“We must water our todays for brighter tomorrows,” Konshens says, reciting a motto that has guided his work as a self-described “edutainer” who balances his passion for music with a commitment to community outreach. “This is imperative work being done. It’s important for youth to be engaged [during this pandemic], so they know how to direct their energy and become positive combatants of change as opposed to people who are lashing out in rage,” he says. “It’s important for D.C.’s teens to not only see an example of change, but be led by that example, as well.”
It’s been a balancing act. Every week this summer, Konshens has been facilitating weekly online workshops in creative writing and music production for D.C. teens in collaboration with SchoolTalk, a restorative justice-oriented youth leadership organization based in Northwest.
Since June 22, he has been instructing a six-week online course, “Rhyme & Reason,” produced in collaboration with the Summer Youth Employment Program, that culminates in a virtual poetry slam and book entitled, “The New Normal.”
“It keeps a sense of connectedness going on,” Konshens says. “This workshop gives [D.C. youth] an arena where their voice can be not only heard, but listened to and respected.”
On top of that, he’s putting the finishing touches on a new self-titled EP with Classically Dope, a genre-melding hip-hop group that allows him to rhyme about police brutality and racial inequality over the impassioned orchestration of classical instruments.
And when it comes to his music, it’s the first word in his name that’s most important. “What I say in song and poetry are thoughts that many have, but don’t speak or act on,” Konshens says — so in that sense, he thinks of himself as “the conscience of the listener.”
He says he first learned to listen to his own conscience growing up in Ward 4 amid the crack-cocaine epidemic that ravaged D.C. in the ’80s. As a child, he gravitated toward go-go music and quickly learned how music could captivate an audience, catalyzing positive social and personal change. Go-go involves “a lot of call and response, paying attention to the crowd, controlling the crowd,” Konshens says. “The shows that are the most remembered are when people are most engaged.”
In the ’90s, Konshens joined the go-go group High Image, and he points to a pivotal 1995 benefit concert against gun violence organized by Al-Malik Farrakhan, founder of the community group Cease Fire Don’t Smoke the Brothers and Sisters. The concert’s circumstances were bittersweet: Only a few months prior, High Image’s lead vocalist, Razzle Dazzle Big G, was murdered, leaving Konshens to take his place as the group’s lead mic for a performance that would change lives in the community, including his.
“Music alone has the strange power of extracting tense energy from the atmosphere and allowing people to put their differences aside to enjoy a moment,” Konshens says. “People want to have something to give their undivided attention to that makes them feel good.” Eventually, the concert helped to forge a truce among rival area gangs. And beyond that, it taught Konshens how to apply his imagination not only to his music, but to his role as a community ambassador. “I’ve always believed I can save any person that I come across, that I can interject light in an undeniable fashion.”
It’s that same radical imagination that helped Konshens conceive Classically Dope. In 2015, he was interested in fusing the griot-style storytelling of rap with the expansive emotion of classical music, so he approached Robert DiLutis, a music professor at the University of Maryland. Impressed with Konshens’s résumé — which included musical outreach work with the U.S. State Department and teaching experience via the Grammy Museum — DiLutis connected him with a group of student musicians: oboist Lydia Consilvio, pianist Brandon Felder, clarinetist Natalie Groom, vocalist Rayshun Lamarr, French horn player Derek Maseloff, bassoonist Jimmy Qun and flutist Thomas Wible. The group quickly began searching for the transcendental commonalities between classical music and hip-hop — “And I haven’t looked back since,” Konshens says.
Having graced the stage of the Kennedy Center several times, as well as appearing alongside Yo-Yo Ma, and Esperanza Spalding at Anacostia High School in 2018, Classically Dope plans to resume touring and extend its reach further along the East coast. This October, they have showcases lined up in public libraries throughout Baltimore and New York City.
“I want to make it cool to be the classical version of The Roots,” he says. Since Classically Dope made its entrance in 2016, several young hip-hop artists have emerged to perform renditions of their own work backed by orchestral ensembles, most notably songs by Chief Keef and Lil Durk. This nebulous marriage between hip-hop and classical soundscapes is merely a glimpse into what is possible. “As time goes on you’ll see more MCs venture out there,” Konshens declares.
If his creative output with Classically Dope feels as intense as a sharp exhale, then Konshens’s solo career is the deep breath that precedes it — brimming with notions of self and admiration for the city that raised him. You can hear it in a YouTube clip filmed during a 2017 performance at Palace Mansour in Morocco. Konshens is nimble yet indomitable on the mic: “Who gon’ come and get me? / Bang of the drum / That’s the sound of the city. / Talk of the town / Do you hear me? / Vision not cloudy / Do you see me clearly?”
Within that space, Konshens the MC is learning to cultivate a healthy ego. Balancing life onstage and in the classroom has helped. “I have wild ideas about utopias and [stuff] like that,” he says, laughing. To him, it is more important to draw the blueprint of a brighter, more fulfilling tomorrow than to collect accolades. And with this conviction in mind, the emcee wields cautious power in his quest to save the world.
Konshens the MC’s weekly youth workshops will continue through the summer. For registration information, email email@example.com. Stream Classically Dope’s upcoming performance Aug. 1 on classicallydope.com. Its eponymous EP is due out Aug. 8.