One of the most exciting aspects of the A Creative DC project, for us, is how we've slowly been putting faces to Instagram accounts/to names we've seen on flyers (or that otherwise sound familiar), and to the projects we've maybe been mildly aware of, but haven't taken the time (or had a kick-in-the-pants-excuse) to fully research and learn about. As you can imagine is the case in a city that's less than 70 square miles large, it's often it turns out that people are friends-of-friends-of friends, or that so-and-so collaborated with this guy whose girlfriend used to work with your bestie, or that they've lived up the street from you for the last ten years and somehow you haven't tripped over each other on the street corner yet. Everyone and everything is in arm's reach. You just have to do the reaching.
The creative fabric of this city is dense, and its contributors innumerable, and existing in a million little pockets across the DMV at large. D.C. stopped feeling small the moment we launched this project, and five months in we haven't even scratched the surface of the amount of cool shit that happens here, and the amazing people who do it.
B U T . We say that whole "small city" thing with a wild, flag-waving and lights-blinking disclaimer: one of the things we love the MOST about D.C. is how you can have lived here for twenty years or twenty minutes, and that there's ALWAYS something and someone and everything new and cool and of interest to discover.
And it's for all of these reasons that we're glad to have gotten to chat with artist + musician Jamal Gray this week. Born and raised in D.C., he's a member of two projects that we've been following for the last six months-ish (we caught his band, Nag Champa, one night at The Fridge and they were amazing; he's also a member of DJ/media collective CMPVTR CLVB). Beyond that he has a veritable ton of collaborations and side projects in the works, and while we're excited to help spread the word about them, selfishly we're just glad to have had the chance to learn a little bit more about the how and the what of his particular pocket of creative D.C.
He's currently focused on curating this weekend's Fantastic Planet Exhibition (in partnership with fellow D.C. artist Mensa Kondo). Based on the 1973 animated film "Le Planete Sauvage," the show has an incredible lineup of artists, some with whom we're familiar and many of whom we're not, but all of which we are very stoked to check out at the Adinkra Cultural Arts Studio on Saturday in Mount Rainier.
Can you talk about this weekend's Fantastic Planet exhibition? What's your role, and how did it come about? My role is as artist and curator. So along with contributing music and visuals, I was able to choose different artists and musicians to take part. My main focus is as musical director, so choosing musicians that best fit the vibe sonically and could compliment the visual aesthetic. Along with Mensa and myself there are a ton of DC-based artists including DJ Underdog, Luke Stewart, Jamilla Okubo, Keagoe Stith, Aaminah Cole, Elena Casey, Ra Nubi, Kevin Chambers aka Flash Frequency, and more. My contribution visually will be a series of 3D images that mix scenes and characters from the film with different elements in nature. The series is called Savage Tribes. This work will be projected as a slide show during a performance from Nag Champa. All the members of CMPVTR CLVB will be contributing art both visually and sonically.
The exhibition that Mensa and I curated is a multimedia tribute to this cult classic. The pieces will range from video installations to collages and painted works on canvas. The challenge was for each artist to translate the film in their own language, no matter what the medium.
Fantastic Planet has a lot of underlying themes, including colonialism, spirituality, and mastery of self which are very relevant in today's society. We hope to reflect these ideas and more in our exploration of the film. This is my first creative endeavor with Mensa Kondo, but we've known each other for years. Both of our parents are deeply involved in DC's black arts scene.
The exhibition is based around the French animated Film "La Planete Sauvage" directed by Rene Laloux and Roland Topor. It's a film I was introduced to around age 10 that instantly captured my attention. Both the artwork and film score are extremely unique and modern, considering the film was released in 1973. Upon finding the film years later, the story had new relevance, which led me to explore it deeper. I started to incorporate samples from the original score and soundtrack, composed by Alain Gourager, in to my own production work. Fast forward a couple years, and I had begun to be a part of different art exhibits within the DC scene, and felt compelled to present something from my own perspective.
