason to keep their offices staffed with so many “Toms.”
Welcome to the age of digital supremacy–where vinyl records are more popular than ever, yet record stores are mere folkloric myth.
And with that proverbial blueprint to doing business in music having long since crashed and burned, independent musicians continue to find ways to exploit their talent all by themselves. But to be successful, amateurs do need something–some kind of business or people, or team of business people–that can take care of all that other stuff while they’re out rapping and singing and playing all over the place.
If only there were such an infrastructure specifically for this kind of thing…
Enter… me! Equipped with a 3-year-old laptop I just finished paying off three months ago, 300 square feet of my father’s basement that I hijacked four years ago, which doubles as my home and my headquarters, armed with not much more than sheer will and a go-getter mentality. Believe it or not, I am Tom’s dream.
Now, back in the day, being signed to a record label would’ve meant that an artist had to sign their lives over to a big company. But today, this—the 3-year-old laptop, the 300-square-foot space, the girl with nothing but hustle—is the new “Big Music Company.”
What Tom had—the money, the power, the team of other Toms imposing their will? Yeah, I don’t have any of that.
No big office building, either. I also don’t have the luxury of being in the Music City. And around here, the lights are out and doors are locked—no, bolted shut—by 2 a.m., so we can’t proclaim to never sleep.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you… Washington DC.
The White House, monuments, museums, memorials, politics… I know: not exactly what comes to mind when you think of music. In fact… I really don’t have any of the things I need to make my job easy.
Then again… whoever said it was supposed to be?
I have big dreams for my little company to be great someday. But not just dreams, plans to get it there.
I know what you’re thinking: another typical millennial girl—all career and no love life. And, well… you’re right. Shut up!
But it’s not my fault! Seriously, I have the perfect explanation for why unfortunately my plans for success in business don’t apply to dating. Here’s the thing that most people don’t know: the Nation’s Capitol has the lowest marriage rate in the country but the highest number of same-sex couples.
DC literally is the gayest place in America! In order to find love, a single girl might have better luck finding—well—a single girl.
So those of us who prefer our mates be from Mars, might actually have to start going there to find them. ‘Cause when it comes to the game of love? The most powerful city on earth… is a forlorn underdog.
All of this makes great fodder for my often self-indulgent social media rants where I chronicle my life’s two greatest hurdles: music and men.
It makes for even better lunch conversation, especially when the players are my closest friends.
Now, I must warn you before I introduce them that you will probably have never met two more contrasting figures before in all your life. Even my divorced parents weren’t as opposing in personality as these two, although somehow, Ty and J managed to remain very close and relatively civil. Perhaps it was because they’d never had to live together.
Today’s lunch takes place at our favorite mutually agreeable place to both eat and take in the view of DC’s array of similar hipster, artsy Black folk: Bus Boys and Poets. It’s a restaurant/coffee shop/bookstore aptly named after Langston Hughes, who, before his acclaim as one of the great American poets, worked as a busboy at the Wardman Park Hotel. It’s the kind of spot where you’ll find people who care whether their coffee is fair trade and their food is organic, sustainable, hormone free, and locally sourced. So I will neither confirm nor deny whether it had anything to do with the gentrification of the U Street corridor on which it’s located.
“Really, I haven’t completely given up. I’ve just, I don’t know,” Ty tried to explain, searching for the words as if they were somewhere in the plate of salad on the table in front of her. “I’ve just changed my perspective a bit, I guess.”
The subject was the non-date dinner she’d had last night with a guy from the building where she worked. Things had gone… nicely. Not bad. Not great. Just… nice. But not nice enough to do it again.
Like I explained: DC is a difficult place when it comes to finding love, and like the very liberal town that it is, said difficulty does not discriminate based on race, religion, creed, and despite the statistic, sexuality either. Cisgender, heterosexual women, however, was the group I could confidently speak for. It was bleak.
There are “Victims,” a category under which I’d file my friend Ty.
