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Photos: Scott Suchman

Kwame Onwuachi Continues to Cook Life Story

Just a few weeks after national media outlets broke the news that Kwame Onwuachi’s memoir Notes from a Young Black Chef would become the basis for an A24-produced film adaptation starring Lakeith Stanfield, I sat down with the chef at Kith/Kin.

We chatted in a private dining room tucked away in a back corner of his award-winning restaurant, located inside The Wharf’s InterContinental Hotel, on an afternoon in late July. He looked completely at ease as one of DC’s most notable photographers, Scott Suchman, snapped pictures of him sitting in an Eames-esque green leather chair. It was one of the few times I’d seen the chef without his prominent Malcom X hat. But the iconic X was still present, freshly tattooed in black on his left wrist, the same color as his painted nails.

If you haven’t heard of Onwuachi yet, perhaps the most accurate one-line description is: the hottest chef in DC. The 29-year-old is a phoenix, rising from the proverbial ashes after his first restaurant Shaw Bijou quickly shuttered in 2016, to become a New York Times best-selling author, Forbes 30-under-30 honoree, and a RAMMY and James Beard Award winner all in the span of about six months.

“It’s kind of like exploring a new facet of what this restaurant industry has to offer,” Onwuachi elaborated, leaning slightly forward. “When you talk about your story, you never think of yourself as interesting. I mean, there are certain people who view themselves as extremely interesting, but for the average person, you don’t know how someone is going to react to your story. To see how [mine] has been embraced by the world, I couldn’t have imagined it.”

Onwuachi’s story has always held the intrigue of diners and viewers alike, from Shaw Bijou menu items reminiscent of dishes from his childhood like fish pies and Butterfingers to his well-received appearances on Top Chef. It made sense to turn his background into a book: the tale of a young man who was in a gang and sold drugs before graduating from the Culinary Institute of America and opening a restaurant in the nation’s capital – all before the age of 30.

The published memoir ends before the story of his successes at Kith/Kin and fast-casual spot Philly Wing Fry reach the pages, but the ongoing narrative has played out in the various 2019 press coverage singing his praises. These accolades have led him to travel the globe – from Mexico to Chicago to Africa – to cook and appear at events and conferences, take calls with Issa Rae, and DM Ava DuVernay. And yet, he’s still perpetually in the kitchen.

“I definitely have days where I feel as if nothing is going right,” Onwuachi said. “Despite all these things happening, I’m still doing something I love. I’m still doing something I believe in. I’m still just cooking. I have this other side of my life now, which is very open, raw [and] vivid, that other people feel very connected to and are inspired by, which is a really cool feeling.”

An Open Book

Onwuachi’s memoir, released this spring, is described as “an intersection of race, fame and food.” The book begins and ends with the chef’s thoughts on his-then most recent project Shaw Bijou: the excitement, jubilation and exhaustion he felt before its opening and the utter disappointment that followed its closing – and the accompanying negative murmurs from the public. However, the chapters in between reveal more than his thoughts on culinary life.

“I don’t think it’s ever easy doing a new thing you’re not familiar with – a new medium. I have been exploring this for awhile, telling my story. But there are certain parts that aren’t glorious, ones you don’t share with people. You tuck it somewhere where you don’t have to talk about it ever again. This book is not for just young chefs. This book is not just for young black chefs. It’s not just for black people. It’s not just for people in the culinary industry. It’s for everyone.”

The writing process forced Onwuachi to divulge details he’d previously hidden. He talked to his family and friends to recreate scenes. He penned detailed accounts of his times as a 10-year-old in Nigeria fetching water and raising livestock, and the days he sold candy to passengers on the subways. Readers connected to these stories. He tells me he gets about five letters per day, often thanking him for being vulnerable. His mother, who ran a catering company while raising him in the Bronx, cried upon first read – and so did he.

“It brought back moments she was trying to forget. My grandmother was finding out things she never knew about me and crying for other reasons. Close family friends that didn’t really know my life story, how I got to where I am – it was eye-opening for them. It was different based on the person. I was crying when I first held the book in my hands. It felt really powerful. There was a weight to it. I didn’t know what the rest of the world would think [of] my story. I’m living it.”

Afro-Caribbean + Cheesesteaks

When Shaw Bijou closed after two short months, Onwuachi took the brunt of the blows. Criticism ranged from the price of the food to his lack of experience. Despite the headlines and hot takes, he said the restaurant worked. If it had more capital to survive the opening stages, he said it would have survived and thrived in DC’s market.

“It was money. That’s why restaurants close. We had plenty of people come to the restaurant. It was just that the investors didn’t have the capital they said they had. They didn’t have enough to get through the tough times, which is the beginning. I didn’t ask the right questions. I was young and excited. I was coming from a line cook position. I was excited to have a new life.”

Ten months later in October 2018, Onwuachi opened Kith/Kin as its executive chef. At first, he attempted to once more use his story as a foundation for his menu. Shortly after, however, he shifted the spotlight. He began to focus on emphasizing a vision built on Afro-Caribbean roots, inspired by his family’s history and an extensive amount of research.

