By Eric Althoff
If there is any doubt music can bring people together, DMV native Nessa Dove has a story for you. She relates one particular evening busking in the New York subway when a homeless man, whom many on the subway platform felt was dangerous, began to groove to her music. Before long, this man whom people had all but stepped over was enjoying the music together with other bystanders.
“We kept playing ‘Come Together,’ and he completely changed,” Dove said of her new subway fan. “He had so much wisdom, and I realized…we’re all just trying to connect—and music can be that reminder.”
Soon other homeless people were putting their handouts into Dove’s tips bucket. It was a transformative moment for Dove, and she says that one of her main goals in music ever since has been to continue fostering those human connections. It’s also certainly part of why she has said publicly that some of the best teachers are homeless people and individuals who are physically disabled and mentally ill—those whom society all too often regards as the least among us.
“You become desensitized,” she said of being purposely ignorant of those in need. “Then you see their face and you hear their stories. This person actually maybe lost their family and ended up on the street. Then you realize their pain and feel empathy. So it’s important to give those people a story, a platform so we can relate to one another.”
That platform is Dove’s song “Stay Strong,” which rapidly transcended streams to become an online movement of people making videos of themselves grooving to her song, which she released last May from her home studio in Montgomery County.
“I had other songs lined up, but I had to stop those and look at what was going on,” Dove said of a year that, in addition to a global pandemic, has focused greater attention on injustice thanks largely to the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May. “We’re sharing the song, and people are saying, ‘Wow, I relate to this.’”
“Stay Strong,” both the song and the movement, have inspired positivity around the world, which pleases Dove immensely. She has seen TikTok users using the song as background for inspiring videos from people as far away as Lebanon. She has also seen “Stay Strong” played in videos of people facing very challenging circumstances.
“During the pandemic, I’ve had a lot of different people using the song who are fighting terminal illnesses,” she said, the impact of her art on recipients clearly evident in her voice. “People say the song really helped them. They play it as a reminder to stay strong, and that touched me. I hope the song at least comforts and soothes people during the hard times.”
On June 13, Dove hosted a virtual “Stay Strong Series” event in which she performed, as well as invited guest speakers in the mental and physical health fields to discuss those important aspects of day-to-day living.
“Hearing different artists’ stories, I related, and I thought, let me do a series,” where artists and professionals she has met share their own stories, and try to help others in the process. “I feel the speakers were really impactful. And then some of the performers were really dope too,” Dove said.
Dove grew up in the Maryland suburbs of D.C. Early on, she impressed family and friends by dancing to Michael Jackson songs and playing in musical events at school. She counts R&B, pop, and rocking electric guitar sounds among her influences.
That soulful influence of her heroes is imprinted on “Light It Up,” which she wrote while living in New York. The song encourages the listener to live life to the fullest and not have regrets.
“I was thinking of the changing seasons and wanted to live life to the fullest, which has really become a passion of mine,” Dove said. “‘Light It Up’ is a way of expressing that.”
Even before the pandemic, Dove wished to better explore the DMV music scene. She played open mics and attended blues jams around D.C., and was part of a show put on by RAW Artists at the Howard Theatre.
“That was one of the best performances I’ve done to date. It was such a great experience,” Dove says of playing at the historic venue near U Street. “The audience seemed to be really open to what I was playing.”
The lockdown last spring proved a mixed blessing for Dove. She had initially planned on moving back to New York, but as the coronavirus spread, she was able to record more at her in-home studio in Maryland, all the while refining studio technique.
“I have been very locked in to music, which became the Stay Strong movement,” she said of the last 16 months, adding that the lockdown allowed her to dream up the virtual Stay Strong Series.
Dove said she hasn’t found the greater D.C. music scene to be close-minded to artists of color such as herself. Rather, she has played to diverse audiences who have responded to her music rapturously. She believes the local scene is incredibly supportive of up-and-coming artists, and that established performers typically back one another’s work.
However, she was also out on the street during last summer’s protests. But even then, she said she felt unity in those with whom she marched in Montgomery County.
“I know we are in the capital, where all this craziness is happening, but my experience has been good so far,” she said.
In the next few months, as vaccination becomes the norm and music venues tentatively reopen, Dove hopes to release more songs and get back to in-person gigs. She will also continue her work via the Stay Strong movement, both online and in person as circumstances allow, possibly with another festival next year.
“All love is inclusive,” notes Dove. “I’d love to interact with more like-minded people who are about living their best lives, sharing their skills and talent, and trying to be their best selves. Maybe then we can connect in real life, not just virtually.”
To learn more about Nessa Dove and the Stay Strong movement, go to https://www.nessadove.com/.
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