In no uncertain terms, 2019 was absolutely *popping* full of watershed moments for “the culture” in Boston. Artists of color were increasingly recognized for their role in shaping Boston’s arts scene, and these same artists seemed to have more platforms than any point before in recent history. The City itself kicked off this wave by nominating renowned poet, performer, and youth mentor Porsha Olayiwola to the position of 2019 Poet Laureate in December 2018. Elsewhere among Boston’s venerated institutions, Mattapan native and Boston Music Awards nomniee Arielle Gray was named Arts Engagement Producer at WBUR, and lauded poet and culture worker Amanda Shea appeared on the Hot 96.9 segment “Voices with Pebbles”; in the underground, the If You Can Feel It, You Can Speak It Open Mic, hosted by Jha D and D. Ruff, celebrated its 10th year of consistent monthly open mics in November. In the press, too, “Black Boston” got organized, with Genevieve Angelique starting up The Other Boston e-list for events for the POC community here in the Hub.
For the Boston music scene, too, there were moments that brought the city together under the banner of “the culture” at large. I present to you 10 of these moments that did their part in pushing the culture of Boston forward in 2019.
10 Moments That Pushed The Culture Forward in 2019
(in roughly chronological order)
Anjimile releases Maker Mixtape (1/25/19)
The mononymous Anjimile found Boston enmeshed in winter blues when they released Maker Mixtape, a 5-track EP of haunting acoustic blues-pop. Their experience as a queer and trans person and second-gen Malawian immigrant resonated through their crooning, and the people of Boston listened. In February, Anjimile was named one of NPR Slingshot’s 20 Artists to Watch in 2019, and later in the year, they received a nomination for Singer-Songwriter of the Year from the Boston Music Awards. The artist proved their mettle as a troubadour by performing across Greater Boston and New England in support. Anjimile’s presence in their genre is a reminder that queer and trans people of color can be soft and tender, too — and, in fact, this tenderness can be expressed as is, without the often-voyeuristic opening up of itself into trauma porn.
QTPOC party 3rdwavve hosts first volume (1/26/19)
Elsewhere in the city, in an industrial loft unmarked on Google Maps or Yelp, an underground late night party gave queer and trans people of color the space and occasion to boogie oogie down. Event series 3rdwavve launched its first volume on January 26th, drawing a packed house to their venue to listen to dance music and a feature performance by Dorchester’s own Harocaz. The event series would go on to host three more volumes throughout the year and a late-night party co-hosted by Intergalactic Hoochies at Dorchester Art Project, featuring performers of color among the likes of Anjimile, Red Shaydez, and Mick Beth. The event series is the mutual brainchild of Greater Boston native DJ 7elucinations, alias of Najwa Al-Aswad, and Western Mass/Philadelphia-based DJ Teddy Valentine, who also performs as Tender Thug. While there’s no talks of a 3rdwavve NYE function, we hope to see more of their events in 2020!
Billy Dean Thomas hosts MFA Late Nites (3/15/19)
Since moving to Boston in 2016, Harlem native Billy Dean Thomas has joined the ranks of Boston’s rappers-to-beat, sharing the stage with Boston favorites Oompa and Anson Rap$ as well as releasing two projects, Rocky Barboa and 2 the World. The MFA Late Nites in March, corresponding to the opening of their “Gender Bending Fashion” exhibit, showed off BDT’s prowess not only as a rapper and producer, but indeed as a real auteur. The sold-out event saw the entire Museum of Fine Arts packed with representatives from every corner of Boston, normie straight couples on dates to the most elegant and stylish Black and brown cultural icons in residence in Boston. (BDT themself was named among the Most Stylish Bostonians by the Boston Globe Magazine in 2019.) Amidst a museum-wide bacchanal, BDT performed in the Shapiro Family Courtyard alongside Vintage Lee, DJ Slick Vick, Neon Calypso, Abdul Johnson and Boston Chery; elsewhere, designs by Villada Michelle were modeled throughout the museum and vendors of POC-oriented products had their space to shine. With a Boston Music Awards nom in hand for Unsigned Artist of the Year, we have a feeling that BDT’s cultural tenure as Boston’s resident mastermind is far from over; in the meantime, you can catch them performing at The Sinclair alongside Moon Hooch on December 28.