Another impetus for change was his need to grow. When the restaurant was in its infancy, he labored long hours – from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m. – overextending himself and his creativity. He suffered a car accident because of exhaustion. Frankly, it wasn’t working.

“I looked in the mirror. There was too much money being spent on labor costs or things the guests didn’t realize. I had to make it less about me and more about the environment and my team. I was so hands-on, and it wasn’t working for anyone. I wasn’t the best version of myself and my food wasn’t the best version of itself. I needed to change so we could grow and become the restaurant I knew we were capable of becoming. I think trying to take from other models just didn’t work. It was tough, because I had to peel back the layers of my own cooking so that it would make sense.”

The restaurant’s high quality has helped land the chef both James Beard and RAMMY Awards this year, as well as other culinary accolades. And Kith/Kin isn’t the only thriving restaurant under his purview either, as Union Market’s Philly Wing Fry quickly became a favorite for locals. The little eatery specializes in the three words forming its title – cheesesteaks, chicken wings and waffle fries – plus other treats like fried Brussels sprouts. As of this summer, it’s even serving up egg-and-cheese sandwiches for breakfast on the weekends.

“I just thought, ‘Why isn’t there a place where I can get a cheesesteak, chicken and waffle fries in one spot?’ so I was like, ‘I’m going to make it.’  We had aged beef from Shaw Bijou, and we needed to [use it]. I think [these are staples] every American knows, and I thought it was a really good idea.”

Taking A Lap

From creative menus to a movie in the making, most of Onwuachi’s recent ideas have proven to be excellent. But if his book and the Shaw Bijou experiment are any indication, life ebbs and flows. When you’re flying highest is when you’re suddenly grounded. Onwuachi acknowledged some pressure in juggling his numerous projects, but he handles it all with a calmness.

“It keeps me going. I think I have a responsibility because I’m out there now. I have to. I felt it when I did Shaw Bijou. That’s why I didn’t want to close so bad. Being some of the first to do things, it’s tough. It’s a double-edged sword. But at the end of the day, I have to make sure I’m setting a great example for the rest of the people that want to do it so when they see me and they look like me, they know they can attain it.”

That’s how he felt when he saw President Obama walk across the stage during his election win in 2008. Though he’s not planning to walk across that stage anytime soon, you can often see Onwuachi taking a walk of his own at Kith/Kin – clad in his chef coat, bouncing from table to table, checking on his guests.

“People are finally able to celebrate their culture while celebrating a special experience. It’s why I do it. When it gets tough, I can take a lap around the dining room and see a rainbow of faces with food in their hands.”

Catch Onwuachi’s interview with Questlove at the Food & Grooves Festival at Union Market’s Dock5 on October 26 or at Miracle Theatre on November 1 with “The Sporkful Podcast.” Follow him on Twitter @chefkwame and on Instagram @chefkwameonwuachi.

Kith/Kin: 801 Wharf St. SW, DC; www.kithandkindc.com

Philly Wing Fry: 1309 5th St. NE, DC; www.phillywingfry.com

Alysia Lee and Ty Defoe // Photo: Tony Powell

The REACH’s Opening Festival

The inside spaces of the Kennedy Center’s The REACH are spacious and cavernous, like an underground college building with rooms ripe for seminars, classes, performances, films and whatever other kind of programming the Center offers, which is to say almost anything. The outside buildings are equally stunning, standing tall not in an intimidation, but a reassurance.

The facility had yet to open when we walked through the grounds in mid-July, but it was easy to close your eyes and imagine a swath of people congregating in one of the spacious fields for a concert or a movie projected directly on the side of their sloping creations. Soon, there won’t be much left to the imagination as the Center is set to unleash every kind of installation you can think of – big name to small name, hip-hop to opera, dance to painting, sculpture to DJs.

“We’ll achieve a vision in people’s minds,” says Robert van Leer, the Kennedy Center’s senior vice president of artistic planning. “And I mean everyone: artists, staff, visitors, civic leaders. When you open a new building, there’s a process that comes up with that vision, but it’s important to start with what it can be.”

From Saturday, September 7 through Sunday, September 22, the Kennedy Center’s The REACH Opening Festival will feature close to 500 free events inviting people to explore the space, participate in workshops, and see headlining acts such as Robert Glasper, Bootsy Collins, The Second City, Thievery Corporation and so much more.

“It’s a great way to illustrate what The REACH can do,” van Leer continues. “It’s a combination of all of those things and a chance to learn with the artists to see what the future opportunities can be.”

Artists Ty Defoe and Alysia Lee are perfect examples of the diverse range of creative talent participating in the festivities. Both will travel from different East Coast cities – Baltimore and NYC, respectively – to support The REACH and take part in the public’s first invitation to the campus.

“I like the word festival,” Defoe says. “I like the word joy and I like the word connection. I feel like among those words, it reminds me that we’re at a time right now where the arts are a place of healing, celebration and activation. The arts not only change people’s minds, but people’s hearts. I feel like we’re in a time where that is very necessary right now.”

