In the late 90’s I was but a babe on U Street. Roaming the northwest quadrant of DC thinking that I was a part of a Renaissance of arts and culture. To a certain degree I was, however, the proven renaissance was not what I originally expected. U Street underwent change for sure, so much so that it changed myself and my peers right out of the neighborhood.
But oh how nice it was then? We worked in unison. Every night of the week was a different spot. From Mango’s (now Jin) to Kafa House (now some Italian market)… Bar Nun (now Pure) and the meeting place State of the Union (not sure what is coming next). There was the weekend flea market that took over the parking lot next to Republic Gardens night club (now The Ellington Condos) and movers and shakers, shops and craftsmen that sold everything from shoes to semi-precious stones and metals.
In the beginning, I was an observer. A fly on the wall documenting the “scene” through the photographic lens as it unfolded before my eyes. Independently published works from W. Ellington Felton and Raquel Brown (which I still have), poetry sets, Groove Gumbo, Sam the Man Burns, websites like Divine Cipher and our northern neighbors OkayPlayer. Folks bearing their expression on their sleeve and a mixture of art and culture that was attractive to many far and wide.
It was around 1999 when I met a painter who was prolific from the start. Work covered the spaces that he occupied and then some. So many pieces! He gave me his card. One day after meeting him I saw one of the pieces on a tee-shirt. I was like that’s whats up. He is really hustling. So I hit him.
“Yo, I just saw your tee-shirt!” I say ecstatically on the line.
“Kim, what are you talking about?” he replied. (or something to that effect. It was a long time ago.)
He then told me how that night we met the dudes who were helping him with transporting his stuff, marketing, shows, etc. pretty much held his work hostage and were now making money off of his work by creating these tee-shirts. I was outraged for him and me both. It compelled me to helping artists on the business side of things while they maintained their art. I put my best foot forward…
‘You needed a flyer? I got you!’
‘You needed a bio? Word, I got you!’
‘You need a press release… hang on, how is that done? Ok I got you!’
But I realize, I have always been doing that work. I pride myself on being a trustworthy supporter of the arts and of artists by putting that sweat equity in so artists don’t wind up with the short end of the stick. It didn’t have a name to me then nor did it lend itself to a livelihood. But over the years, I have been a worker bee in servitude to what I think are just causes in the arts.
There have been some misfires and certainly some disappointing ventures but consistency, for me, remains. Dear artist, “I got you”, on the business end. Publications, brochures, marketing, social media, press releases, PACKAGING… I know that all an artist really wants to do is create. That drive exists within me too. Worrying about positioning, branding and audience is not at the forefront of their mind. For me I get excited to see an artist get the recognition that I think is highly deserved.
Matt 25:14-30 talks about the Parable of the Talents. I know and live to use those gifts that God has given me for the purpose of “my community”. That is my art. While I have been blessed with many talents I know that “to whom much is given, much is required.” I use my talent to create within and culturally preserve my community and further highlight the arts. Thanks to that Masters degree from SCAD I have something to call it now.
Typically, we continue on a path that really doesn’t allow us to stop and think about the threads we have woven, we just continue to weave. But when you take some time to think things over… You see the work you have done, the patterns, the shifts, the near disasters and the overall good that has come from the work.
As for the ’90s and my old stomping grounds, I blame it on youth. The saying is “youth is wasted on the young” right? I get it. The point is “if I knew then…” I would have done some things differently. U Street would have been a very different place then and now.