Full name: Tylia Elise Aldridge
Birthplace: Lagos, Nigeria (but also calls Naples, Florida her home, since she grew up there)
Ty’s got one of those faces that makes you feel special when you’re around her. It’s her natural attentiveness coupled with her bright, cheerful eyes that appear as if they’re smiling at you even when she’s not. They sit on a round face with cheekbones that are almost artistically high—they look painted on—covered by brown-sugar-colored skin, the kind of brown that’s golden in the right kind of light.
Neither tall nor short, neither slim nor obese, she’s the epitome of an American girl, down to her origins being in another country.
She’s the youngest of her parents’ four children, and the only girl. And I’ve joked with her on many occasions about whether she’s an actual princess. Yes, it is her father’s nickname for her, but I have reason to believe he means it literally when he refers to her that way. And, perhaps in jest, she has never formally denied my allegations, only acknowledges my inquiry with a snicker that makes me feel silly for even asking. Yet, still curious.
Nevertheless, she gives off an aristocratic vibe that could come across intimidatingly if she wasn’t so southernly gleeful. Despite her very traditional and conservative upbringing, she’s the most loving person I know, which makes it easy to talk to her about anything because she tries her best not to judge, but rather to understand. Armed with an Ivy League education from Princeton, she was now a postdoctoral fellow, so her chosen profession as a psychologist was a perfect fit for this natural skillset.
So, what made her a victim? Well, she met a guy just out of undergrad, dated him for a few years, said, “Yes,” to his proposal while in med school—I was a bridesmaid at their beautiful midsummer night ceremony in Rock Creek Park—now nearly three years to the day, she was reclaiming her maiden name before she was able to add the title of “Doctor.” She’d just signed next to the ‘X’ at the bottom of the divorce papers she served him.
“Even with all that’s going on,” she continued, “I can’t bring myself to give up on— Jesus, would you stop staring at my head?”
I’d been caught. I had just seen her the day before when her hair was normal. At least, normal to how I was used to seeing her. But now? Gone. All of it, except for about a half inch or so. I couldn’t help but stare.
So I said: “But it’s gone. All of it—”
My observation went ignored. “My point is,” she went on, “the statistics just aren’t in our favor. And there’s only so much space in this city. After while, we’re going to find ourselves second-dating guys we already ruled out just to have something to do on the weekend.”
“I beg to differ,” said J, of course, sitting behind a burger and fries (concentrating on those fries though).
Now, J was one who never had a problem finding something new to do on a weekend. In fact, she routinely met good-looking, successful, available men with whom she shared common interests. The most common of interests almost always being sex.
J would be in the category: “Perpetrators.”
Full name: Jesenia Lorena Llaureano
Birthplace: Chicago, Illinois
You have to admit—some women just have it.And J, well… she is one of those women. She isn’t just pretty; she’s actually striking. And she’s the kind of girl who walks into every room as if she owns it and everyone in it—head up, shoulders back, and a strut that might rival Naomi Campbell’s. Whether it’s true or not, she knows that every man wants her, and that every woman… Well, this is DC, so there are plenty of women who want her too!
She’s slightly taller than average by about an inch. She has soft, curly hair, which always varied in style—lately she kept it on the shorter side—and skin almost the color of roasted peanuts. She’s a slightly darker version of her mother, an El Salvadorian immigrant who found love in a terribly hopeless place when she fell for a married, Black dentist, whose office she briefly worked for during that time.
Fashion and style comes effortlessly for J, and she’s always very “put together,” even during her downtime—even without a drop of makeup, which she rarely dons anyway.
Although Ty’s always been more of the textbook “big sister” type, I actually looked up to J a little more. I’ve always admired Ty, but—though I have never said this aloud—I’ve always been a bit enamored by J. Perhaps part of me wishes that I were more like J in some ways.
“Perfect example,” J explained, “this guy I met the other day—”
“At Trader Joe’s!” Ty exclaimed, cutting her off to explain this apparent absurdity to me. “She doesn’t even cook. She uses the grocery store as her own personal meat market.”
