Kokayi: D.C. Vocalist, Underdog, Connector of Dots
“D.C. music is all about syncopation. It’s in the pocket. It’s about making something out of nothing,” says Kokayi, a world-wandering but D.C.-anchored artist.
He is partly referencing the features of D.C.’s homegrown go-go music: the characteristic prominence of percussion and the “pocket,” the distinctive rhythmic break that puts musicians and audience members into a deep groove together. But he’s getting at something else as well: D.C.’s sounds and scenes are forged from creative conversations among artists who draw from diverse sources of inspiration and experience, as well as from the independence and resourcefulness of doing it oneself.
A GRAMMY-nominated artist, improvisational vocalist, and consummate collaborator, Kokayi is a trustee of the D.C. Chapter of the Recording Academy and has been featured on dozens of recordings. On June 29, 2019, Kokayi performed at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival’s evening concert The Fierce Urgency of Now, a few months before the release of his album HUBRI$. Charlie Weber and Sojin Kim asked him to share a few thoughts on his music.
What are some things unique to the experience of being a musician in D.C.?
We are unique in that there is no recording industry here. So to create in this environment, wherein you have to export your assets, forces you to approach the industry differently.
Growing up in D.C., you learn how to create—from our indigenous art form go-go, our being one of the foundations for punk rock and the DIY music business, our deep musical history in jazz and R&B, and the fact that we are familiar with live instrumentation. You take pride in being a part of this fabric—being the underdog, understanding that crowds will boo you. All of these things are the crucible that forge a great musician.
Can you tell us about your song “Only”?
“Only” is a song about being the life of the party and lonely at the same time. I like to deal with issues of mental health in my music as I’ve dealt with depression throughout my life. I’ve said it before: I like to write happy-sounding sad songs.
You describe yourself as a connector of dots. What does this look like in your approach to making music and art?
This music is born out of community and born out of neighborhood. My own experience—that’s the only thing I feel I can actually give a hundred percent and portray as my own; all the pain and hurt and joy and laughter that I’ve experienced in my life. The fact that I’ve been able to travel to different countries, pick up on different cultures, and still bring my own culture to those spaces, and bring those spaces into my own culture—this has been important to me and I try to use that in my music.
So, for this performance, you might get a little reggae here, you might get some punk rock here, you might get a little bit of go-go, you might get some hip-hop. The band members are from different spaces, and what brought these artists together is a mixture of sound and serendipity. The bass player Jerome Lawrence, his parents are from Jamaica. The drummer, Jeriel Johnson, is out of Philly but lived on the West Coast for a long time. The keyboard player James Montague is from down in Waldorf, Maryland. Our special guest Jenna Camille Henderson, who tours worldwide with different bands, is a huge spirit and wonderful talent. Seshat Walker from the General Store did the visuals that you see behind us on the stage when we’re playing. So, you get all of these things mixed in. Each of the artists is special in their own right, and all are helping to move culture forward both on and off the stage.
I like to collaborate in every facet of my life because it’s necessary to not operate in a silo. I have ideas and a particular bit of crazy that swirls about in my head when I think of art projects, music, community development, real estate opportunities. Oftentimes if you surround yourself with individuals that work to make positive change and they join in, you have to be able to balance those energies, manage expectations, and sometimes be the champion or cheerleader for a particular common goal. It’s hard to cheer for yourself, but it helps if you work with another person or group of people. I feel that way in all of my relationships, whether work or personal: if you can do it, please collaborate.
Sojin Kim is a curator of the D.C.: The Social Power of Music program. Charlie Weber is the media director at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.