On a recent Saturday after feeling deeply stressed, I decided to drive downtown to jog around the Mall. It may be a little cliché – like I’m a political appointee going on a jog with Martin Sheen while wearing a grey Georgetown University T-shirt – but I did it anyway. It pains me to say that as I sat on a wooden bench on the Mall, I was reminded of my love for my hometown. I grew up outside of Washington, D.C. in Silver Spring, Md. Before newly arrived Washingtonians start swinging on my regional status, please note that I’m a child and grandchild of a D.C. native. My grandfather ran an upholstery shop on H Street from 1960 to 2008, which means he survived the ‘68 riots. My mother is a retired D.C. public school teacher, my uncle was principal of Cardozo High School in Columbia Heights – I can go on.
So, what’s at the heart of D.C.’s cultural scene? That’s a question I feel that people who move here are more concerned with. They want to believe in their decision to make this town their home. That’s cool, I get it. But to be real, D.C. was cool before many of these folks got here. Just like political administrations, cultural trends have come and gone. Yet some of us are still here. When asked to profile individuals in D.C. who are closely snuggled with amazing energy in the city, I consult the natives. I mean you non-natives no disrespect. You’re just going to have to wait a little bit before you hold the mic on this one.
It is with great pleasure that I introduce you to Bisagna Suh. I first met her when I was her advisor at American University for the organization she dictated, the Student Union Board. Raised mostly in Laurel, Md., I quickly noticed her insight into the D.C. music scene. I encouraged her to ignore all of the nonsense that exists within a cultural scene and focus on the positives like, “What about D.C. culture fills her with the most joy?”
“Everyone here is hungry,” Suh says. “You’ll meet so many people who sing, model, take photos, make films – all while balancing a day job. Artists are doing everything they can to be seen and get some attention.”
She’s right, but not all artists have that level of discipline, or the temperament to do so.
“While that hunger would probably translate to competition somewhere else – here it has resulted in community.”
Suh is now the assistant manager of artist and community relations at the Kennedy Center and one of the co-founders of 4421 Productions.
Remaining in the Kennedy Center family, the next individual on my list is my greatest find of 2019. We met when I was artistic director for The REACH’s opening day parade. Diana Ezerins, the Kennedy Center’s director of public programs for social impact programming, was forced to basically be my sherpa as I tried climbing Everest to make this parade something. She was warm, calming and so damn creative. One of her roles includes booking Millennium Stage and curating much of what is going on at The REACH. Considering the Center’s prominence as a national entity, I asked why she felt compelled to showcase what’s in our backyard.
“It matters a lot to me that the Kennedy Center represents and supports artists based in the D.C. [area],” Ezerins reinforces. “That means those who grew up here, the transients flowing in and the international community. That which is local is inherently national because we are in the city where it happens. It’s critical to me that the art and artists on our stage reflect and respond to that which is happening nationally.”
Last but not least, please meet Joe Lapan. He’s the co-owner of Songbyrd Music House and Record Cafe on 18th Street in Adams Morgan, a venue that has shoved its way into relevancy. They cultivate regional talent. I don’t care if it’s an experimental bluegrass band or a rapper from Southeast who sounds surprisingly identical to Ghostface – they all have a home in their venue. Songbyrd aims to be eclectic, diverse and fair, and I asked Lapan his philosophy on this.
“You are right that we set out with an intent to be diverse and eclectic,” Lapan says. “Most people we know that love music don’t just listen to one type or one genre. As genre boundaries continue to blur, consumers are open to many different types of music as long as it’s interesting and good.”
This different era of musical acceptance is what’s unique and you can see it in this town.
“We’ve always wanted to be a home for those people and a place of music discovery in D.C.,” Lapan adds. “If you love music, you’ve got a home at Songbyrd.”
Follow these placemakers on Instagram: Bisagna Suh
@bisagna_ or @4421productions, Joe Lapan @dcdunsun or
@songbyrddc, and Diana Ezerins @dianaez or @kennedycenter.