Last week's inaugural column wrapped up with some words on Abdu Ali moving to Brooklyn. This week, I decided to unpack what one of our best artists leaving means (or doesn't mean) and what it says (or doesn't say) about the supposed vitality of the Baltimore music scene...
Two Thursdays ago at the Crown's Blue Room, Abdu Ali stood on the lip of stage, his chest-puffed out. It's like he's doing breathing exercises to calm himself down. He stares past the mid-sized crowd. Not bad for a weekday. He appears nervous for what seems like the first time. At least the first time I've seen him perform, which has got to be close to two dozen times over the past two years or so. Last minute, this show, initially a dance night organized by Schwarz and featuring James Nasty and SPF666, morphed into Abdu Ali's low key final show in Baltimore when he announced that he was moving to Brooklyn just a few days earlier.
Abdu Ali has not only become a significant part of the weirdo rap and club and noise scene, stemming out of D.I.Y. shows and funneling into slightly more legit spots like the Crown (when the D.I.Y. spots got crushed by the cops), but someone tying the larger music scene and subsequent sub-scenes together. He has performed a lot and has the start of a substantive discography: Two albums ("Invictos" and "Push + Slay") and an EP ("Infinity Epiphanies") since 2012. For awhile last year, it seemed like he was performing almost every week somewhere, occasionally, more than once. Often, he was dubbed a "special guest" or appeared last minute, announced only via a Facebook status update or a tweet. Internet-buzzing out of town acts would throw him on a bill and it would guarantee a lot more people would show up.
So, ambitious Baltimore artist of some note heads to BK. Big deal, right? There's absolutely nothing strange about this. It's downright predictable, really. There isn't even some kind of semi-frustrating sense that this local artist is "abandoning" his city because he returns in a couple of weeks when he performs with the rest of Baltimore's freak scene in Harford County, as part of Fields Festival. And Kahlon, the bimonthly event he holds with City Paper contributor Lawrence Burney will continue. The next one is scheduled for September 6. But Abdu leaving the city illustrates just how quickly you can hit a ceiling here, no matter how vital or ahem, "vibrant," Baltimore's music scene appears.
How many times can you play the Crown or Club K or open up for a bloggy national act at Metro Gallery before it gets old for you and your fans? It seems possible that Baltimore needs more musicians and maybe even more venues. Certainly more variety, or at least more genre-hopping, makes-no-sense-at-all bills. Sometimes I feel spoiled that I get to see all these talented people almost whenever I want and other times, I feel like they're all soaking me for another eight bucks or so. This is still better than any other city when it comes to live music (especially the P.R circle jerk that is Brooklyn's "scene"), but it feels like something's got to give or all the other Abdu Alis are gonna slowly roll out, if only because they've conquered their tiny little part of the Baltimore map.
Artistically, too, I'd imagine being so stuck to a tiny scene'll make you grow stagnant and your music safe, or to be fair, edgy in a safe way rather than a daring, mind-fucking way, which is how each release from Abdu has felt up to now. And he's young. He just graduated from college. His brief summer tour with Chiffon opened his eyes a whole bunch. This is where it's worth mentioning that at some point or another, Abdu became a friend, long after I loved his music, fortunately. He happened to move a few doors down from me around this time last year. In the photo that accompanies this post over at The Fader, you can see the door of my weird-ass basement apartment in the background. He's done his laundry at my house a few times. We did mushrooms together on Friday the 13th.
Back to Thursday. Once Abdu starts performing he isn't nervous at all. Or maybe he's powering through his nervousness, using it for fuel. He's spinning and whirling around the stage, set in motion by the clubby dubby industrial beats of 'Say Something' and 'Bleed'; he climbs on the floor, huddled up and howls into the mic, grunting and screaming and squealing and crying. His eyes roll back into his head when he raps, repeating "Say something" over and over and over again. At one point, he informs us he was there for the Last Supper and that the gospels don't tell you how Jesus actually ate Jamaican Coco bread on that fateful day. He makes everybody in the room get down on the floor and sit with him and then, jump and go nuts when the beat kicks in.
Not long after that, the performance is over. No encore. No sentimental see ya later type stuff. Abdu seems tired. Or maybe he's back to being nervous. He rests at a small table, a stack of his excellent 45 "Infinity Epiphanies" near his elbow. He doesn't talk much. He looks like he's owed something. He is owed something, really. A few fans and friends come up and talk to him, give him a hug. He's appreciative. But something's nagging him. He's probably still got a lot of packing to do. Soon, he's off to buzz-friendly Billyburg to do this all over again, minus the hugs and appreciation. Good luck, Abdu. Baltimore will see you soon.