WBUR ARTery 25 launches (3/28/19)
An unprecedented form of recognition came from the launch of WBUR’s ARTery 25, a roster of millennial people of color impacting the arts scene in Boston. As a product of WBUR’s key role in documenting arts and culture in Boston — due in no small part to Arts Engagement Producer and Boston native Arielle Gray — the ARTery 25 allowed truly unsung heroes of culture to have their moment, and gave the rest of the Boston scene something to aspire to. Among the musical minds recognized by the ARTery 25 were Billy Dean Thomas, Anjimile, Ashleigh “Ashe” Gordon (founder of classical music collective Castle of our Skins), Catherine Morris (founder, curator, and executive director of the Boston Art & Music Soul (BAMS) Festival), and Tim Hall (producer, saxophonist, and affiliate of both BAMS Fest and HipStory). With many, many more artists and culture workers of color to document in this city, the 2020 list is guaranteed to be monumental in its own right upon announcement.
Indie Festivals: TRC Fest, BAMS Fest, Weird Folk Fest, Black Brown & Queer Fest
While Boston Calling puts Boston on the map of nationwide music festivals, its criticism by locals and local natives alike is that it does a disservice to artists and groups already based in Boston. In a symbolic response, three independent organizations did their part this year to big up the artists that Bostonians of color know and love. Roxbury-based The Record Co. sponsored TRC Fest at The Sinclair (5/2/19), hosted by Oompa and featuring Brandie Blaze, Cliff Notez, and Anjimile among others. In the summertime glory, the second annual Boston Art & Music Soul (BAMS) Festival descended on Franklin Park (6/22/19), featuring 19 artists including Red Shaydez and Optic Bloom with Eric Roberson headlining. Grassroots collective Weird Folk Fest gave platforms for community-based artists at their 2nd Annual Queer Qarnival at Make Shift Boston (6/29/19), with Genie Santiago, Timothy-Anne, and Mick Beth performing among others. Finally, the summer festival season closed out with Black Brown & Queer Fest (8/24/19) taking over nearby Union Square in Somerville. With Boston Calling’s 2020 lineup yet to be announced, it remains to be seen whether promoters outside of the hallowed hoods of Boston will give these same artists a booking or two.
Public sessions: The State of Black Music & The Arts Across Greater Boston, Hip Hop Society Series at Emerson College, The State of Boston Hip Hop
While shows and record releases are what keep artists’ blood pumping, academic and inquisitive minds of Boston do love a chance and platform to sit down and talk shop all the same. A few public sessions brought the community together in very much this spirit in 2019. In the lead-up to BAMS Fest, a gathering of the community’s finest occurred at Hibernian Hall to discuss, aptly, The State of Black Music & The Arts Across Greater Boston, featuring an all-Black panel and moderated by Arielle Gray. Elsewhere, at Emerson College, The Hip-Hop Society put on a series of events bringing local talent into the university setting; programming included Women of Color in Hip Hop (featuring Brandie Blaze, Red Shaydez, and Dutch ReBelle), Hybrid Forms of Hip Hop (featuring Zakiyyah), and Queer Identities in Hip Hop (featuring Billy Dean Thomas). Even in December, with much of Boston preparing to jet off for holiday merriment, The ARTery’s The State of Boston Hip Hop brings together artists, industry players, and journalists alike to reflect on the scene, its successes, and its potentials. Honorary mentions go to the music journalists in Boston, including those at Boston Hassle, who have given the listening audience quality long-form interviews of these artists as well.
