Carl Walker was 23 when he was given a new name, part of a ritual at a church where he was a volunteer for a mentorship program. “Kokayi” means “he who summons the people” — so when he launched his music career in the late 1980s, it felt right to adopt it as his artistic moniker.
“As an artist, sometimes you don’t know your purpose,” he says, blinking thoughtfully through square-rimmed glasses. “I think I was given this name to challenge myself to live up to it.”
It was a prophetic description of Kokayi’s long-standing role in the D.C. jazz and hip-hop scene — as a performer, producer, mentor and collaborator. A Grammy-nominated artist with a nearly three-decade career, Kokayi is revered by old and young musicians alike. But he discounts any mention of himself as a master of his craft, dismissively waving a hand adorned with two murky gemstone rings.
His motto? You are only as good as your latest record.
Kokayi will showcase his latest record, “HUBRI$,” Saturday evening at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, a two-day event on the Mall dedicated this year to celebrating the social power of music. (The festival was cut short from its typical 10-day format because of production delays from January’s government shutdown.)
Born and raised in what he calls the “Southwest part of Southeast D.C.,” Kokayi talks about the District with a sense of unbridled loyalty. “There is flavor in this city,” he says, eyebrows raised. In 2016, he collaborated with the Funk Parade to create a soundtrack for each of the city’s four quadrants, crowdsourcing commonplace sounds recorded by local people. That summer, he started a project called “Beats and Beans,” for which he was embedded inside coffee shops, mixing music live for patrons to listen in on.
“HUBRI$,” which he embarked upon in 2017, is a hip-hop-style album that explores themes of black masculinity, ambition and excellence through the Greek myth of Icarus and Daedalus. Kokayi raps and occasionally vocalizes, but his priority is lyrical quality. He hopes that listeners will reflect critically on the themes he nudges at: How cultural expectations of mediocrity and success shape the way black men are asked to dream.
“The lesson we learn from Icarus is to not fly too high or too low,” Kokayi posits. “But if flying too high is arrogance and flying too low is failure, then are we asking ourselves to accept mediocrity?”
He read Icarus’s fall from the sky as a metaphor for depression, not reckless abandon. He draws parallels from the imprisonment of Icarus and Daedalus in an impenetrable labyrinth to the high incarceration rates within the African American community. In conversation, Kokayi’s sentences snake into stories. When an idea or a memory pops in his mind, he builds on it, almost as if he’s making sense of it to himself.
While writing the 12-song record, he experienced bursts of creative intensity coupled with periods of headbanging frustration. A fellowship with D.C.’s Halcyon Arts Lab as its first musician in residence motivated him to dabble in other mediums. Over the course of a year, “HUBRI$” evolved into a multimedia exhibit, with dynamic photographs accompanying the tracks and a self-produced documentary film.
Dressed in an oversized black button-up and jeans, Kokayi shuffles around his exhibit in its final days on display at AutoShop in Union Market. Visitors mull around him, unaware, as he re-racks the headphones attached to iPods blasting his record.
“Black men are asked not to feel,” he reflects, a few steps away from the exhibit. “With this record, I’m honest and vulnerable, and I want people to see that.”
In the mid-1990s, Kokayi was part of the rap group Opus Akoben, which fused elements of hip-hop, jazz and funk. The group’s style was a departure from the District’s historic legacy of go-go music, but it paved the path for a burgeoning rap and hip-hop scene. They toured the country and overseas throughout the 2000s; meanwhile, Kokayi picked up gigs as a vocal improvisationist, an adjunct at New York University and a music ambassador for the U.S. State Department.
The birth of his first child in 2001 prompted him to take a full-time day job as a legal-documents processor for nearly 15 years.“I don’t believe in being a starving artist,” he says, shaking his head resolutely. “I have a family to feed, and hey, health care is important.”
He would stay up until 4 a.m., hammering out beats before heading to work. His mentality was, “Give the job eight hours, give the music eight hours.” Music was his outlet as he battled on and off with depression.
Kokayi has plans to tour the record — first in the District, then in Europe, he says, where audiences are more enthusiastic to an array of genres. He enjoys the freedom overseas. He hates to be boxed in. Just let his music speak for itself. But if there’s one thing Kokayi willingly attaches himself to, it’s the District and its rich cultural legacy.
As outraged as he is by displacement and gentrification — how it threatens to bulldoze culture alongside buildings — he believes music is a viable force for social change.
“Look at what happened when they tried to shut down go-go music,” he says, referencing the Don’t Mute DC protests, which transpired after new neighbors tried to make a Shaw electronics store turn off its go-go music. “D.C. is my crucible,” he says. “And music provides me with a spiritual release.”
Saturday at 8:45 p.m. on the main stage at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Free.