The second showing will take place in Brooklyn, NY as part of the Sanaa Festival. We'll be announcing the location for that sometime in June. This will be the 2nd installment of the Festival. Both Nag Champa and CMPVTR CLVB performed the first year, along with local artists like Gully Waters, Muhsinah, DJ Underdog, Native Sun, Kelow and many more. After that we established a great relationship with Ya Ya Bey, organizer of all things Sanaa. Sanaa started as a series of house parties in DC 2 or 3 years ago, [and] has grown to a traveling circus of creatives from many different backgrounds, and now culminates in a yearly festival.
Nag Champa, aka Nag Champa & The Traveling Mystics, consists of myself (electronics & drum machine), Allen Jones (drums), Elijah Easton (sax & keys), Miles Lewis (percussion), Leonard Lee (vocals), Jamel Zuniga (guitar), and Andrew Flores (keys & synth).
The band started in late 2013 as a jam session. At the time I had a studio space in Union Arts, the Warehouse at 411 New York Avenue. I would play original beats while other musicians accompanied the tracks. Eventually it just became a thing, and we decided to take on a name and start doing gigs.
The name comes from a type of incense that my mother used to burn. She was a kundalini yoga instructor for years, so it always reminded me of spirituality and meditation, which goes hand in hand with our sound. Sonically we are heavily inspired by avant garde Jazz, soul, house, hip hop and world music. Currently working on our first project called New Mantras. No release date set.
CMPVTR CLVB (Computer Club) started early in 2014, and is also a product of our days [at Union Arts]. We were a loose collective of DJs and producers who were throwing parties and art shows in that space and other DIY spaces around DC, and all had weird tastes in music. Original members are St. Clair Castro, Zack Thomas aka Exaktly, Jamel Zuniga aka Sexx God 1977, and Tony Walker aka Txny Kill. Since joining together we've performed and organized shows all over DC. We've also performed in Brooklyn, Harlem, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charlottesville VA, Atlanta and Tennessee. Recently added to the collective are DJ/Producers Dreamcast/ Burymeinamink, Maximilian, Immersia and Gordon Davis. We have a bi-weekly residency at Velvet Lounge [called Future Past], every 2nd & last Wednesday of the month, where we bring in guest DJs from DC and beyond. We also host a program on local radio station WPFW 89.3 FM called Bass Chakra Radio. Along with individual production, CMPVTR CLVB will be dropping a collaborative EP in the fall, name still TBA. Each of us have backgrounds in technology, marketing, and visual art, which we are currently using to grow in to a creative media firm.
Any other projects? Along with CMPVTR CLVB, Exaktly and myself are a part of a production crew called Swampoodle, which also consists of Fat Kneel and Bustelo Creuset. The sound is very dark, experimental music based mostly in dance and hip hop. I am currently working on side projects with Ya Ya Bey of Gully Waters and Nick Anway of Baby Bry Bry and The Apologists. For both projects I'll be contributing production. These are the most fun because they allow me to step outside of musical comfort zones. Both artists come from widely different musical backgrounds, but soul and funk are at the root of it all.
Who or what in DC do you think more people should know about? More people in DC should know about the radio station WPFW 89.3 FM. Hands down the best mix of progressive music and political activism. It's a non-profit, completely commercial free, and has been deeply involved in the Washington community for almost 40 years.
Last question! Our theme for June is W E L L N E S S - any thoughts on health and wellness, mental and physical, in D.C? I was raised in 2 vegetarian households, so staying conscious of the food I consume is important. Both of my parents were early adapters of the vegan lifestyle, and deep into holistic health as well. Many families in D.C. were the same way before it became a part of a trendy lifestyle. We've always shopped at farmers markets and food co-ops like Glut in Mt. Rainier or The Takoma Park/Silver Spring Co-Op (TPSS). Although I'm not vegan any more, I still carefully watch the food I consume. I spend a lot of time walking through DC as well. It's a great way to stay fit, but also a great way to connect with people on the street. The best way to deal with stress, for me, is to seek a deeper understanding of whatever may be the cause. Approach things with more compassion and less judgment. Good weed helps a hell of a lot too!
all artwork by Jamal Gray, from his Savage Tribes series. The Fantastic Planet Exhibition opens Saturday and is up through July 5 – more information here.