Defoe is an interdisciplinary artist from New York slated to participate in two events: a panel titled “The New Contemporary in Native American Art” and an interactive participatory hoop dance. The latter is only allotted 15 minutes, but despite this expedited runtime, the movement has several different layers all geared toward a unique experience.

“I’ve been working on this since I was 7 years old,” Defoe says. “It gets at a lot of intersections that I like to operate in, which is contemporary indigenous culture, community, spectacle, and utilizing spaces [both] indoors and outdoors. Also, [knowing] this festival will have all these amazing people of culture coming together in that circle, there was no other thing in my mind that came up besides this.”

The dance starts off with a story about finding a way through fighting and warring as a community, but it’s not all spoken. For some, the narrative is better understood through a series of physical steps, hence the hoop dance.

“I’ll weave myself in and out of these hoops to make different shapes – things you’d see in nature like trees, plants, flowers and animals – to pay honor to the equity of all living things,” Defoe continues. “The interactive part breaks down the multigenerational part because as adults, we are sometimes living in our heads and not able to feel. No matter who you are – shape, size, color – you’re standing shoulder to shoulder with your friend or relative.”

While Defoe’s interactive performance welcomes all people in attendance to gather around and dance, Lee’s workshop about protest songs will focus on inspiring middle school children to express themselves in tune. As a Kennedy Center 2019-2020 Citizen Arts Fellow and multifaceted vocalist, Lee is an obvious choice to lead an educational workshop for the opening festival.

“I really want to have something where kids walk away with something they created,” Lee says. “I want collaboration and sharing, and something where there will be high incentive and high reward to move quickly together.”

Lee came up with the activity upon learning that a majority of 60s protest songs were parodies of oldies from the 40s and 50s. The format took form when she thought of using modern pop music to help kids write their own pieces.

“What do we care about and how can we use music as a way to voice our opinions? The accessibility of these protest songs is super cool because you can get kids to take their favorite hits and use them for social change.”

Lee feels confident that the children participating will be up for protesting, whether it be concerns about global warming or requests for more snack machines.

“Kids nowadays are so in tune because of social media,” she says. “They’re so in touch with the world in a way that I wasn’t. Kids really feel very strongly and passionately about things that are beyond them. They feel more connected to the global society.”

The REACH is also slated to feature a number of DC-based artists as part of the festival’s lineup. GIRLAAA Collective Founder Dominique Wells has coordinated a full slate of curation on opening day with a panel of female DJs – including Mane Squeeze, Ayes Cold and Niara Sterling – followed by a performance.

“We want to discuss women in the music industry and how they’re doing more than just following contemporary trends – they’re breaking barriers,” Wells says. “I feel like what they’re doing is important and monumental and necessary.”

The DC native sees The REACH as an opportunity for the Kennedy Center to better serve the underprivileged in the community by introducing them to art by way of free workshops and performances, much like the programming for the festival.

“It’s about what’s happening beyond their main space,” Wells says. “I think The REACH is going to offer a lot of people who otherwise might not come there an opportunity to experience something inclusive and diverse. They have a great team of people who are working really hard, and they’re listening to people.”

From local to national, big to small, contemporary to classical, the Kennedy Center’s The REACH Opening Festival is a multi-dimensional playground for patrons of the arts from any background. Van Leer says there are no plans to make this an annual tentpole event, so you will definitely want to revel in it while you can.

“You see all the cross-pollination that’s occurring,” Lee says of the festival programming. “It’s really inspiring and makes me think about the through-line of creativity and how things can speak. I love that the festival is a place for that. It’s hard to even fathom missing one day of it.”

To peruse the comprehensive list of events at The REACH’s Opening Festival, visit https://cms.kennedy-center.org/festivals/reach. For announcements about upcoming programming at The REACH, go to www.reach.kennedy-center.org.

Marc Bamuthi Joseph// Photo: Tony Powell)

The Vision of The REACH

“Listen man, Q-Tip is one of my heroes.”

I’m going to venture an educated guess that the first image that comes to mind when someone mentions the Kennedy Center isn’t a Haitian-American playwright and spoken-word poet choking back tears as he describes what 90s hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest means to him. And yet, here we are.

I’m sitting next to Marc Bamuthi Joseph, the Kennedy Center’s vice president and artistic director of social impact, in a state-of-the-art, subterranean studio space having a deeply personal conversation about how hip-hop shaped his formative years and how he now gets to work alongside one of his idols for one of the world’s most renowned arts organizations. It is at this exact moment that the driving force behind the Center’s highly anticipated expansion of its campus – The REACH – clicks into place for me.

The three sloping structures opening to the public this month were built upon the pillars of inclusivity, accessibility and interactivity as spaces to facilitate shared artistic experiences for the community. And while the Center’s leadership has invested years of strategic planning and creative thinking behind how to make the spaces as innovative as possible, they ultimately exist as a platform for artists and the community to connect on their own terms.

“We’re inaugurating a way of being in public space,” Joseph says. “People make place. While there’s been an incredible investment in the built capital of these three interconnected pavilions, there has to continue to be investment in the social capital and the social possibility that is made through the creative enterprise.”

