One expects to hear certain kinds of music when at a folk festival. While at the Washington Folk Festival this past weekend I quickly found myself immersed in many different styles, from Bluegrass to Balalaikas to Blues to Balkan. As I came around a certain corner of Glen Echo Park this past Sunday afternoon, however, instead of banjos I heard beatboxing.
Meet Christylez Bacon. On the surface, all you might see is a straight-up hip-hop artist who’s flow and playfulness is eerily reminiscent of Andre 3000. You might ask yourself (as I did, however fleetingly), “What’s a hip-hop artist doing at a folk festival?” But look again: that’s a string section backing him up on stage. They are the Washington Sound Museum (his back-up band), with one person playing an electric violin and another on electric cello. Over the next several numbers, he shows that he’s just as comfortable on guitar and djembe as he is improvising rhymes using words shouted out by the audience. It is quickly apparent that this guy is extremely talented. In this somewhat unexpected venue, he appears completely at ease and in his element. He gets this crowd, and the audience responds to that. This is a performer who is completely at home at a folk festival.
Make no mistake -- Christylez Bacon IS a hip-hop artist. He is a born-and-bred native of Washington, DC and you can tell when you hear him lay out a beat on his djembe that go-go music runs in his blood. His musical “mentor” is none other than local luminary Bomani Armah. (You don’t recognize the name? He’s also known as D’Mite, who achieved viral success with his “Read a [M************] Book.” Google it, but not at work or around small ears -- the language in the song is decidedly NSFW.) He also fully embraces 21st-century methods for his craft, running his show off of his iPad on stage, complete with mixing mic levels, looping tracks, and playing beat tracks while his hands are busy playing guitar.
But is it folk? Oh yes. When it comes down to it, Christylez is an extremely organic performer. While his music starts with hip-hop as its foundation, he is also eager to include elements of many other styles of music in his performance as evidenced by the fiddle and cello additions. He struck me as the kind of music nerd who could sit down and enjoy any music you put in front of him, no matter the genre (and maybe even improvise the style into his next performance). Most importantly , however, is just how present he is with his audience while he performs. When I saw him perform, I saw something magical happen; he has the ability to bring in all of the audience members and make them feel like they are part of the music as it is being created. The performance would have been a different thing had any one person in the audience been added or taken away. In that moment, he created music that will never occur the same way again because it was the product of that unique moment in time and those people who happened to be present.
Sounds like folk music to me.
When I arrived at the festival, I had not been expecting to hear rap or hip-hop being performed. To be honest, it is not a musical genre that I had ever directly associated with the folk tradition in my own thinking. However, by including live instrumentation and by bringing the audience into his performance in a participatory manner, I see this falling under the same umbrella of folk music. He may have taken a different path to get there than we are used to seeing, but he does get to the same place; I am reminded of how DJs and other artists have been approaching crossover contras from paths that are different from the usual acoustic bands, but it is still undoubtedly contra.