by Cynthia Gross | Photos by Daniel Martinez
Maroon 5. Roddy Ricch. Justin Bieber. Billie Eilish. Selena Gomez. Jonas Brothers. Future. A few of the musicians on Billboard Hot 100. No shade intended on any of these artists, but let’s take a moment and think about what really gives music its lasting power. It’s more than edgy lyrics, catchy melodies, and extravagant fashion, for sure. When you think about pioneering artists whose music stands the test of time, often, it comes down to the message behind the songs. This depth carries the music beyond the immediate, compelling audiences to do their part in making the world a better place, not a more egotistical one. Independent music shares this mission, and arguably, is where the heart of the industry lies. There is perhaps no better example of the vibrant, atmosphere-changing power of independent music than the DMV scene.
On Saturday, February 1, 2020, the DC Music Summit, dedicated to accelerating the careers of local artists and industry professionals with a focus on underrepresented groups, held its third annual conference at Eaton Hotel DC. With nearly 300 people in attendance, the full day of programming featured the region’s top presenters, panelists, performers, and vendors, with topics ranging from making a living in music to eliminating exposure to racism in music for children of color. Christylez Bacon, Grammy-nominated hip-hop artist, served as the keynote speaker. See the full conference schedule here.
From the very first moment, DC Music Summit founder Dior Ashley Brown, a DC-based artist extraordinaire, dubbed the “Hip-Hop Polymath” by the Washington Post, made it clear the event was more than your average seminar. And she was right.
Dior dedicated her opening remarks to some of her heroes, including Nipsey Hussle, Kobe Bryant, and her grandmother Shirley B. Maker, an evangelist of Gospel Tabernacle Church in Rising Sun, Maryland, who also served 30 years in prison ministry. Dior noted, “This is not your everyday conference. This is a movement.” She introduced attendees to her mantra for 2020, which participants repeated until she felt they meant it: “I don’t lack. I am abundant.” She praised her leadership team and gave a special thank you to sponsors and other supporters of the DC Music Summit, including the Kennedy Center, Arts Administrators of Color, and Chuck Levin’s Washington Music Center.
Spend just a few moments in Dior’s presence, and you know instinctively that she is the real deal. The warmth and authenticity she carries are becoming rare qualities in today’s society. For instance, prior to the welcome session, she asked an attendee sitting nearby if she could let a presenter who had just arrived and was inquiring about the schedule use his program (the rest of the programs were in the lobby). Several minutes later, Dior returned and gave the attendee a new program to replace the one she had used. This conscientiousness and belief in the value every person adds make it clear that inclusivity is more than a buzzword in Dior’s mind. It’s part of her reality.
After opening remarks from event host RaVal Davis, actress and entertainment authority who has penned pieces for Essence, EBONY, and VIBE, as well as worked with some of the biggest names in the industry, the St. Augustine Gospel Choir followed by African drummers Joseph Ngwa and Rakhel Yisrael took the stage in what felt like an invocation. Following the spirited performances, including covers of gospel favorites like Richard Smallwood’s “Total Praise” and a rousing dance segment in which participation was an imperative, RaVal Davis joked that the performances took attendees on an unexpected journey to both church and the motherland, setting the tone for what would be an inspiring day.
DC native Christylez Bacon, Grammy-nominated progressive hip-hop artist, multi-instrumentalist, and human beatbox, served as the keynote speaker. Founder of the Washington Sound Museum, a cross-cultural collaborative concert series, Christylez Bacon has been featured on outlets including Morning Edition and NPR, and has performed at the Kennedy Center and with the National Symphony Orchestra. His accomplishments are many (and well-deserved). Read his full bio here.
Like Dior Ashley Brown and RaVal Davis, Christylez Bacon is a proud alum of Duke Ellington School of the Arts. As you can imagine, Christylez isn’t your average presenter. Impressive and charismatic are an understatement to describe his skills and stage presence. Christylez is the type of artist who moves you. Using a tasteful sense of humor, he is able to broach even the toughest of subjects. Regardless of your background and the state in which you entered the space, you get swept up in the atmosphere of unity he creates.
Christylez shared his story through an extended call-and-response version of his hit song “It’s the Beatbox.” The most inspiring part of Christylez’s story is his perseverance through all of the barriers that could have been used as reasons to give up on his dreams. For example, he spoke about the need to create his own instrument as a child (which would become his human beatbox ability) since his mother did not have enough money to purchase drums. “It’s easy for a person to complain about what they don’t have, but maybe your lack of something is what will give you your edge,” he noted.
For the second half of his presentation, Christylez took on-the-spot questions from the audience and offered guidance based on his own experiences. This was a refreshing reminder that he was part of the DC Music Summit as more than a formality. He has a real heart to uplift others and give back. In the face of his many successes, Christylez’s humility is what makes him stand out from the crowd. After his keynote, he stuck around for the remainder of the event, engaging attendees with the same level of enthusiasm and grace regardless of whether it was a high school student trying to find his way or a long-time DC creative making waves of her own.
Following the morning programming, attendees continued to network and collaborate via concurrent breakout sessions. There were so many interesting, relevant sessions that participants found it hard to choose, but the good thing was there were topics of interest for everyone, from marketing for part-time musicians to getting your taxes on track to submitting to national platforms.
The DC Music Summit also showcased several panels. The premiere “Music Industry A-Z” panel featured a discussion led by DMV industry experts, including Alchemical Records’ very own Daniel Warren Hill. See the full list of participants here. Panelists responded to high-level questions such as their thoughts on what makes the DC music industry unique; challenges faced by both artists and industry professionals, including women; and strategies to lend a better platform to the DC music scene so that it competes with the likes of NY and LA. The “Don’t Mute DC” panel explored the perspectives of go-go artists as they continue the work of advancing DC’s hometown genre.
After an intensive day of learning and growing with other creatives, attendees rounded out the conference with an evening of live music and networking. The diverse lineup of performers showcased the vibrancy of the DC music scene, with genres including rap, rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, Latin, pop, folk, hip-hop, and world music. Attendees left the summit pumped and energized, ready to take their music careers to the next level and encouraged by all of the talent around them.
In retrospect, what exactly were the defining features that made the DC Music Summit so impactful? Most importantly, the conference was not about distinguishing the haves and the have-nots. The purpose of the event was to bring people together in support of a common goal. In that sense, participants did not think of themselves as competitors. And maybe producing music goes beyond making money (…although money is good!) To be truly accountable as an artist, your purpose must be grounded in changing society for the better.
So much talent. So much hunger to make a difference in the world. So much potential. What would happen if creatives all leaned completely into their art? What if they pushed fears and doubts aside and channeled their energies into what they love best?
They would become a movement, just like Dior Ashley Brown said. A movement that would not settle with the status quo. A movement that would say just because something is doesn’t mean it should be – and here is an opportunity to turn the system on its head.
In a society laced with so much chaos and divisiveness, the DC Music Summit was a reminder that there is hope. Musicians and other creatives have the antidote, and make no mistake, the DC music industry will continue to elevate its platform despite the challenges it faces – focused, inspired, and unstoppable.
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 more than a decade of experience as a professional ghostwriter, she is a light seeker who understands the power of each individual’s voice to create positive, meaningful change.