Though the Center’s chairman of the board of trustees, David Rubenstein, had a vision for launching The REACH in 2017 to celebrate John F. Kennedy’s 100th birthday, Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter says she believes the space is opening now because it is the right time to unveil it and share it with the world.

“It’s a time in our society where people crave authentic experiences they can share with others,” she says. “There is a thirst for a sense of community and inclusivity, and The REACH gives us a place for those kinds of experiences.”

Rutter likens The REACH to her own analog version of the Internet.

“I don’t believe that the only way to learn about art is through YouTube or a Google search – no matter how extensive – but rather by experiencing it firsthand. There is no question that the desire to have a shared performance experience is really high, and whatever we can do to promote that is really important.”

The spaces have garnered most of their buzz thus far surrounding The REACH’s opening festival from September 7-22 with nearly 500 events, but Rutter assures that the project will only gain forward momentum with nonstop programming from day one. The REACH will operate as both an education center and public incubator, while offering rehearsal and studio spaces where artists can practice, create, collaborate and perform.

Rutter notes she’s quite proud of the artistic programming behind projects like Studio K’s (the other two studios are Studio J and Studio F, a clever acronym for the space’s namesake) transformation into a cross-genre club and destination for locals to hang out and hear jazz or pop music or spoken word. She also credits the education team for planning curriculum for “maker space” Moonshot Studio (named for “Kennedy’s call for America to think big and travel to the moon”) that’s universally relevant and ties back to programming taking place in the Center’s main hall.

The artistic and education teams behind The REACH are integral to driving its mission forward through immersive programming, and Joseph in particular is invaluable to both sides of the house as he’s uniquely equipped to ride the fine line between artist and administrator.

“To have an artist on staff is so reassuring,” Rutter says. “It’s really helpful because it helps our administrators think about their work through that lens as well. Each of our administrators works with artists in a variety of different ways but to have one as a peer, [and as] somebody who is so enormously articulate to provide the connective tissue between ideas and programming, is invaluable.”

The Center’s president gives a great example in Dear Evan Hansen.While the marketing team is interested in sharing the date and time of the next performance with the public, Joseph is focusing his attention on how the Center can communicate that this work debates and explores difficult emotional ideas of what’s happening with young people today. Both are critical pieces of information, but with very different messaging.

“That piece for me is why it’s so important for the Kennedy Center to do this work around mission, which is to hold a mirror up to our society, to talk about the good, bad and ugly in our everyday lives, and to use art to have greater understanding of who we are,” Rutter continues. “And Marc is the kind of guy who has the capacity to do that on a huge range of topics. He [joins] a team who is so proud and excited to have somebody who can help them take great work to the next level.”

Joseph remains humble during our conversation, saying he doesn’t see a delineation between the two roles – they blur together in everything he does.

“I make culture,” he says. “Some of us, we make dances. Some of us, we make plays. Some of us, we make spreadsheets. But I work with others to make culture. I don’t segment or even bifurcate this notion of administrator and artist. Artists are entrepreneurs and administrators. There isn’t so much of a fixed economy for us.”

He notes that he’s a first-generation American who comes from struggle, and “that never leaves.” In many ways, it’s shaped his professional and creative ideology.

“In terms of my artistic practice and in terms of my administrative practice, there’s a commitment to a kind of equity – a kind of inspired, inclusive and expansive community – that I have to adhere to. What makes sense for me is culture: an inspired, collaborative, expansive, inclusive, loving culture. Anything I can do to make that happen, whether it’s making poems or making programs, I’m gonna do.”

Joseph speaks of a culture of invitation being born through The REACH, where he and his colleagues continue to shine light on culture makers of all stripes. He’s aiming to achieve this in the short-term through the Culture Caucus, a group of 35 artist organizations and individuals handpicked by the Center’s leadership because of their contributions to DC’s broad cultural landscape. He describes them as “community-facing artists-in-residence at work and at play” within The REACH’s walls.

Within the next six months, Joseph and his peers will initiate an impact band of programming to include discussion groups where instead of trying to get people to engage culture on the Center’s terms, they’ll be trying to resource artists whose work amplifies what’s happening in the local community.

“I think that the level of access to culture is different than the level of access to the Kennedy Center and I think that the Kennedy Center – and quite frankly, most arts institutions – have to see themselves as organic citizens within the body politic in a different kind of way,” he says. “It’s a reorientation of the institutional psychology. This is not something that’s just going to happen, but certainly something I’m committed to is recognizing the broad ecosystem of culture makers where they are, resourcing programs where they happen and thinking about the same thing on a national scale.”

He breaks it down for me in simpler terms. Joseph isn’t who you go to for discounted tickets to productions at the Kennedy Center. He’s who you tap when you want to amplify the artistic work being done around the city.

“Resource that and attach commitments of documentation or education or pedagogical support like this. We [as an organization] are a node, but we recognize that there are many, many spokes and many, many stars in this constellation.”

Thinking in broader terms across the nation, Joseph says the next iteration of engagement for arts organizations should be thinking about empowerment, the creative imagination and inspiration as a democratic ideal.

“I’ve been brought in [to The REACH] to infuse the institutional psychology and institutional DNA with a different way of thinking about what is sublime in the arts.”