J carried on without a hitch: “32-year-old single professor from St. Louis. Georgetown University brought in him and five more just like him to fill a void in their liberal arts department. We’re hooking up tomorrow nigh—”
“Seriously? Is that all it’s about?” Ty asked although I had a sneaking suspicion she already knew the answer.
“My point is that men are coming and going all the time.” And perhaps to amuse her, J continued with: “I just like to meet the ones coming so I can cum with them.”
Ty snuck in an eye roll, sigh, and headshake all in one gesture before: “I can literally still feel your eyes on my head,” she said to me.
“I’ll be honest,” J said as she finished chewing. “I’ve been checking for a motherfuckin’ dragon tattoo for the last 10 minutes myself.”
With another roll of the eyes, Ty said, “It’s just hair! It’s not like I cut off an arm.”
Which started a back and forth between them: “Yeah, but it was your hair,” J said.
“But I am not my hair.”
“No, but it was kinda you—”
“Well, it’s gone now, okay?” Ty said with a laugh that kept her position in the debate light and playful rather than defensive.
“Hey, is it weird that I don’t even think about dating?” I asked out of nowhere.
And this was perhaps the one thing they both could agree on: “Yes!” they replied in unison.
Now, I had no clear-cut category in which to place myself. I wasn’t a victim. I wasn’t a perpetrator. In fact, I was too green to play any position in the game at this point.
Full name: Kenya Shaw
Birthplace: Washington, DC
I’m just… the girl who hasn’t been on consecutive dates since diving headfirst into my dream of owning a record label… four years ago.
Time is the key to knowing me—a commodity which very few are willing to invest. The ladies sitting across from me were two of only a few people to ever earn dividends, while the world is left trying to decipher the details of a book in which it may never take the time to fully open. The cover of that book is all that most people use to go on.
But still, you go on, telling your friends what you know from only seeing the cover of my book, which usually starts with the obviously—my hair—’cause it’s big, and it’s curly, and it’s not like hair you always see. So when you see me you might stop and you might look, and you might want to ask if you can touch it, but you probably won’t ask. That’d be rude or just weird. Because even though it’s hair in its purest state, you deeply want to believe that there is a “process” to getting it naturallike it is.
So then you see the sienna earth tone that covers me from head to toe, and how it seems like a mismatch to my eyes, which lack much visible sclera—eyes that are more “common” on people from the Far East. You might wonder and you might even have the nerve to ask if I have anything “in” me that brings about this contrast in expected appearance for a girl like me.
My answer—maybe or maybe not so politely—would be “Yes!”
I am all kinds of Black, with blood that was boiled on the land of Mother, then smeared across this green ball, east to west, up and down, in and then through. Blood that made hair, skin, and eyes all textures, shades and shapes—that made me harder, bigger, faster, stronger. So if you think something else is in me that makes my eyes narrower than others you’ve seen that are my shade of brown, I’d tell you, you got it backward. Nothing is in me. Rather, me is in every damn thing!
A girl uninterested in the things that interest the rest of the world, but obsessive about her own interests, which are not the typical interests of a “girl”— expressing this interest with an unmoved, undeterred passion—is usually called a “nerd.”
If her interest goes a step further by moving into competitive, male-driven industries, she is then referred to aptly as a “Tomboy.”
And to take it even further, if this interest of hers is then pursued passionately in the competitive, male-driven domain with a level of assertiveness that says to everyone that she’s in it to win it, she is then thought of as “probably a lesbian.”
I’ve been called it all—nerd, Tomboy, lesbo—and I accept this compliment. Because I might actually be a nerd. What the fuck is a “tomboy,” really? And some of the most powerful, most interesting, most successful women I know are, in fact, lesbians, so if I’m thought of as part of their group… Thank you!
That, I suppose, is the plight of the modern woman—she’s got to be “figured out” by the world or risk being labeled. Or mislabeled.
What you need to know about me, though, is simple: I love music, I have a penchant for creative and administrative details, and I like to win.
My approach to this life as a future music mogul is like that of an athlete on the road to greatness—I show up early; I stay up late; I study “game film,” which is to say, I like to stay sharp; and usually my main advantage over my competition is my willingness to outwork them.
