by Cynthia Gross
DC-based artist extraordinaire Dior Ashley Brown, dubbed the “Hip-Hop Polymath” by The Washington Post, knows no bounds. She defines the term “creative” through a wide lens of intersections and correlations, enabling her to balance the roles of musician, actor, poet, playwright, activist, Emcee, and business owner. With more than a decade in the DMV music industry, she is an authority for all things rap, hip-hop, and funk – and let’s just be real, also for all things truth-telling. Through her music and community-building initiatives, she is committed to giving voice to the silenced, empowering the broken, and inspiring a collective of change agents ready to stand for what they believe in no matter the costs.
A DC native and proud alumna of Duke Ellington School of the Arts, Dior Ashley Brown knew early on that her voice was meant to be heard. She understood the power of language to challenge, heal, and change trajectories. That commitment to empowering others, especially people of color and other underrepresented groups, to become their best selves is what makes Dior Ashley Brown stand out.
I was fortunate to have an opportunity to chat with Dior Ashley Brown as she juggled her multiple hats – the upcoming DC Music Summit clearly the most pressing project on her mind. I knew the interview was going to be deep. Dior Ashley Brown shares her thoughts on everything from how to survive as an independent artist in the DMV to why her music is innately political to what it means to be a good human. Perhaps what I observed most is the unique way Dior Ashley Brown can be simultaneously hard-hitting and soft-centered. At the core, her message is about unity and community – about the things that bring us together, creating a stronger tapestry and world at large.
Q: As you know, there is currently a movement to cement go-go as DC’s official music genre. Recently, the Washington Post published an article, “If DC Makes Go-Go Its Official Music, What Would Its Official Song Be?” I pose that same question to you. What would be your pick?
DAB: Without a doubt, “Thug Passion” by DC-based go-go group Backyard Bands. I love the song so much that I wrote a mix in its honor.
Q: In order for musicians to be successful, the surrounding infrastructure needs to be supportive. How supportive is the infrastructure for musicians currently in the DC area?
DAB: There is an awakening happening in DC – new residents, new sounds, and new experiences. DC culture has been under threat for some time – although I will say, people are now starting to see the value in the scene. We’re learning that in order for DC to thrive, creatives and their supporters need to come together and collaborate. Seems like that concept should be intuitive, but we are starting to do a better job of making it a reality. When we build communities, we create numbers and volume, thereby developing a platform.
The scene could be better if it were more accepting of individuals from different backgrounds, but still, in spite of the challenges, creatives can make a difference by supporting each other – coming to shows, purchasing merch, and so on. Joining together in this way fosters a collaborative energy that makes the scene that much more robust and vibrant.
Q: Clearly, there is a connection between music and health. Since we recently started the New Year, I’m sure many of us have a resolution to get in better shape. Please give us a few songs to add to our workout playlists.
DAB: I’ll share a few of my own songs and also some other favorites that are sure to get you up and moving.
Afro Puffs, a Lady of Rage remix I created with F.L.O.T.U.S. (First Ladies of the Urban Scene).
Big Band Theory, a remix by IhsAn Bilal, featuring yours truly.
Rage, Rico Nasty
Hussle & Motivate, Nipsey Hussle
Hit Me Wit da Hard, Uptown X.O.
Thinkin’ Bout (Doin’ U), LAKIM
WIN, Jay Rock
I’m Better, Missy Elliott
Chief Don’t Run, Jidenna
Devastated, Joey Bada$$
Fuck the Summer Up, Leikeli47
Stronger, Kanye West
Q: It’s an understatement to say the music industry is complex. Recently, I read an article about how metadata is the music industry’s “billion-dollar problem,” cheating an exponential number of indie artists out of their hard-earned royalties. What tips would you give to help indie artists navigate some of the murky areas in the industry?
DAB: Yes, let’s first just acknowledge that it’s a complex industry. If you’re going to put your music on a platform, know it’s primarily for exposure and promotion. Cloud-based platforms can be tricky. If an artist does not have a full understanding, the platform has the potential to gain, diminish, or even wipe out the artist’s existence legacy.
I’ve learned to approach platforms with equal openness and wariness and use them for the opportunities they provide. Where you can, fall back from the ones that don’t inform you. This is by no means a suggestion to shy away from the platforms. Artists should just look for ways to continue to be supportive of each other to mitigate some of the negative effects. Find eco-friendly causes. Look out for other artists and share resources. We should never stop creating tangible art in spite of the challenges posed by the industry. Instead, we should look for ways to capitalize on the opportunities, by respecting the value of our art first.
Q: You’ve been immersed in the arts ever since you were a child. I believe your father and uncle are also artists who supported your pursuit of the creative arts. What advice do you have for aspiring creatives?
DAB: Do it! Get into your craft. Try, fail, and do it again until you get who you are in this. Have fun, be persistent, and work with other creatives to build your squad. Consolidate your resources, and learn to cultivate who you are. Oh, and don’t immediately start running to outside entities for validation before you’ve done the groundwork. Spend some time finding yourself and building your support team first.
