Baba Ras D is banging a large West African drum, his long dreads hidden under a cap. Splotches of sweat are seeping through his yellow dashiki-style African T-shirt, which he designed himself. He wipes his forehead with a sweatband on his wrist patterned like the red, yellow and green Rastafarian flag.
He switches with ease from a funky rendition of “Wheels on the Bus,” to a rather traditional rendition of Bob Marley’s “One Love,” to a Baba Ras D original that urges people to “pass the peace.” As he sings, he encourages the squirmy crowd of toddlers and infants to be even more rambunctious. “Can you say, ‘Love on the rise?’ ” he asks them. “We need it more than ever.”
Some play along off-beat with drums and tambourines of their own. Some shove the tambourines into their mouths. Some whine and burrow their heads into their parents’ shirts. But most of them are staring straight at Baba Ras D, babbling the lyrics, smiling back at him and cooing his name.
This is his second performance of the day. He always has an extra shirt or two with him because a full Baba Ras D concert experience means that he will definitely sweat through his first. And maybe shed tears as well, if he’s feeling especially moved. “There may be better singers or drummers,” he tells me later, “but no one has my energy.”
Baba Ras D preaches empathy and community inclusiveness, a message he refers to as Harambee, the Kenyan philosophy of togetherness. (Baba is the Swahili word for father.) This has helped transform the former Division I basketball player and one-time corrections officer into one of the premier children’s entertainers among a certain subset of affluent Washingtonians. (Or in the words of one dad of a Baba Ras D die-hard, the “liberal bourgeois.”) The 6-foot-6 Rastafarian performs at birthday parties, visits schools and plays six shows a week at BloomBars, a child-focused arts space in Columbia Heights.
The children who come to BloomBars idolize Baba Ras D. Some, as young as 2, can recite the definition of Harambee. One parent said their child’s first word was not mama or dada, but baba. Another parent keeps a large photo of Baba Ras to pull out when he needs to remind his child to always do the right thing. Yet another father described Baba Ras as a sort of divine figure in their household.
Matthew Dull, a public policy professor who is part of a group that refers to themselves as Harambee Dads, has been taking his 2½ -year-old son, Max, to Baba Ras D concerts for more than a year. He bought a small djembe for Max to bang at home. When the toddler plays the drum, he insists on keeping a towel by his side to wipe the sweat from his forehead just like Baba Ras D. And when it’s time for his son to go to bed, Dull invokes the help of a certain singer. “I try to convince him to go to sleep, and part of that ritual is telling him who is asleep,” Dull told me. “Bubbe’s asleep, Papa’s asleep, Baba Ras D is asleep. He’s always on that list.”
Baba Ras D, whose given name is Darren Campbell, speaks with traces of a Caribbean accent, and his voice has the cadence and modulation of a preacher. The 52-year-old often talks in inspiring mantras, slipping sayings — like “higher education should be about higher elevation” and “the inner influence is stronger than the outward control” — into conversations.
It’s evident why the children love him so much. He’s calming, wise and knows how to write a catchy song to a drumbeat. Onstage, he respects each child, looking them in the eyes as he performs, allowing them to jump up and bang drums beside him. He hugs or high-fives each child after a performance. “Thank you, amigos. Thank you, my brother,” he tells them. “You are all my paradise.”
Offstage, separating Campbell from Baba Ras D proves difficult. He is not one to “break character.” When I ask where he’s from, he says that he “represents all the continents.”
He explains that so many people who have entered his life are like family. Godparents, in-laws, mentors. He has Trinidadian, African and other influences. He grew up on reggae, go-go and gospel music. He’s a man of the world, of humanity, he says.
To get technical for a second, Campbell was born in the District and spent most of his childhood in Southeast and Northeast Washington with his five siblings. After his father died when he was 10 years old, Campbell was raised by his grandparents, who ran a home day care, and by his mother, a D.C. government worker who now lives in Maryland. There was music all around him. He played piano and drums. His brother Wake Campbell is a professional saxophonist. They attended church five days a week, and their grandparents encouraged them to seek “higher awareness.” “I was never raised to believe there is only one way to look at things,” Campbell says.
His parents met at Howard University and raised their children in a house full of books. His mother, Ercell Marshall, says they exposed him to authors and intellectuals like Emily Bronte and George Washington Carver.
Marshall says her second-youngest child was curious about the world and saw the best in those around him from the time he could walk. When he was about 4, he was playing in the back yard with his siblings and wandered off to explore. “After finding him, my mom said to me that she also felt that he was so special and that we always needed to be careful and protect him because people could tell that he was gifted,” Marshall says. “He had no fear to wander off and just talk to people and just be curious about life. He’s always had that curiosity.”
By the time he reached middle school, he was 6 feet tall and his teachers encouraged him to play sports. He was a star on the basketball court and captain of his team at McKinley Tech High School in Northeast. “Basketball became a more defining force than musical and artistic expression,” he says. He received a full scholarship to play at Rutgers University, a Division I school. At Rutgers, he learned the practice of what he repeatedly refers to as “intellectual gymnastics.” This is his idea that many people are just speaking loudly and eloquently but aren’t really saying anything at all. He uses this concept to dismissively talk about higher education, college basketball and contemporary politics. The professional basketball players he knew, Campbell says, didn’t have “healthy thought lives.” “When you talk about the business of college athletics,” he says, “it’s not trying to strengthen from one’s core or make one a better person.”