The sense of openness at the Center lends itself to Joseph’s vision for the future, and Rutter has much to do with it. In the past five years, she’s placed giving DC a seat at the table among more traditional arts & culture hubs like New York and L.A. at the top of her list. Rutter has watched the city experience tangible changes on this front, and although she won’t give herself the credit she most certainly deserves, she along with the leaders of other influential arts institutions has helped break the stereotype of DC as a straight-laced government town. Together, DC’s arts leadership is offering a wave of cultural experiences that are both approachable and accessible to our city’s diverse community.

“I really believe that the DNA of the city has changed in a lot of different ways and that which was already of interest to the people of the city has now been able to be fully embraced,” she says. “If we can demonstrate that really exciting, interesting stuff is happening in Washington, DC and that we are bringing the country together through the arts, then we can change how people think about the importance of arts in our day-to-day life. That’s why it’s really important that as the national cultural center, we invite everybody to be here – from our elected officials to the people who can’t afford to buy tickets to the people who are avid arts lovers.”

While Rutter and Joseph agree that change is gradual, they’re both committed to the baby steps we as a city need to take. In the short-term, they’re both looking forward to this month’s opening festival and the reverberations of the its creative energy. Joseph says the hip-hop block party with headliners De La Soul on September 14 will be “off the chain” but he’s equally amped up about former Wailer (of Bob Marley and The Wailers) Junior Marvin’s DC Lovers Rock on September 22.

“I’m excited about that because love is a thing. Love is not a four-letter word. I want to center love in what it is that we do and how it is that we identify and so doing a reggae-driven ode to love at the close of summer on the river – the romantic in me just loves that.”

Rutter, on the other hand, chooses not to pinpoint just one or two events. Instead, she says she’s most excited about the juxtaposition of different kinds of activities happening simultaneously – a jazz opera going on at the same time as a dance program or taking in a Lichtenstein sculpture and then wandering over to the river pavilion and playing on the brand-new Sing for Hope Piano.

At the end of the day, her goal both for the festival and The REACH as a whole is to invite all of the other cultural organizations in our community and from around the world to share and experience the art being created and explored at the Center’s many spaces. She’s especially looking forward to seeing artists collaborate in-studio and appreciate each other’s work through The REACH’s open spaces.

“I really believe that art and artists hold a mirror up to who we are as a society and if we [act as a] facilitator, we can see into the process and understand why and how that story is being told. That’s the magic that we can do through places like this. We can’t force those new relationships, but we’re excited about creating a space where that can happen.”

Learn more about everything Deborah Rutter, Marc Bamuthi Joseph and the rest of their creative, committed colleagues have in store at The REACH by visiting www.reach.kennedy-center.org.

The REACH at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.reach.kennedy-center.org

No Kings Collective’s Brandon Hill and Peter Chang

No Kings Collective Is Here To Play Forever

“A mural’s not going to stop anybody from getting murdered. But is it less likely for bad things to happen on a super visible corner? Probably.”

I’m sitting across from Brandon Hill and Peter Chang when Hill tells me with full earnestness that it’s easy for an artist to tell the narrow story of, “We painted a mural, so things are better now.” But it’s the ability to shift a community’s perception by making a street corner feel safer that truly makes an impact.

We’re sharing a high-top overlooking an eerily empty Nationals Park on a recent Saturday morning, just a stone’s throw from the pair’s latest mural capturing the Americana spirit of DC baseball. When I arrive, the artists are putting some final touches on their new work, and it’s immediately apparent to me that the founders of creative production brand No Kings Collective embrace the hustle.

I don’t mean this in a buzzwordy kind of way. They’re not “creatives” or “tastemakers” that press the flesh at events and slap their name onto a project for brand recognition. They haul gallons of paint, set up ladders, break down scaffolding, brave the elements. They paint for a living.

But that isn’t to say they don’t use their brand for good. They’re both adamant about supporting the city’s art scene, especially in neighborhoods that benefit directly from their work.

“We’re all about bringing accessibility for arts and culture to the DC community,” Chang says.

He brings a fierceness and intensity to the conversation, one that commands respect, as he and Hill open up about some of the misconceptions of how No Kings came about and what they actually do.

“I’ll take this chance right now to set that straight. We’ve done a mural for Turner Elementary in Southeast. We have multiple projects in Ward 7 and Ward 8. We work with so many different nonprofits in the city. We’re all about not taxing the artists, not taxing the people. Almost all of our events have been 100 percent free.”

The artists say community projects like Turner Elementary are no-brainers, and while they are working artists relying on paychecks from commissioned pieces, they go above and beyond on a regular basis to give back to the city’s many neighborhoods – especially those that are struggling.

“I think artwork in public spaces is the bee’s knees,” Hill says after letting me know that he’s about to get super meta for a second. “I just think that it’s the bee’s knees to be able to get paid for something that benefits the public.”

A SCRAPPY START

No Kings is a familiar name in the District, attached to a myriad of projects and pop-ups. But like so many of us that play in creative spaces, what they actually do sometimes gets lost in the shuffle of their hip factor. 