Oompa releases Cleo (8/10/19)
Nobody’s effing with Oompa. After her first effort in 2016, November 3rd, and a slew of tour dates through 2018, Oompa dropped the full-length project Cleo to a Boston that can’t deny her impact. Cleo took the form of a concept album loosely drawn from Black cultural milestone film Set It Off, speculating on a reality in which protagonist Cleo, portrayed by Queen Latifah, had gotten off with the film’s heist and lived to reap its treasure. Oompa has seen Boston from several potentially unpleasant vantage points — as a youth growing up in foster care, then as a Boston Public Schools employee, and for the past few years as a full-time independent artist. Yet, despite the many gripes one may have with the city, Oompa always returns to deliver for her audience, a panorama of hoods in Boston that are under threat by social forces. In addition to the album’s release, a full tour across the East Coast and Midwest, and a Boston Music Awards nomination and win for Live Artist of the Year, Oompa saved the best for last, the “CLEO—An Intimate Experience” show at Oberon on November 9th. And Oompa isn’t done yet — tickets are on sale now for her New Years’ Eve show at Great Scott.
Tashawn Taylor releases “Don’t Take It From Me” (11/15/19)
The Bostonian music scene may be a fairly cerebral bunch, but Cambridge native Tashawn Taylor’s message with “Don’t Take It From Me” was a simple plea — treat me with the radical act of dignity. In an overt message, Tashawn soulfully asserts to the powerbrokers of Greater Boston: “Everything was fine here / we don’t need changes… The only place I got is home / so please don’t take it from me.” The video follows Taylor riding around Cambridge on a BlueBike — speaking as a former bicycle courier for hire, the BlueBike represents a proletarian resource or way of getting around the city that, much like the housing stock of the city, shouldn’t be whitewashed. Taylor’s social message reminds us that Boston has been a site of activism for much of its history, and that for us people of color who are at our limit, we push the metaphorical tea into the harbor by producing great art rather than destroying others or ourselves.
“She Is Boston” drops (11/29/19)
No one’s been able to stop talking about this landmark song since it dropped, and for good reason. “She Is Boston” sees three local lyrical heavy-hitters — Red Shaydez, Brandie Blaze, and Lord Ju — serving as impromptu tour guides to this city from the Harbor down to Mattapan, with Nancia singing the hook and rapping a bit of her own spiel. The release of this song at this time was not an accident — this song is right on the pulse of the zeitgeist, a release that simply puts to the megaphone what the scene of Boston had been commenting among itself for two years if not more. Noticeably, this is a song of four women collaborators — a far cry from the larger industry, which seeks to pit powerful women against each other or capitalize on rapper beef rather than unity. With such a well-produced video to accompany the song, the visibility of how awesome, hard-hitting, and just plain different our scene is can no longer be relegated to intimate conversations at gigs and on Facebook. Boston isn’t up-and-coming — it’s in your face, and if you don’t know, now you know.
Brandie Blaze releases Late Bloomer (12/7/19)
Proving alongside Oompa that sophomore releases aren’t just for wise fools, Brandie Blaze’s long-awaited second release Late Bloomer has been on heavy rotation across the city since dropping just last week. Backed by the previously-released, Rilla Force-produced “Drown”, Late Bloomer showed Brandie Blaze’s many sides and selves, again testifying to the (unacknowledged) multidimensional experiences of people of color — especially women of color and queer people as Brandie Blaze self-identifies with both of those communities. And on the note of collaboration, Brandie Blaze didn’t leave us hanging on that front either, with two Red Shaydez verses and one Oompa verse counted within the album. Brandie Blaze, in tandem with her ride-or-die DJ WhySham, has seemingly been everywhere in the city, headlining at ONCE Ballroom at Dorchester Art Project in addition to participating in Bust Out Boston at Brighton Music Hall in September. Though we love the Boston native Blaze as our own, I personally hope in 2020 that she (rightfully) gains an audience the world over.
Did we miss any moments? Comment below with your favorite moment from Boston’s music scene in 2019!
HASSAN GHANNY is a writer, performer, and music journalist based in Jamaica Plain. His work explores the intersections of media, culture, and identity, with an intention to uplift people of color and people in diasporas. He can be found on Instagram @diaspora.gothic and on Twitter @hassan_ghanny.