Tom Young, the former Wizards assistant coach who coached Campbell at Rutgers for a year, recalls Campbell as a kind kid who didn’t stand out as being particularly spiritual. “He was charismatic and outgoing and a good player,” Young says. “He got along extremely well with his teammates. He was a normal college player and a normal college student.”
Campbell graduated with a degree in criminal justice and pursued a career with the New Jersey juvenile system, working with youth who were being rehabilitated back into society. But he saw problems with how the prisons were run and thought if inmates were to ever succeed once they were released, they needed to have a humane experience while they were locked up. He put that into practice when he moved back home to the D.C. area and worked as a corrections officer for three years. To “remind them of their humanity,” he says, he would call inmates “king” and “baba” instead of their names.
Music remained part of his world throughout this period, Campbell says. When he had his first child, Darren Jr., now 27, he began singing to him and saw how he responded to the music. He had four more children and a stepson — Emperor, Empress, King, Queen and Amir — and sang to them as well. He also played in reggae bands.
Amir Henriquez, his 24-year-old stepson, says his father is the same man at home as he is onstage, only onstage, his voice is deeper. Henriquez remembers waking up as a young child to their home’s creaky floors as Campbell moved around in the early hours, cooking, singing, practicing yoga and recording himself as he rehearsed new songs.
Campbell speaks to his children in those same inspiring mantras — though, speaking as their dad, he can be a bit more pointed and his mantras can be more mundane. “He always tells me ‘CYA,’ cover your a--, starting when I was 16. It’s like cover your tracks, be mindful of your actions,” Henriquez says. “If I left the plate out after dinner, left a snack out, it would be ‘CYA.’ ”
Campbell set high standards for them. “All of their names allow them to understand the level of excellence that is expected of them,” he says. But Campbell has also been open-minded about definitions of success. Henriquez says when he dropped out of college to start a clothing line, Campbell was the person in his life who was most supportive.
Singing to his own children showed Campbell the power he could have on young minds. He decided to focus his work on the cradle and reach children before they have a chance to land in prison. In the ’90s, he started singing at preschools and day cares, developing his own early-childhood curriculum that he still uses as he visits schools throughout the city. He also performs weekly at public high schools and says he keeps his performance mostly the same for that age group. He once considered playing basketball professionally, “but that would have been a disaster,” he says. “I would have never been in contact with this humanity. These children look at me and they don’t see my color. They see themselves, and they see my spirit. And they go home and they practice Harambee.”
Indeed, young children are an ideal audience for Baba Ras D because they are perhaps the only people who can fully live up to Harambee values. They don’t judge, they haven’t learned to hate, and they trust with complete sincerity. Because of these children, Campbell says, he doesn’t have to turn into the character of Baba Ras D; he simply is the character.
“Everyone has to wake up and become someone. I don’t have to. For me, it was not becoming anything. It was about returning to balance because all of what I did outside of Harambee, it was vanity in pursuit of the individual acquisition of objects. Championships. Accolades. Looking for riches and fame. What you would call celebrity,” he says. “Harambee is returning to what my grandmother said I would be doing, and that is leading a nation of people around the world.”
John Chambers, the founder of BloomBars, says Campbell asked him if he could perform at the arts space soon after it opened in 2008. At the time, BloomBars was more adult-focused and Chambers was unsure if he wanted a children’s singer, but he ultimately relented. Now, he calls the first generation of children who attended Baba Ras D’s concerts “family.” He says parents call BloomBars their “church.” And he refers to Baba Ras as a “moral compass” to his own 6-year-old daughter. “This is something people believe in. It gives them hope,” Chambers explains.
Some days, the parents need Baba Ras D even more than the kids. Last November, the day after Donald Trump won the White House, Chambers says some parents arrived at the Baba Ras D show crying and eager to be among friendly, consoling faces.
It’s hard not to notice that the kids at BloomBars are generally more privileged than the young people Baba Ras D started out wanting to help — children like the ones he met in juvenile detention in New Jersey or in D.C. jails. He does encounter children from a wider range of backgrounds at day cares and schools in Washington. But he says he’s also furthering his mission by performing at BloomBars. These kids, he explains, through the practice of Harambee, can learn to show compassion to those who are different from them and to those in need — and can better the world.
The regular parents at BloomBars often speak in the language of Baba Ras D, referring to the concert’s positive “atmosphere” and the adult friends they’ve made there as “communities.” They buy their children onesies and shirts that say “Harambee” and “Harambee Rocks.”
Nadegé Jean-Pierre says her 2-year-old son always requests that they play Baba Ras D’s albums in the car — on repeat. She also hired him to perform at the toddler’s birthday party. “You’re teaching kids love,” Jean-Pierre says about a Baba Ras D concert.
Baba Ras D loves telling the story of a young fan who signaled the peace sign to a homeless man on the street. The homeless man responded with a peace sign of his own, and the young boy went up to the man and touched their two peace signs together to “pass the peace.”
And his absolute favorite occurrence, he says, is when pregnant women attend his shows, giving him a chance to reach children before they are even born. One mother came with her older child while she was pregnant and returned to BloomBars when the baby was just 6 weeks old. Baba Ras D says the infant was breast-feeding and when he played a popular song, the little girl unlatched from her mother and looked him in the eye. “That’s the miracle and magic of Harambee,” he says. “She affirmed that.”
Perry Stein is a Washington Post staff writer.
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