So what if Eminem drags us into his matricidal fantasies on MTV? Or on the radio, Busta Rhymes growls at us hourly to make our booties clap? Or that R. Kelly's sexually explicit new single "Ignition" proves he's learned nothing from his kiddie porn mess -- and neither have we as we pump it on car stereos far and wide.
The debauchery is so relentless, so multimedia, that it's nearly impossible to maintain the proper degree of outrage anymore. The only defense for the weary is to shut off commercial radio, flick off cable television and head to a different kind of experience: Groove Gumbo, a concert and festival that roams the District.
"It's an alternative," says Brent "Munch" Joseph, the D.C. promoter who four years ago, with partner Tony Walters, created the visual art, music, fashion, massage, you-name-it showcase, which happens tonight at Five, a club in downtown Washington. "It's about getting older and having something to do that might be a little bit more enriching and more diverse than you're used to."
What you will find at Groove Gumbo is an eclectic crowd where the punk and the head-wrapped, the cornrowed and the business-suited interact -- sometimes in the same person. The festival serves up a stew of artistic genres: graffiti artists on the dance floor, DJs and a live funk band onstage, models catwalking in a new clothing line.
"It's 'jiggy-conscious,' to coin a term," says Walters. "Nappy bourgeois. It's people who are happy with their identity. The ones that complain about music. But they like nice stuff: Benzes and jewelry. They like the finer incense and oils."
Walters and Joseph say they aren't the morality police, poised to storm the stage at the first curse word. By booking certain kinds of artists and marketing the event to a certain crowd, they've created an environment where the nonsense that often characterizes popular hip-hop is inappropriate.
"We are not afraid to invite Wu-Tang Clan," Walters explained. "That's a part of the Gumbo, too. I'm not going to say P. Diddy can't come to Groove Gumbo, but they have to understand that they are not coming to Dream," the radio-friendly D.C. nightclub.
Events like Groove Gumbo have popped up all over the country, creating an underground vehicle for against-the-grain music and art: Black Lily in Philadelphia, Abstract Lounge in St. Louis, FunkJazz Kafe in Atlanta. Though they've cropped up independently, they all have a similar, avant-garde thrust where big-name artists frequently drop in unannounced.
"Once somebody starts doing something that's positive like that, people start pulling from the same creative springs," says Raquel Cepeda, editor in chief of Oneworld, a hip-hop lifestyle magazine based in New York. "So I'm not surprised that these flowers have sprouted."
Many of the events were inspired by the FunkJazz Kafe, which Atlanta promoter Jason Orr founded in 1994 and which draws thousands to see acts like the Goodie Mob, Meshell Ndegeocello and Joi, rock groups, fashion designers and capoeira dancers.
In more recent years, Philly's Black Lily, a weekly showcase conceptualized (and initially bankrolled) by the hip-hop group the Roots, has produced plenty of buzz -- and record deals. Artists like Bilal, Musiq and Jaguar Wright performed there regularly, and eventually landed recording contracts. Black Lily recently franchised into New York.
The younger showcases occur more sporadically. Groove Gumbo happens about every six to eight weeks.
Today's event marks Groove Gumbo's fourth anniversary. In its early stage, it was a gathering at which regional artists did experimental and impromptu jam sessions, drawing fewer than a hundred people. It has evolved into a showcase for the best regional music and unsigned acts from across the country, drawing as many as a thousand.
"Now people are getting on to it," says Patrick "Black Picasso" Washington, a member of the D.C. hip-hop group Poem-cees, who performed at the first Groove Gumbo. "This, quote, whole neo-soul thing, they were ahead of that. . . . It's given local artists a chance to shine and share the stage with up-and-coming national artists. They've broken a lot of acts."
Indeed, Groove Gumbo audiences learned "Who is Jill Scott?" -- and J-Live -- way before BET did. They witnessed the gifts of D.C. hip-hop group Opus Akoben, an outfit that barely sneezes on American charts but outsells Lauryn Hill in Paris. Unspoken Heard, one of several featured acts at tonight's event, also gets more love in Europe, where it's toured extensively, than at home in D.C.
Groove Gumbo showcased the freestyle skills of the Washington-based emcee Priest da Nomad, which are the subject of a University of Maryland doctoral thesis in ethnomusicology. And it has testified to the sultry power of D.C. singer Raheem DeVaughn, who will make his major-label debut next year on Jive Records.
Despite the apparently growing appetite for "jiggy-conscious" events, venues for them are dwindling in the District. State of the Union and Kaffa House, U Street clubs that hosted many open mikes, are closed. And Metro Cafe, the 14th Street venue that was a leading incubator for experimental theater, film and music, is gone.
Those places helped cultivate the stable of artists and musicians who have been performing at Groove Gumbo since Walters and Joseph began throwing the parties in 1998. Besides serving as an architect for the movement in D.C., Walters, a 30-year-old liberal arts graduate from Virginia Tech, does promotions for national record companies, including J Records, Seven Heads and Universal.
Hanging out on the local poetry scene, Walters met Joseph, a Howard University engineering graduate and an accomplished DJ. (Joseph DJed live onstage for the experimental theater production "The Hip-Hop Nightmares of Jujube Brown" at Arena Stage, and his composition "Hip-Hop Philharmonic" premiered at the Kennedy Center in 2000.)
Walters wanted to re-create the vibe he felt in Atlanta at FunkJazz Kafe. So the pair hired local actor, emcee and singer W. Ellington Felton to host the series, and ever since, they've been taking their show around town. (Groove Gumbo once went on at three 14th Street clubs simultaneously, presenting rock, hip-hop and spoken-word.)
Headlining tonight's event will be Asheru (D.C. native Gabriel Benn) and Blue Black (Bronx native Robert Jackson), who are the face of Unspoken Heard.
Others performers include D.C.-based hip-hop groups Critically Acclaimed and Bonney & Carter; vocalist Shawn Cannon; and tap and modern dancers Leeanet Noble and Kenya Johnson. Fashion designs by Philissa Williams and Miss Aisha Keys, and visual art by Eric B. and Anyahlee also will be featured.
"We just want a place where different people can come together and just chill," Walters says. "It's a celebration of everyone as an individual."
Groove Gumbo, tonight at club Five, 1214B 18th St. NW. Doors open at 7 p.m.; performances start at 9 p.m. For more information, call 866-841-9139, Ext. 3073, or e-mail email@example.com