Q: Listeners seek frequent, fresh content from artists, leaving many to argue that singles have usurped the album’s place as a musician’s showcase. Where do you stand? Is the album dead?
DAB: Yes, streaming killed the album. That’s the reality. When I want to listen to an album, I typically revisit the ones I already know – the ones I grew up with that influenced me. With new music, most of the time, I shazam for the hit, not the album.
Now, to add a fine point: just because streaming killed the album doesn’t mean artists shouldn’t create them. Even in the era of streaming, albums give artists a chance to establish and cultivate a loyal fanbase. And over time, I do not doubt that there could be a revival of the album. When you think of the resurgence of tangible mediums like vinyl – I mean, who would have thought?
Creatives really need to decide if their art is actually art. When you speak of art, there is always a tangible element. For musicians, the tangible element goes beyond the actual songs. A real artist is interested in every component of the project from the songs to the album cover art. If we’re talking art, it’s more than an album. It’s about using a medium to share a message and inspire change.
Q: In a 2018 interview with DC Music Download, while speaking about your latest single “Vernacular,” you noted, “Politics in America didn’t become personal overnight.” Is music political? Are genres like hip-hop, funk, and R&B political? Why or why not?
DAB: For me, as a Black woman and an artist, music is political. It’s a venue I use to express myself – where I can both vent my frustrations and encourage compassion and understanding. Everyone’s music is not political, but mine is because I speak for an underrepresented group. Every decision I make is political. Wearing my natural hair is political. Embracing my full-figured body is political. Choosing whether to be fully clothed is political. I love who I am and honor God’s graciousness in bestowing beauty that stands out!
I’ve encountered countless challenges being a woman of color in the industry, especially with roles like Emcee that are traditionally male dominated. So many politics. Honestly, pushing what I’m doing for the community through my music and other platforms feels like a campaign at times. Like others in the industry, I am fighting for the right to be heard. The right to be valued for who I am. Not all of my music is political – some songs are about love and other universal human emotions – but the majority of it is. For the most part, my music is saying, stand up straight because there is a fight out here.
Q: What are some key challenges and opportunities you see in the independent music scene? Are there any areas that affect people of color and other underrepresented groups specifically? What tips would you give to help artists navigate?
DAB: The lack of value placed on art in the DMV is an ongoing challenge, but this in many ways echoes the national sentiment. Musicians of color have an especially tough time on multiple fronts, including securing creative spaces in DC. Although artists of color are used for marketing to host venues, most of us do not own studios and other spaces where we can collectively work. In DC, most of these spaces are white-owned. People of color tend to own spaces outside of the city.
In terms of advantages, DC is one of the few cities that has a wealth of grant opportunities to provide artists with the resources to continue to create. The DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities is an organization that comes to mind. While there is still complexity in the grant process overall and an abundance of need, DC has the potential to be a fluid launch pad for artists similar to NY and CA. Some of us just need to learn how to do business better.
For artists in DC, there is already a stigma of us as crabs in a barrel. Don’t get caught up in your ego and play into it. For all of us, we need to remember to be open. Collaborate with other artists, follow them online, and support their music. Take advantage of info sessions on everything from copyright to networking that are created to help you. Get familiar with connected spaces like the Kennedy Center, 7DrumCity, and R Street Studio.
Q: What is one thing most people don’t know about you?
I’m psychic. I knew there was a Coming to America Part II on the horizon.
Q: You often speak of your desire to have no labels. This broad view of arts and the world has enabled you to hold multiple roles simultaneously, including Emcee, musician, artist, poet, and business owner. For our readers at Alchemical Records, fill us in on some of your upcoming projects.
The DC Music Summit, scheduled for Feb. 1 at Eaton Hotel, is fast approaching. The Summit is a full day of educational, inspirational panels and workshops that cover how to succeed in the music business right here in the DMV. Creatives are already a grounding force in the DMV. Partnering with our conference is a great opportunity for you to engage with our audience, including musical entrepreneurs, administrative and technical professionals, and the larger community, to learn how to better leverage your strengths, deepen your connections, and grow your business. Register now to reserve your spot: https://www.dcmusicsummit.org/registration-open.html. We look forward to seeing you there.
In other news, on March 11, I perform with a live band on the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage, showcasing singles from my upcoming album. We’re having a lot of fun putting the show together, so come out (or tune in) prepared to be inspired.
I am also excited to announce that my upcoming album “Uptown Ashley Brown” will drop soon! More updates in the coming weeks.
Maryland-based singer-songwriter Cynthia Gross seeks to inspire an awakening to all we are and all we can become. With a passion for language in all of its forms and nearly a decade of experience in the marketing industry, she is a light seeker who understands the power of each individual’s voice to create positive, meaningful change.