“It’s interesting to hear how we’re perceived because I know what the story is, and it’s a lot more scrappy than it might seem,” Hill says.

The pair banter like an old married couple, ribbing each other mercilessly and bouncing ideas around weighty topics off one another in the same breath. Their friendship goes back 14 years to senior year of college; Hill hails from Baltimore originally, but has called DC home for the last decade, and Chang grew up in Silver Spring.

Chang says as a brand, No Kings stretches back to 2009 but became a business in 2013.

“A lot of people don’t understand a lot of the things we’ve done even before No Kings was a brand,” he says. “They think we’re just this thing that popped up out of nowhere.”

I ask the guys for clarity: No Kings is a group of artists that does large-scale public fine arts projects and gets people really excited about art content and art happenings. They use the term creative agency(ish) to demonstrate they’ve got the resources to take on projects much broader in scope than what a typical artist or art group could tackle.

When it comes to division of labor, Chang gives Hill full credit as creative director for the past year. And Hill says Chang’s ball game is creative direction in the agency(ish) space, “where murals or public artwork can be merged with social happenings or activations and require real strategic planning.”  They split administrative work, business development and other unsexy parts of the daily grind evenly; they both have zero interest in taking all the credit or making it about themselves.

“We just do what we have to do when we have to do it to get things done,” Chang says matter-of-factly. “Everything just falls under the No Kings wheelhouse, so anything we produce, we just tell people we [are doing it].”

Their refreshing lack of pretention extends to their team of five part-time artists who support projects as needed. They’re not looking for the biggest names in the local art world. They need problem solvers who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty.

“Just because someone’s a really, really talented artist doesn’t mean they’d be a good worker to paint murals because you have to problem-solve a lot of practical issues, and those issues do not exist in a controlled studio,” Hill says. “Sometimes you’re just fighting the weather or you’re coming in at night to do your projection work. You’re always defeating something and none of that can aesthetically be shown. People see flowers. You need a mixed bag of art and contractor: someone who can think with both of those brains.”

GOOD ART FIRST

It’s been a busy year for No Kings, with no plans to slow down anytime soon. The agency(ish) turns 10 this year, and Chang says they’re going big. Next up is their block party on June 29 to close out the Apple Carnegie Library’s StoryMakers Festival, and the launch of a No Kings-themed corned beef and kimchi sandwich at old-school Brentwood deli MGM Roast Beef on July 13.

Hill says they’re also currently working on 15 walls throughout the city, and while the Nats mural had its big unveiling in mid-May, he still plans to make minor changes throughout the summer to ensure it’s fan-proof. He wears the hat of a sentimentalist and a pragmatist simultaneously, walking me through the symbolism of this homage to America’s favorite pastime while also being real about the high-traffic location of the artwork.

“A really good piece of art can age, so that was a challenge to think through. How can we execute these more pressing goals – to reflect the organization and baseball as a whole and to make it as Nats-y as possible – but then also make sure it’s something that can age well both from an aesthetic and technical perspective? There’s going to be beer and popcorn and children and people leaning on the wall. How do you keep this thing looking good?”

Hill takes the collaboration seriously, especially because the team approached No Kings directly and had a vision in mind for what they wanted the piece to represent. He likens murals to getting a tattoo, where you navigate any gray area with your tattoo artist before deciding what that rose or anchor is going to look like on your body. But with the Nats, he and Chang had to encapsulate the feeling of newness in the ballpark while also reflecting the nostalgia and family values tied to the sport.

“Baseball is a really unique thing because it goes back to the 1850s, but it’s [also] a completely modern thing. Everything in this ballpark is modern – alien grass, alien dirt, Under Armour – there’s technology in this park, right? But we still think about it with a nostalgic lens. That’s a constant challenge [with] anything that’s OG: trying to always be relevant, [and] trying to explain its newness and oldness at the same time.”

Hill and Chang had another first this spring in terms of creative direction for a commissioned project. Amtrak contacted them to help visually inform its annual Sustainability Report, taking form in a mural behind social sports company DC Fray’s Brentwood office [full disclosure: No Kings shares office space with DC Fray, which owns On Tap Magazine]. Hill collaborated with Amtrak’s creative team to tell a visual story about what Amtrak does through the piece, including the incorporation of lesser-used colors in the railroad service’s color palette.

Now, he’s working with Amtrak’s head designer in the sustainability department to bring the report to life by the end of this summer, with photos of rail workers and other Amtrak employees in front of the mural on hand. Hill is all about the process: he’s drawn to projects that give him the opportunity to inform the public, and possibly shift their perception of a piece or area. 

“I love the ability to be able to defend work and tell a story. If you were already familiar with a piece, that’s the best kind of art because you get to learn new things about a thing you thought you were already familiar with.”

I’m not the first reporter to ask the artists how they feel about the potential impermanence of some of their work, but they tell me it’s something they take into consideration often. Hill says in a weird way, painting a building that might be demolished soon is actually desirable because they can take greater risks with the content and attract more eyeballs.

“If it’s a really awesome piece and it’s got a shelf life, people are going to rush and make sure to catch it before that shelf life’s over.”