So, I ask you again: is it weird that I don’t even think about dating?
Ty and J both thought, “Yes.” And as they laughed—not at me, but at their first agreed upon opinion ever—I refused to join them as I dropped my head in playful shame.
And then I attempted to explain something to the two people who knew me best in this world, which meant they already knew this: “Look, it’s not that I don’t think about men. I do. It’s just… I don’t know what to say to the ones I want to meet, and it’s never the ones you want who approach—”
“So true!” Ty agreed.
“Which is why I go after what I want,” J said, not revealing anything new. “Don’t leave it to them. Shit. This is two thousand and—”
“That requires way too much… transparency,” I said. I used the word “transparency” instead of the word I should’ve used, which was “confidence.” J had the confidence. “Plus I don’t even know where to start—”
“Well, you can’t start in your father’s basement, that’s for sure,” Ty said.
“Aye, why don’t you come with us?” J asked. “I’m taking Ty with me to this networking thing…”
J proceeded to describe this upcoming event that she thought I should attend, although I already knew I wouldn’t be joining them.
As a writer, J’s main outlet was FACE, one of the country’s top female-focused lifestyle magazines—often referred to as the lady GQ—so if there was a place with even the slightest hint of eligible bachelors, J was sure to be on top of it… pun very much intended.
Ty said with a sigh, “Yeah, I don’t know why I let her talk me into going to this thing—”
“Because she needs to get her mind off this divorce paper signing shit and have some goddamn fun. You should come too.”
“Yes! You should,” Ty said.
Misery sure does love company.
And before I could respond, she said, “And don’t say—”
“I can’t,” I said anyway. “Look, I have artists that have dreams, and they look to me to make plans for those dreams to come true. That means I got work to do. Which reminds me: Cleveland…”
I had forgotten to put this upcoming meeting in my phone calendar, so I was doing so now.
“Fuck is in Cleveland?” J asked, with seemingly half that burger in her mouth.
“Not the city. Cleveland Avenue in Arlington,” I explained. “I have to meet a guy there about getting Lucas on this 9:30 card.”
“Jesus. You’re still trying to get Lucas on that stage?” Ty asked.
She had heard all my war stories about this. Three times previously, I had met managers or booking agents whose artists were doing shows there and asked if we could join. All three times, the answer was, “NO!” Of course, they didn’t know me, so with one in every two people calling themselves a musician, if there were any openings, they’d likely just give that opportunity to someone they knew.
But then there was that time a few months ago when I got a “yes” from the manager of a supposed boy band (something that almost never works on an indie level because it requires too much money). However, the show got canceled the day before because, of course, they broke up.
And now, the perfect opportunity—the perfect person for my artist to open for—was coming to town in two and a half days. I had information that would make my plea a slam-dunk to get on the card, but I still had no clue who to even talk to.
So when Ty asked if I was still trying, I replied, “Yes. And preferably with a check. When my artists get paid, I get paid. And I need to get paid.”
“You needto get laid.”
And for the second time at my expense, they shared a laugh. Yeah, J was probably right, but… she didn’t deserve the satisfaction of knowing that.
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+ + +
Take Taj Kamal, for instance. She’s the reason I started this business of mine in the first place. She had music and no idea what to do with it; I was unemployed with time to figure it out.
So stepping into the warehouse-looking spot somewhere east of the river, which acted as a rehearsal space because of its unassumingly great acoustics, my eyes were instantly stapled to Tk, seemingly skating around the stage in figurative concert with her band—playing to no audience—as these memories of our less than humble beginnings danced through my head.
I stood there analyzing this entire skeleton-performance—how she moved, how they played off her direction with improv, how her take on Hip Hop perspired with the heart and grit of the 90s, but breathed with the energetic social existentialism of today.
It had been four years now since she and I had become a tandem. A couple albums and a couple mixtapes later, and here we were—finishing LP number three and trying to figure out how, exactly, we were going to make some money with this one.
“That’s it. Alright, take five,” she said to the four others behind her, all wearing or holding different instruments.
