The doors to DIY venues in the city are closed and the art is off the walls. There are no burlesque parties to belly dance at, and sniffing out your next date from pheromones is out of the question. The social and cultural happenings that put local event company Pakke Social on the map can’t take place at local spots like AdMo’s Cheshire in the age of pandemic. So Pakke’s creators, who have hired and showcased more than 150 diverse artistic and musical talents from the DMV since the company’s launch in late 2018, have turned to a new way to continue supporting the local creative industry: a virtual variety show.
The Birth of Baby Bear
At the end of February, Pakke geared up to put on a live event featuring a treasure trove of performers. The event, Masala Magic, was an international variety show including Egyptian belly dance, traditional folk dance and drag burlesque, all fundraising for voting rights. When the pandemic hit, the Magic was cancelled. And it wouldn’t be the only event.
Pakke co-founder Emmett Ferra and events curation partner Dave Chandrasekaran knew they’d have to change their model in order to keep elevating artists and providing outlets for communal cultural experiences. So, they connected with creative partners from past collaborations and recruited new talent to devise an event series that aligned with their mission to bring unique and creative storytelling to as wide an audience as possible and could be experienced at home.
The result is Baby Bear, a filmed variety show-style lineup of acts available for streaming on YouTube and the Pakke website. The pilot episode aired at the end of May, including a comedian, belly dancer and interviews. Performance artist Maps Glover was featured as a kind of emcee, ushering the audience through a futuristic flashback of the “pandemic times.” But just as Pakke’s virtual stage was set, George Floyd’s murder at the hand of Minneapolis police sparked a different kind of urgency in the team’s mission.
“The protests were happening literally the day after we launched, so we turned our attention over to what’s happening around the country,” Ferra says. “For audience members watching this next episode, it’s primarily geared toward Black Lives Matter and focusing on Black artists and Black businesses.”
Baby Bear Episode II was released July 27, featuring an all-Black cast, including music by Veronica Faison, spoken word by TiKa Wallace, a digital short film by Glover and a hip-hop film by MartyHeemCherry. All of the artists were paid for their performances.
“We’re focusing on people of color for these opportunities, but also folks whose gigs might have been a large share of their income coming in, and whose economic security was hurt [by the pandemic]… finding ways to pay artists who really need that and to support that development,” Chandrasekaran says.
Tickets to view the online variety show are free, but audience members who are able are encouraged to donate to Pakke’s fundraiser for Black Swan Academy, which empowers youth of color through intensive training in civic engagement, community organizing, and advocacy for racial and economic justice in D.C.
Elevating Emerging Artists
Among the artists who will be featured in future episodes of Baby Bear is Brooklyn the Kid, a D.C.-based hip-hop producer who grew up under the influence of Dr. Dre, Eminem, Queen Latifah and Lil’ Kim. Brooklyn credits Pakke’s Chandrasekaran as being the first person to offer her a paid gig.
Born in L.A. and raised in Northern Virginia, Brooklyn first started writing poetry around age 10. At the same time, several of her friends began freestyling, and so creating music was a natural part of her evolution. People would ask her to freestyle, and she would.
“It was fun. I never thought anything of it,” she says. “I mean, I always wanted to make music, but you know certain things hold you back. I’m a woman. I’m Hispanic. I’m not Nicki Minaj. You look at your obstacles, not at what you do have.”
Brooklyn eventually met a producer who she worked with for several years, making music and performing where she could, but had a hard time building confidence to market herself in an industry where female MCs weren’t valued. Then one day, she called it quits. It was her younger brother, NoLa, now also a producer and Brooklyn’s co-creator, who encouraged her to keep going.
Tracks like her recent single “Sporadic (feat. NoLa)” speak to the fortitude it takes to succeed in the music industry, let alone the world, today, which Brooklyn says she’d never be able to do without his support. Others, like “At Ease (feat. Rip Roxx),” leave space for symphonic elements – including brass and string underlays that drive the listener into an easy meditation – to do more of the speaking.
“I don’t feel that lyrics have to be there the whole time,” Brooklyn says. “I feel that there’s a beauty in just instrumental [music], and letting it play and letting it have room. Lyrics can clutter the space.”
Brooklyn’s beats took off, and pre-Covid she was touring and playing gigs in cities around the country. After this Covid-induced hiatus, she’s back at it and working on a new project. Chandrasekaran says Brooklyn is exactly the kind of artist he hopes the Pakke can continue to support.
“This is a platform not just to get art out there, but to support artists who aren’t traditionally supported and featured. And so that obviously means artists of color, as well as LGBTQ artists, women artists and other folks who just aren’t always getting the same opportunities to be highlighted or to get paid for performances.”
Comedian and filmmaker Jonathan Chase has also added a more overt educational element to complement Pakke’s cultural offerings. He recently stepped up to the plate to help produce Baby Bear and work with artists like Brooklyn the Kid on recording videos from their home studios. Some of the talent and creative community members Chase worked with wanted to use the platform to speak out more directly about current events unfolding in America.
“In light of everything that was going on, people wanted to amplify the voices of artists from Black and brown communities,” Chase says.
Partnerships with several creatives developed into a series of informational, educational videos on social justice topics. The first, released last month, was on the history of the American police system, hosted by Pakke collaborator Jamaal Dorsey.
“The idea was to first break it down and present just straight facts, because people can’t argue with facts, and then switch to a more subjective, opinion-based anecdote from [Dorsey],” Chase says.
The video, which they’d considered a one-off at the time, received an immediate, wide response, prompting Chase and the team to take advantage of its momentum.
They realized that there was a need for this type of information presented in a digestible, honest format. His goal for turning the initial video into a series was to offer people a resource to understand complex issues many are just waking up to, and to help them find ways to talk about those issues with others. Forthcoming scripted shorts will feature topics like education, white feminism and the war on drugs – what we’ve learned as a society about these issues and how we’ve learned it.
“At the end of it, we just turn the camera on and let the hosts talk from the heart, and that has been some of the most raw filmmaking I’ve ever done,” Chase says.
He recently filmed a video with a woman working in education in the District who discussed the American education system’s history of whitewashing narratives.
“I think as an educator, she realized not only her culpability, but also just her own ignorance in it. I think she sat with that for a while, and she started crying on camera. That’s the power of storytelling. My whole job is to get people to see the world a little differently than they did when they came into the room. [We] have a responsibility to share these stories and amplify voices of people who haven’t been heard before. Right now more than ever, people are listening. If you can get people to listen, you can get people to change their mind.”
Learn more about Pakke at www.pakkesocial.com and follow them on Instagram @discoverpakke for updates on Baby Bear and other programming. Find Brooklyn, Chase and Ferra on Instagram @thatkidbrooklyn, @jonathanchase_ and @emmettaferra, respectively.
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