I ask another common question because I find it truly fascinating: how do they feel about their work being so Instaworthy? Hill doesn’t view the selfie as a unique issue for art but says it’s strange nevertheless to have an entire group of people who have nothing to do with fine art distributing your work.

“When I’m on the computer designing, I am not inserting a little character of a person to figure how good they will look,” he says.

Still, he says it’s a net win for artists if their work is included in a vanity shot on someone’s Instagram, and someone in another city can easily follow the photo credit back to the artist’s website and consume their content. Chang cuts to the chase with a more direct answer.

“A lot of our clients will say, ‘We want it to be Instagrammable.’ And we’re just like, ‘Why don’t we make good art first? And if it’s good, then people can decide [if they want to post it to Insta].’”

BREAD + BUTTER

Nearly 90 percent of No Kings’ current output is commissioned work pitched to Hill and Chang, but they remain selective about what projects they take on. The real bread and butter, they tell me, is the opportunity to take projects they’ve been asked to approach in a traditional way to the next level. Sometimes this happens by chance, and other times because they’re charged up about the subject matter and know they can take it up a notch in record time.

The former “Work It, Gurl” mural on 14th Street is their self-described bread-and-butter case study. The piece (originally meant to be a 20 x 20-foot mural on a building wall) was commissioned by the Whitman-Walker Clinic at Elizabeth Taylor Medical Center to bring visibility to their work in the LGBTQ+ community.

When the guys learned about the clinic’s efforts, they refused payment, got a grant from the DC Office of Planning and reached out to their sponsors for support. No Kings painted the entire building and threw 14 events in two months.

“We just ballooned that,” Hill says. “We had this public art thing, but we went beyond the aesthetic to try and figure out: How can it be used? Who can we help? But we don’t know everything so it’s kind of like if you build it, they will come, right? We knew people would interact with it. But we didn’t know how, so let’s execute the aesthetic and then let’s just see what else can happen.”

The inspiration for these projects seems to be mostly altruistic in nature, but I see a bit of a competitive flicker in their eyes – not competitive with other artists in the market, but with themselves to face the challenge of making something bigger than anyone originally though it could be.

“That’s why our goal for every event that we do, every mural we put out, every project and collaboration that we do, [is to] push the bar further,” Chang says.

A more recent example, and undeniably their most successful art event yet, was 14th Street’s UMBRELLA in April. The opportunity to plan the three-day pop-up in a mixed-use development fell into their laps; they were approached about using the space before it was torn down and decided to put something together with people they respect who are doing cool things in the District.

“Afterwards, our project manager was like, ‘Wow, I think that was the most successful art fair that DC’s ever done,’” Chang says. “And Brandon and I were like, ‘We threw an art fair?’ And then we looked back at it and we were like, ‘Yeah, it was an art fair.’”

The guys are particularly proud of this effort, as they should be – the event was planned in a whirlwind month-and-a-half and brought in at least $100,000 for participating artists.

“We made zero dollars on UMBRELLA,” Chang continues. “We didn’t take a commission. That money directly impacted those artists.”

They also speak in earnest about the crowd that UMBRELLA – and all No Kings events – brought out. Chang says it’s super diverse, which feels uncommon in what they describe as a segmented city that still self-segregates itself along money lines.

“When you go to our events, it’s all ages, all races, all different demographics. I think that’s the biggest thing we’ve been proud of is to create excitement for the arts for everyone.”

REAL RECOGNIZE REAL

I’m admittedly surprised when Chang and Hill get real with me about how they’ve had to fight to carve out a space for themselves as working artists in DC’s creative scene. They recall countless galleries and “creatives” who wouldn’t give them the time of day a decade ago; and now, some of those same folks are reaching out to collaborate with No Kings. In fact, Hill says their name is reflective of their struggle to get into the “polished art scene” in their early days.

“It strikes a nerve because we’ve been busting our asses for 10 years and no one gave us the time of day or recognition,” Chang says. “Now [when] we get a little bit of it, people come out of the woodwork just hating.”

Hill keeps it light, inviting the haters to come out and work one of his days.

“Be my guest,” he says, chuckling.

Even still, he says the memory of No Kings’ evolution is long, deep and littered with lack of acceptance from DC’s art scene.

“[The haters] are still just not getting that a smaller city can make a bigger footprint by working together and not being divisive. If someone is going to say ‘No,’ I already can’t work with you. So we’re just going to do our own content and work with people that want to work.”

At the end of the day, the guys remain unphased because they knows the proof is in the pudding.

“When it comes down to the actual creatives in the city who are doing stuff, it’s just real recognize real,” Chang says. “I know who is actually putting in the work and they command respect, as we command respect from other people in our industry. The more you can open people’s eyes up about what’s going on in the city, and what artists are doing and what real creatives are doing, then the people who have just been masquerading really can’t get away with it anymore. I think it’s slowly happening.”

But Chang and Hill are still playing the game, because they are in DC for the long haul and they’re not about burning bridges – as tempting as it may be.

“I mean look, this ain’t 8 Mile,” Hill says. “I’m not going to drop a mic after the rap battle and be like, ‘F–k you all,’ you know? It’s a small town. You’ve still got to work with these people. It’s not personal, right?”

