“Y’all niggas got me hot!” proclaims Anderson Paak, seated behind a drum set while performing with The Free Nationals for NPR’s most-watched Tiny Desk performance at 51 million views and counting. It also served as our background music as friends and I, right fists firmly erect, cheered on Black Lives Matter protestors from a stoop on 14th & U St.
I had been away from D.C. for nearly ten years before returning. In that time, we’ve watched the rise of contemporary legends like Paak, Noname, and Thundercat rise to international success. I felt a sense of overwhelming pride watching virtually as hometown heroes Chuck Brown, Nick Hakim, and Goldlink amplified D.C. for the inherently, Black cultural hub that it has been historically.
The changing optics of the city can be jarring when compared to nearly a decade ago. Institutions like the MetroPCS on Florida Ave that has go-go on round the clock have survived, but how will a culture-laden with nuanced Blackness sustain itself amid gentrification? With millions of eyes on Tiny Desk, what does that mean for Washington?
I hopped on a call with NPR publicist, fellow Howard alum, and Maryland native Anaïs Laurent on her role at NPR and how Tiny Desk and D.C. are growing together.
Tell me about your role at NPR.
Specifically, I deal with NPR music. I’m their publicist, everything from all the different podcasts like Alt.Latino, to of course Tiny Desk, Code Switch, and How I Built This. Essentially, my role is to get people aware of the work they’re doing, looking at the content we have, and determine how we can bring it up a notch and spread the word to a younger and more diverse audience has been my biggest goal. I think a lot of people know of NPR, but they may not know that Tiny Desk is under NPR. I find ways to hook this audience in with new and engaging content.
In its earlier years, a lot of people associate the Tiny Desk sound with more indie, folk music. That sound has shifted quite a bit over the years. How has that shift impacted the Tiny Desk audience?
For one, we did Tiny Desk Fest last year and Megan Thee Stallion and Phony Ppl kicked the whole thing off. That was a complete shake-up for NPR. It was awesome seeing people in the crowd Shazamming it, not knowing who she was. Twitter was lit, so there’s that dynamic. We brought in a lot of international artists too like Koffee and Burna Boy, so I think we are doing a really good job now of just showing the diversity in music. Something that I think is important to challenge is this notion of what is “Black music”? Black music isn’t necessarily just rap. There’s afrobeat, there’s reggae, there’s dancehall, reggaeton, salsa. At Tiny Desk, there’s a home for all those different genres.
Who is in the room? Is it a space that encourages a local presence?
When I came in, one of the biggest things I wanted to see was more people that look like me, you know? And I’ve done a lot of that. I’ve brought a lot of local press to make sure it’s not just a staff thing.
The presence of the Obama administration catapulted D.C. on the gentrification fast track. We’ve seen integral parts of the culture specifically centered around go-go music be challenged by a transplant community. In 2010, Tiny Desk featured the legendary Chuck Brown, the first go-go performance on the platform. Since then, we’ve seen performances from Rare Essence and Trouble Funk. Why is it important for Tiny Desk to feature Go-go music?
For one, this desk is in their home. Just because we are in this building, we can’t ignore that just down the street was Black Hollywood. It’s history. I think it’s imperative that we do that. We’ve had Ari Lennox, Wale, Goldlink, Rare Essence, so I think it’s super important that we are also including the community that’s right in front of us.
Yes! And it’s really amazing to see legends like Chuck Brown, Rare Essence and Trouble Funk be featured, and then usher in this new sound of the area. Do you think Tiny Desk can be accredited to shaping or amplifying the new sound of the DMV?
Yea, totally! I think that again, it’s really become a way for us to discover new music. You get on Youtube, you search these artists and end up in this dark hole of a bunch of new music you’ve probably never heard of before. I definitely do want to get more local artists [and] more international artists, because I think it’s definitely worth noting that D.C. is such a melting pot of cultures. We are multidimensional. I think it’s cool that Tiny Desk mirrors that.
There feels like two prominent cultures in D.C.: The political and the inherent Black culture that built the city. Do you think music is inherently political? Do you think these musicians performing in D.C. make these performances inherently political?
I think art is political and it always has been. Fashion is political. Wearing your hair natural, that is a political statement, you know what I mean? And I think that’s fire. It’s like to me art has always created change.
The world is at a real turning point. What’s next for the city? What’s next for NPR? How do those two trajectories align?
I think it’s acknowledging that the world is changing. It’s the browning of the world. Not the browning of America, the browning of the world. I think a lot of people need to wake up if they haven’t, and understand that your content needs to reflect the diversity of the world. You see that our new CEO completely gets that. One of his top priorities is to emphasize that we need to be creating content that reaches younger and more diverse audiences. Granted, Tiny Desk is definitely one of those avenues, but we need more…I think a lot of people are doing that work. Times are changing and there’s a lot of opportunity in that. It’s also understanding our history. I went to Howard and I’m a local and I had no idea that U Street was this Black Hollywood. People are walking by there every day not knowing that energy is right there. I think education is just so important. You should be proud to walk down the street in D.C. Hold your head up high. That’s a beautiful thing. It’s paying homage to that, education, and then understanding that we do need to have a pulse on the culture and what’s next.