In September, multidisciplinary artist, musician and author Jafar Flowers hosted an event that set itself apart from the general flow of Richmond shows.
As a city with such a rich and diverse history, the parts of Richmond’s music scene that have garnered more attention than others have, at times, felt pretty homogeneous. I know I’ve had more than one experience where I’ve seen line-ups for different shows around the city and thought, “Wow I definitely could have sworn these 3 same bands of mostly white guys play another venue two months ago.”
However, the bill for this event, dubbed Headliners Only (for good reason), felt curated and special.
Consisting entirely of individual and uncompromising black voices, three groups from Richmond and one group from Baltimore, the show took place in a relatively new DIY venue.
I was finishing the end of my drive, rolling down a long alley, when I heard the massive slapback echo of a college marching band reverberating off the buildings next to and around me. The booming bass drums and warm brass on a humid night reminded me of years I spent being an outcast at high school football games and hanging out with my friends who all played different instruments in the band. It was really something to get to see my friends play this loud and powerful music that they’d worked so hard to learn over months of rehearsals.
That my drive up the the venue was scored by these same kinds of sounds set a triumphant tone for the night that each artist would match in their own way.
Flowers and their co-organizers had definitely considered the vibe of the space, as it had been adorned with christmas lights, bright sofas, a front desk by the entryway and quite a few pieces of absolutely stunning art for sale by local artists.
Sound and light engineer Greyson Goodenow volunteered to do lights and sound all night and set up an entire sound and light board with a PA. It was also a nice plus to be able to watch some quality episodes of Adventure Time being projected on a blank wall during soundcheck. I walked through the front door of the space during the preshow checks and into a tornado of percussion crashing off the walls, but I’ll talk more about Josh Stokes later.
First up in the bill was Alfred., a member of the Richmond based collective B.ckwards Haus Ops which also includes great artists such as MNLV, chi, Afrocat and Alfred.’s frequent musical partner, producer Yung Pocket$.
Alfred and Yung Pocket$ released the album So Sensitive on RVA’s Citrus City Records over the summer, and if you haven’t given it a spin yet you are absolutely missing out.
Dressed in a shirt adorned with flamingos and multicolored lights, Alfred took the stage with energy, captivating the audience as they sang and rapped through tracks from his most recent record and occasionally brought up guest performers.
Alfred’s lyrics can get dark and very real, but there is also a feeling of comfort in the soulful melodies and warm relaxed beats of a lot of his tunes. If you haven’t caught one of his sets yet, you definitely should get on top of that.
Next was McKinley Dixon & Friends, who I’ve written about for Dust Up quite a few times and seen perform many more times. I’m pretty sure anyone in Richmond who hasn’t heard of Dixon at this point must be living away from social media AND away from all the music venues.
He and his band, consisting of a number of killer jazz players in town including Nathaniel Clark, Kevin Eichenberger and Jake Adams, ripped through many of their usual numbers from both McKinley’s 2016 mixtape Who Taught You To Hate Yourself? and his upcoming The Importance of Self Belief.
I can watch McKinley & Friends play over and over again because each time it’s a different show and a different musical and verbal conversation. It’s really thrilling to watch Dixon go back and forth with his bandmates and the audience, working to transfer energy through himself to the band and back to the fans. It can feel both intimate and celebratory, at times calling for your unflinching attention, and at other times demanding your participation and emotion.
Speaking of artists that capture and release emotion, Abdu Ali from Baltimore fires improvisational speech combined with written words over futuristic, hard to pin down beats, drawing from a number of different and disparate influences in the process. The kinds of sounds that Ali and their drummer, Josh Stokes, created were incredibly visceral in nature. Their intensity is really something beautiful.
Their pieces bounced composed, programmed beats and premeditated drums with noisy vocal improvisations exchanged between Ali and Stokes. They would occasionally, between more traditional “songs,” say a phrase that felt like it needed to be said, and repeat it again and again, bringing in Stokes on drums and creating a powerful and feverish chant.
Stokes, an incredibly talented drummer, would ebb and flow with Ali’s energy, amplifying them when they needed it, and playing a support role on tracks where Ali’s lyrics hit on their own (which happened many times during the set). Ali is definitely someone to keep an eye on and not to miss when they return to Richmond.
Closing out the night was Blvckpunx, Flowers’ project with Julian McBain, Caleb Johnson, and Christian Nothing. Much of Blvckpunx’s first music was written and created over the course of a few days by a couple of their members in a electric and emotional state.
Flowers, McBain, and Johnson all perform with their voices and their bodies, absolutely demanding both their and your energy. Much of their sound is distorted and unsettling in tone. Lyrically, many pieces are unflinching portraits of what it means and feels like to be a black and queer human today.
I felt absolutely exhausted after seeing this set, but I also felt lucky to be able to be present for one of the most personal and unreserved displays of emotion that I’ve seen. Pain and triumph over that pain were tangible elements, not only in their words, but in their movements and in the way each member continually broke their voices to let out all they needed. Even during moments where there was breathing room, including a new single produced by DJ Haram, their intensity and conviction was unbreakable. A set like this is not something to miss, as long as you’re prepared.
Jafar Flowers is hosting an Ice Cream Social Dance Party at Flora at 10 PM for a $5 suggested donation and you can catch Abdu Ali AND Blvckpunx Saturday, November 4th, in Baltimore, MD at The Crown for the drumBOOTY Dance Bish Dance Party.
You can catch McKinley Dixon & Friends tonight with Chino Amobi and Toxic Moxie at Strange Matter. You can catch Alfred. and other members of B.ckwards Haus Ops at the Master Hand Records showcase at The Camel on November 14th.
Check out the photos by Daniel Mangosing below:
McKinley Dixon & Friends