She hopped off the stage and started toward me, looking taller than her usual five feet and four inches. At 28, she still hadn’t lost hope in the idea of getting taller, so she sometimes attempted to make herself appear more grandiose, wearing shoes that sat atop extra thick platforms or heels. Today, however, must’ve been one of those days when the effort was overlooked, or perhaps just underappreciated. Barefoot now, I figured it was safe to assume she’d decided that today was the day to just work with what she had.
If she had any insecurities at all, the desire to be an inch or two taller might’ve been one, although she would never outright admit to that. Her mother was the incarnation of Nefertiti—a Baltimore-bred Egyptian, who at one time modeled for a living—and her father was Don Cheadle’s doppelgänger. With those genes, Tk could quite literally have been 50 and you wouldn’t know it. And with her flawless, butterscotch complexion and girlishly innocent eyes, which sat under a field of ombré locs that finished in aubergine these days, the unexpected appearance of makeup that afternoon didn’t add a single year to her appearance. It did, though, ever so slightly enhance her natural beauty—a quality, unlike her height, she actually preferred to play down rather than up.
Despite the often-changing color of her hair, you would notice its natural style before you did any eccentricities. Without her ever saying a word to you, you would certainly guess correctly just by looking at her that as an African American, Tk was much prouder about the former part in her race rather than the latter.
Western culture and lifestyle was not appealing to her, but over the years, we’d worked together to shape her message lyrically to be quite palatable to the “gentrifiers,” while maintaining its true intention for those who needed it.
“Hey,” she said, without a smile, as she stepped closer to me, stopping short of any type of physical greeting. No hug. No handshake. Not even a fist bump.
When we first met—while working at a now-defunct social media start-up geared toward music fans about eight years ago—I’d thought that maybe this kind of sudden, dry, non-greeting was because she was Muslim. I knew that innocent contact under American circumstances between opposite sexes was prohibited, so I figured maybe it was across the board. It’s not.
Had we met more recently, I might’ve considered it a personal preference not to be too friendly, since she did have a wife. In fact, her three-year-old marriage had already produced a two-year-old kid. But the stoicism in our meetings had nothing to do with that either.
I realized early on that Tk just had her quirks, and things she deemed unnecessary, like small talk, appetizers, and touching for no reason, were among the top three.
Needless to say, our initial encounters always felt very… abrupt.
“So wassup?” she asked.
To which I replied, “Cardio.”
Oh yeah, and not quickly getting to the point was another one.
“Mid-way through the fourth bar you take this unusually uncomfortable breath, almost like a gasp for air, and it’s because the sequence of metaphors before don’t allow for you to breathe naturally in order to give the delivery you’re going for. Yes, cosmetically, you’re in decent shape, although you could stand to gain a pound or two, but cardio-vascularly (or is it cardio vascular-wise?)… you’re unable to effectively give the performance you desire, so… cardio. Run. Swim. Bike. Half hour, four to five times a week—”
“I’m surprised you’re here and not getting cardio yourself—running around, jumping through hoops for Bieber,” she said with a crooked smile.
“And you’re so proud of yourself ‘cause you know the difference, aren’t you?
I was ready to move on, so I let her have that last one.
“You ever listen to that show, On Blast?” I asked. “Comes on at 8 o’clock on—”
“The radio,” she finished, “which you know I don’t listen to. Too much Bieber for my taste.”
“Well guess who they’re interviewing this Friday. And it ain’t Biebs, baby.”
She gave me a double-take: the first glance was dismissive because obviously I couldn’t have been referring to her being the one on DC’s top radio station for Hip Hop music; the second look, however, was a realization that, yes, I was seriously saying that she was the one who was going to be on DC’s number one station for Hip Hop!
So, I posed the question before she could ask it: “How did I pull off getting you on the highest rated Hip Hop radio show in the city?”
The answer? Well… I just asked nicely.
But, here’s how it actually happened: The radio station was located atop an eight-story tall building that required a scanning key or combination code in order to get in before even reaching a secured entrance with a guard, and another locked door, which I wouldn’t doubt requested a secret word before opening. Yeah, Fort Knox, sans the gold.