Resiliency seems to be the secret sauce for No Kings; there’s a lot to be said for maintaining a thick skin and positive attitude when you have to play in the same sandbox with artists determined to compete for the same resources instead of banding together to create and promote interesting content.

“They view us as this new guard or whatever, but me and Brandon have been here 14 years,” Chang says.

“On a lift working,” Hill chimes in, before Chang tells it like it is yet again.

“We’ve seen trends come and go, but we’re here to play forever.”

Follow No Kings Collective on Instagram @nokingsdc. Learn about their projects at www.nokingscollective.com.

Photos: Lauren Melanie Brown

District of Den-Mate: Indelible Force Jules Hale Embraces DC Music Scene

Den-Mate began roughly five years ago as a literal bedroom pop project. Frontwoman Jules Hale’s music might not be in the bedroom pop genre, but she did use music to express herself by self-releasing early recordings via sites like Tumblr and SoundCloud while hanging out at home.

Through the power of the World Wide Web, she caught the attention of DC’s homegrown Babe City Records and the Virginia native struck up a fierce friendship with the people behind the label before meeting any of them in person.

Two-thirds of Den-Mate’s current lineup – Jon Weiss, Peter Lillis and the singer/songwriter herself – now run the independent record label, with Jonah Welt and Rick Irby rounding out the five-person band.

The electro-meets-dream-pop band has been a stronghold in the DC scene for several years now, playing a host of the best venues, opening for national acts and headlining cathartic, transformative shows. This year marked a new chapter for Hale, one she says was several years in the making. Babe City released Den-Mate’s first album, Loceke, an evocative and lush record that’s as personal as it is relatable. And since the 24-year-old artist now has a hand in running the label, she has nothing but forward momentum as an indelible force in the DC creative scene.

“As the process of Loceke happened, which took about four years to complete, I became best friends with the scene,” she explains to On Tap over a cup of La Colombe coffee in Blagden Alley. “I was just thinking, ‘I have to be a part of this. I love this.’ They welcomed me with open arms.”

DC has been Hale’s safe haven to express herself through music for awhile, but the release of Loceke found her sharing herself and collaborating with others at a greater intensity.

“At first when I expressed the process, there were parts of me that felt hesitant,” she tells us earnestly of sharing her music and by proxy, her personal experiences with others. “But if I don’t say it, then I’m not being honest about where my music is coming from. If I’m sacrificing myself and saying personal things, maybe it will inspire someone who’s not doing so well. They can be like, ‘Hey, this person went through this shit, they didn’t think they were going to get out, but they did.’ I hope that me doing that is going to eventually possibly help someone else.”

Hale’s passion for music as a whole is evident as our conversation continues.

“Music is super mystical – the way it’s able to control people, change people’s perceptions, change how you feel with no actual action. It’s magic.”

She’s one of those artists who makes music because music has had a profound effect on her life, a kind of intensity that lays the framework for everything she does – her music, discovering other local bands through Babe City and even her live performances.

“Performing is my favorite thing, aside from creating. I want to play the most energetic songs. I want to play the most dancy songs. I want to play songs that are chill but that I can translate into being energetic.”

One of Den-Mate’s biggest strengths is the band’s ability to take what’s on record to an otherworldly and raucous live performance.

“There are a few different dimensions of Den-Mate and I think that if people like the music, they should go to the show because you’re going to get a whole other sense of it. Sometimes people listen to a song and think, ‘Oh this is super chill! I’m going to put this on my bedtime playlist.’ And then they get to the show and they’re like, ‘Holy shit, who is this person?’”

Every aspect of Den-Mate is a well-thought-out form of creative expression. Imagery and visuals play an important part too, as Hale tells us her sights are set on eventually creating a visual album to further explore those outlets. But for now, Hale and her bandmates are gearing up for a tour to support Loceke this month. Hale says she’s lucky to be surrounded by and contributing to the strength of the creative world in the District, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I feel like sometimes the odds are stacked against us in DC, but we’re able to use that to our advantage. People don’t think a lot of things are happening here, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. DC is flourishing with artistic creatives and I think that’s what sets us apart. In DC, people think of the city as being political or monotone, but some of my favorite artists are right here. I think that’s our secret weapon. It’s so hidden.”

What’s not hidden, though, is that Hale’s future is filled with opportunity to shine light on her talent and those of her peers in the District. The release of Loceke and tour dates across the country will surely bring with it more fans and growth beyond what Hale has already accomplished. No matter where that talent takes her, DC will continue to welcome the artist back home with open arms just as before.

Den-Mate will embark on a tour beginning with a stop at Baltimore’s Metro Gallery on Wednesday, November 7. Doors are at 9 p.m. and tickets are $10. Check the band’s social media for updates on local shows. For more on Jules Hale and Den-Mate, follow @imdenmate on Instagram and Twitter. For more on Babe City Records, visit www.babecityrecords.com.

Metro Gallery: 1700 N. Charles St. Baltimore, MD; 410-244-0899; www.themetrogallery.net

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