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‘These are my people’: The joys of the R&B Club

The monthly book-club-style gathering at Songbyrd brings music admirers together and turns them into a family

The R&B Club at Songbyrd takes place on the second Sunday of the month. (Alexis P. Williams)
7 min

Before Verzuz and Club Quarantine, four local music lovers were curating their own discussions about the legacy of a genre whose relevance has been called into question in recent years. Since February 2018, Marcus K. Dowling, Julian Kimble, Ashley-Dior Thomas and Justin Tinsley have hosted the R&B Club — a monthly, book-club-style meetup for fellow soul music enthusiasts at Songbyrd Music House.

At the R&B Club, the “language we all understand” that Stevie Wonder sang about in “Sir Duke” isn’t dismissed as “niche” or “passe.” When a recording of Tevin Campbell’s “Can We Talk” is paused too soon, a singalong erupts to finish it. When the panel asks which version of Diddy’s “I Need a Girl” is better, a full-blown discussion is guaranteed.

“I was really tired of people saying R&B is dead, nonexistent or fading away,” said Thomas, an operations consultant for small businesses. “I do not understand where this is coming from. It’s such a lazy conversation. R&B sometimes gets treated like it’s the cousin of music rather than the mom or the dad.”

The hosts got the idea for the events after attending Songbyrd’s Classic Album Sundays series. They sought to combine their mutual admiration for the genre with their respective strengths — Dowling’s knowledge of D.C.’s musical history, Kimble’s flair for debate, Tinsley’s knack for sharing cultural context and Thomas’s productivity expertise — to create a “holistic picture” of R&B for the public.

With such year-long themes as “’90s R&B albums” and “R&B legends” as their framework, the hosts select a topic and examine how that artist’s personal journey, lyricism, vocal ability or production quality continue to fuel the heartbeat of rhythm and blues today. Using a chronologically organized playlist as a guide, the hosts contribute to the conversations with intimate stories, unwavering opinions and little-known facts about the subjects. They keep an open mic handy to encourage audience members to share their connections, too. The sessions, which may have begun as a gathering of like-minded music buffs, have evolved into a safe space for fans who have become family, according to Dowling.

“You walk into that room and your real human passion gets exposed at some point within that two hours,” said Dowling, who moved to Nashville during the pandemic to work as a country music reporter for the Tennessean. “Something that’s very organic to who you are as a person comes out. … You’re probably going to cry. You’re going to laugh, and something about you that you don’t want the world to know is probably going to come out. We have a communal experience.”

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Kimble, a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Post and other publications, believes he and his co-hosts feed guests’ desires to “feel something” deeper than the soundtrack to their weekend bottomless brunch. “In a city where people can go to several places, do the exact same thing, I don’t know that there’s anything like the R&B Club in D.C.,” he said. “That’s what people are drawn to.”

This year’s series is focused on songwriters and producers. At October’s Raphael Saadiq event, best friends and first-time attendees Montez Freeman of Southeast and Justin Schofield of District Heights immediately “felt a sense of community” in the audience.

“These are my people,” Freeman said. “I did not expect to see that many people that are interested in this type of obsession over music. I didn’t feel like a nerd or an outsider anymore.”

Schofield appreciated that the hosts acknowledge artists who he thinks aren’t valued enough by the mainstream.

“There’s so much music from back then to the present,” Schofield said. “Let’s blow the dust off of this thing and let’s play it. Let’s talk about what we have in the past and make it alive again.”

Following a brief hiatus during the pandemic, the club relaunched in July 2022 spotlighting Missy Elliott. The rapper-songwriter even co-signed the “fun” of the event herself on Twitter. For Thomas, Elliott’s comment only reaffirmed what the late record executive Andre Harrell told her during a chance encounter in March 2018.

“I showed him a photo from our Jodeci event and he was like, ‘Oh, you got something going here. I’ve never heard of this,’ ” Thomas said. “And I knew. I don’t care if 10 people or three people came every month after that. Andre Harrell tells us we got something going. That’s all I needed. We’re taking off.”

Harrell founded Uptown Records, which housed acclaimed R&B acts like Al B. Sure! and Mary J. Blige, whose “What’s the 411?” album was covered by the R&B Club in April 2018. Thomas said the music mogul was surprised that people cared enough to examine R&B, let alone discuss minute details like seeing a sophisticated vocalist like Blige donning combat boots and a backward baseball cap while singing about “Real Love.”

At the R&B Club, they do. Southeast resident Charles Nelson likes that it also respects D.C.’s musical heritage.

“Like a lot of native Washingtonians, we love hip-hop, we really love go-go. But deep down, we’re R&B heads,” Nelson said. “In this city, everybody knows Marvin Gaye, Raheem DeVaughn, Donny Hathaway, Roberta Flack and all these people that [were] born here, have ties to this town. We’re naturally [an] R&B town.”

Kimble supported this point during the Saadiq event, when he recounted seeing the multi-instrumentalist during a two-night show at 9:30 Club. According to Kimble, Saadiq shared his affection for the go-go cover of his song “Still Ray” by local act Backyard Band. “The second night, [they] came out and did the song with him,” Kimble said. “[D.C.] is an R&B city because it’s just in the DNA of it.”

For Alisha Edmonson and Joe Lapan, the owners of Songbyrd and its sibling Byrdland record store, the R&B Club allows them to brainstorm clever ways to connect with the audience.

“Depending on [who] the artist is, I’ll be like, ‘Oh, maybe there’s a record I can help [them] give away’ or ‘Is there a cool R&B show?’ ” Lapan said. “I [helped] them give away tickets to Alex Isley and Maxwell. Because it’s a group of dedicated R&B fans, even if we’re celebrating Raphael Saadiq, we know that that crowd is interested in Isley and Maxwell.”

Pre-pandemic, the sessions were held in the dimly lit basement at Songbyrd’s former location in Adams Morgan. The darkness and proximity fueled the confidence of guests who would spontaneously stand up and dance or burst into song, free from a judgmental gaze. At the new Songbyrd near Union Market, guests sit at tall tables in a brightly lit, converted warehouse. But Edmonson believes the uniqueness of the communal listening experience remains.

“The music is the tempo we create, and that’s what makes it intimate,” Edmonson said. “The space is a blank canvas for whatever mood people want to bring into it.”

At the end of the Saadiq event, the hosts announced November’s edition would spotlight Virginia’s own Pharrell Williams, and gasps and cheers echoed across the room. Tinsley, a senior culture writer with ESPN’s Andscape, thinks these heartfelt reactions are what make the experience special.

“I’m never not in awe when I look out into the crowd,” Tinsley said. “You love the music, but you love to hear people speak about their connections to the music. I think that’s the genesis of what great music is, [and] definitely great R&B. We always want that type of connection because you know when a connection is real, [and] you know when a connection is manufactured. I don’t think [there’s] anything about this club that is manufactured. The R&B Club is one of the greatest gifts that D.C. has right now.”

The R&B Club is held the second Sunday of each month at Songbyrd, 540 Penn St. NE. “Diary of an R&B Songwriter and Producer: Pharrell” will take place Nov. 13 from noon to 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance, $20 at the door, and include a drink.