All of that is a moot point, however, when the broadcasters operate outside of the building, which they do sometimes in an effort to connect with their listeners in person.
But this was a commercial radio station. So even though On Blast featured a segment spotlighting up-and-coming artists by interviewing them and playing some of their music, there was a catch. The “spotlight” was usually focused on new or un-heard-of major label artists that needed the promotion—or who could afford to pay for said promotion.
There’s a system set up within the music industry to keep the little guys little, and big radio stations play a part. So someone like me with my little record label—despite anything I’d deem “success”—wouldn’t exactly fit the criteria for this show.
Amelia Cruz had been on the radio in DC for just 11 months. She was originally from New York but took a promotion that brought her here. Hosting On Blastwas her first opportunity to lead a show of her own, and so far, the ratings said that she was doing a great job.
Amelia was Puerto Rican, had two dogs, loved motorcycles, and although she had relapsed twice before, I was certain that she was still an aspiring vegan. This is the kind of stuff you had to really want to know in order to know it. Scrolling through social media accounts wouldn’t cut it. Finding it required digging much deeper.
But why did I know all this, you ask?
Well, despite all I know about the radio business and how it works, on multiple occasions, I had thoughts about if and how I might get Tk’s music played on that station. I can admit, it was a very trivial thing in the grand scheme, but every artist wants to feel the joy that comes with hearing themselves on a major radio station, especially one in their hometown.
I wanted to do that for Tk.
Oh, who am I kidding? I wanted it for me too!
So, as serendipity might have it, I was wandering the streets one evening after a meeting trying to decide what was for dinner when I spotted the station truck, table, and banners setting up for a live broadcast. This also happened to be not far from one of the best bakeries in town… which also happened to be a vegan bakery… a vegan bakery that I, as an aspiring, slowly transitioning vegan myself with a monster sweet tooth happened to frequent on at least a weekly basis… which means I knew the people there kind of well.
It was exactly 5:58 p.m. The bakery closed at 6. The girl’s hand was just about to turn the lock on the door when I appeared out of thin air (actually, I was running) and pushed through before she could twist the key.
I saw that look on her face that comes when you find out there’s more work to do as soon as it’s time to go home. But I didn’t care. I’d made it!
But it was still a roll of the dice. People are either salty snackers or sweet snackers. Of all the research I had compiled, this one small bit of information—whether Amelia was a salty or a sweet—was not something I had learned about her. So, I had my fingers crossed, hoping that at least one of her teeth were sweet.
I was standing at the radio station popup table with a half dozen various flavors of moderately freshly made vegan cupcakes, and as she stood in front of me nearly salivating looking down into the box, Amelia, I found, was in fact a sweets lover!
“Six flavors. All 100% vegan,” I said.
She grimaced, surprised that I knew this.
I just smiled.
She said, “And the best place to get these is—”
I closed the box revealing the name of the bakery she was about to say.
“They’re all yours,” I said. “I just have one small favor to ask.”
She looked at me.
“My artist, Taj Kamal… I’d like for you to feature her as the spotlight artist on your show.”
“That’s it?” she said as if my request was minuscule, while already taking the box from my hand. “Done. Just give your info to my intern.” She was eating a cupcake before I could thank her.
Tk stood there, waiting for me to give her the answer for how I’d gotten her on the radio. But I figured… artists don’t need to know how the sausage is made. So I didn’t bother going into all that with her.
To answer the question, I simply told her: “I have my ways.”
“But commercial radio, though?” she said. It wasn’t so much a question as it was an expression of obvious uncertainty toward the idea.
We were independent. The plan was to keep it that way—to keep everything independent of big corporation persuasion. Pursuing commercial radio was obviously not a part of the plan. But sometimes, I figured, if you see a way in, you go for it.
“I know: not part of the plan,” I admitted. “It was a shot in the dark. I took it.”
She sucked in all of the air around us, trying to reconcile the idea. But this was how our relationship always went. She trusted me. She believed in me just like I believed in her. The bottom line was, she just wanted to make music, not business decisions, which is why we worked so well together. She never gave me any pushback, so I felt free to take chances like this, even when it fell outside of my original plan.
“Will you at least be there with me?” she asked.
Before I could answer, my phone began to sing—muffled as it was buried deep down in the messenger bag that was draped across my chest.
As I began my frantic search for the phone with Tk watching and waiting, it hit me again. I didn’t realize until after I began working with Lucas just how much Tk preferred me to be monogamous with my attention. With Lucas now, my polyamory bothered her.
“Yes, I’ll be there,” I responded. “I gotta take this. It’s someone with some information I need about something somewhere I need to be,” I said with the phone in my hand now.
She laughed as she walked back toward the band, and said over her shoulder, “You better answer before you end up saying too much or not enough.”
“Cardio! Is that enough?!” I said back to her, as I took the phone call, which turned out to be the one I’d been waiting for all day.
So here’s how this convoluted mess of a scenario I had gotten myself into was set to go: The guy, Dante (from Cleveland Avenue) apparently knew the guy doing renovation work on the 9:30 Club general manager’s house. The handyman would text Mr. Chan when she left for work. Mr. Chan, who was also a patron of this handyman’s services, ran a small tax business across the street from 9:30 Club. Mr. Chan would then text Pruitt, a building manager, who not only had the keys to the club, but was also scheduled for a visit that day. Pruitt would be the one to let me in.
The call I’d received while I was with Tk was from Dante telling me to be at the club in 20 minutes. She usually only had a 10-15 minute “down time” window at the club on show days, which was most days, so I had to be precise in arrival and my pitch.
Hey, I know it sounds ridiculous, but with of all my lack of luck with getting my guy on that stage, I was willing to give just about anything the old college try at this point.
Now… Picture that brown box again—like the ones an Amazon.com order might arrive in on your doorstep—unassuming and unpretentious in its presentation, however massive, as it stands statuesque on the corner of V and 9th streets. You would never know what goes on inside unless you already knew what was going on inside.
That’s what you get from the 9:30 Club. At least, that’s what I got as I stood on the corner looking up at it from the outside.
I had been inside before to see shows—RDGLDGN, who was from DC, made a stop on one of their first major tours, Brother Ali and Homeboy Sandman, and I even got to see Adele here, as she released 21 and kicked off her tour in the States!
So I have a relationship with this place. But not like the one I hoped to forge today.
As I stood outside going over the pitch I was about to give, the door crept open behind me, and quickly getting my attention was a guy who looked similar to the one who connected us. I assumed this was Pruitt, but he never formally introduced himself. Only asked, “Kenya?”
To which I nodded in confirmation. He then motioned his head, signaling for me to follow him inside.
I walked in behind him, keeping my eyes on each step I took, because the corridor was quite dark and counting steps was my way calming my nerves.
“Aye,” he whispered after looking over and noticing where my focus was. “Head up. Can’t let her think you insecure. She hate weak people.”
I didn’t bother to explain why my head was down, I just took his advice and pulled it up. And just this simple act, along with rolling my shoulders back, which inevitably pushed my chest out a bit, somehow made me feel like Wonder Woman.
He stopped at an opening and let me know nonverbally that this was where I needed to be before walking off without so much as a “good luck.”
Feeling alone inside the box now, I took a deep breath and stepped into the main room. The place was only partially lit given that it was about two hours before doors were set to open and four hours before the headliner would take the stage, which tonight, was a punk band out of Philly.
The first thing I noticed was that stage and all that history…
But I couldn’t allow myself to remain in awe for more than a second, because to the left stood the reason I had come here—a woman in a white Ramones t-shirt, standing behind the bar, already prepared to dismiss me before she even heard my spiel, before even looking up from her paperwork (or whatever) to at least act like she cared about the gift I was there to give her.
“Whatever it is you’re selling, I don’t need it,” she said, with her head still down.
As the competitive type, I like to figure out my opponent. But this time, the only information I had on the person in front of me was her name: Bonni. No last name, and as of only ten seconds ago, I’d also learned that she didn’t like the appearance of weakness, so I kept my head up and my shoulders back.
I made sure I was right across from her—opposite the bar—before I said, “You sure are a hard woman to track down.”
And again, with no eye contact: “Time is spent but can’t be bought. I prefer mine not to be wasted. So whatever you’re selling—”
“I’m not selling anything. I just want five minutes of your—”
“I’m outta here in four,” she offered with a deep breath.
And the clock on the wall just above her head became apparent right at that moment. It read 5:56. “Fine,” I said, “because I only need three.”
With no other argument coming from her, I took this to mean that I was on the clock. So, I started: “My name is Kenya Shaw. I run an independent record label here in DC. 16:9 Recordings.”
I had my business card ready in hand. I slid it onto the paper where her eyes were focused so that she had no other choice but to see it.
“I have two artists. Taj Kamal is one. You might’ve heard of her. And Lucas, a singer/songwriter. He’s who I want to talk to you about.”
From under my arm, I pulled out a copy of the newspaper that had recently written a favorable article and said, “City Paper calls him DC’s best-kept secret…”
And lastly, I had my cell phone ready to play one of our best videos: an acoustic rearranged cover of “Same Old Love”—a simple, one-shot video of Lucas and his guitar displaying a pure, untouched vocal.
“That Selena Gomez cover got over 60 thousand views… in one week.”
Bonni appeared to be a bit intrigued at this point. She watched the video for a moment (maybe two) before looking back to the paper at a picture of the same cute, skinny white boy with a guitar. It was making an impression, I suppose.
“Congratulations,” she said, apathetically.
And that was it.
I knew that I would need something else, so I came equipped with a trump card, although hoping that I didn’t have to use it. And as contemplation set in at that moment, I subconsciously looked down. It always feels like I can find my words down on the ground when I need them. But that, of course, was the very moment she decided to look over at me, almost catching me looking weak.
I quickly looked up and right into her eyes. And that’s when I asked her, “You like funny stories?”
She didn’t give me an answer, but she did give me squinted eyes, perhaps wondering where I was going with this line of questioning. My question was rhetorical, so, I went on. “I don’t mean funny ha ha. I mean funny like serendipitous, meant-to-be type funny. The kind of funny that makes you believe that someone somewhere is looking out for you…”
Well, you know how this goes—I tell her about the car accident, that poor deer (aww), and the fact that her headliner is without an opener for the show here this Sunday.
“How the hell do you know all that about Jim?” she said, turning back to me after having begun to walk away once she realized why I was there.
Her gaze caused me to miss a breath, but I quickly recovered and came back with a body blow. Starting with a smile that showed absolutely no signs of weakness, I finally said: “I know a lot of things. Like, I also know that Gavin Degraw is going to be in Chicago the same day for another event, and according to my sources, the earliest he can get to DC would be 6 pm. Reagan, Dulles or BWI—no matter which airport he’s flying into, there’s no way he can get off a plane, get here, and be on that stage by 7 o’clock.”
And for a split second—she probably didn’t even notice it, but I did—she looked down… and that’s when I knew I had her! All I had to do was close:
“And that’s with perfect traffic. You need an opener and Nightengale is out. But someone somewhere is looking out for you, Ms. Bonni.”
Still looking at me—rather, looking through me—she turned her attention to that same clock on the wall, which now read 6:00 on the nose.
“When you walked in here, I made it clear as crystal that I do not like my time being wasted. So as fascinating and captivating an argument as that is, you just wasted not only your time, but more importantly, mine. I’m not the person you talk to about this—”
“So I don’t organize shows, sweetie.”
“But you can tell me who does.”
And for the first time in our brief relationship, she offered me a smile. It was a pleasant smile. I even thought that she had a very nice smile and that she should actually smile more often.
But with that smile smeared across her face, she secured her papers right next to her ribs as she said ever so politely: “You know so much, you figure it out.
I didn’t have anything left. And even if I had, I would’ve been giving it to the back of her head because that was all I could see as she walked out.
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