These Artists Want to Revive DC’s Soul
Tucked away in the back of a nondescript warehouse, better known for the nightlife monolith lying dormant next to it than anything else, there lies Revival DC—a small, but ambitious variety show primed to put Washington, DC and the greater Mid-Atlantic region on the artistic map. Honestly, to describe it as a variety show would tell half the story as it only addresses the structure. Yes, each month a variety of people versed in the creative arts take the stage to woo new fans. But, apart from the Apollo like concept, there is a larger vision. A vision that presents DC as a tastemaker on par with larger, more established cultural hotbeds, a vision that broadens the image of what it means to be an entrepreneur, and a vision that combines art and soul to revive the collective spirit.
It wasn’t my intention to attend the Revival showcase last February. I, in fact, had other plans during Super Bowl weekend. But, when your partner insists that you attend, it’s probably in your best interest to reconsider.
Peering out the car window on the way to the show, my whereabouts looked very familiar. It hit me as I got out the car. Next to my destination for the night stood Love. One of DC’s mega clubs that, during its heyday, attracted young, aspiring partygoers in droves. Anyone who wanted to party in DC sought out the venue, and on a good weekend, it could pack up to 10,000 people. Competition be damned. Love was the only club that mattered at the start of the aughts. However, a decade later, the boom or bust approach failed to sustain. In 2011, its owner went bankrupt. Now, the club stands empty—a shell of its former glory and a reminder of what happens when the winner has to take it all.
Surveying the rest of the landscape, I discovered a medley of other uses ranging in density and age. There were hundreds of bright yellow school buses parked in the lot behind the behemoth, the freshly developed Hecht T Warehouse District across the street, a decades old soul food carry out restaurant now defunct, and a warehouse turned seafood tavern directly ahead. I entered the seafood tavern.
Walking up the stairs past the outdoor courtyard, I was greeted immediately by a young woman standing at the entrance. Before returning the greeting, I quickly scanned the room. People were already crowded over the bartop waiting for their order. In the middle, there was a stage with a band in full performance. Tables and couches were sprinkled about, which I assumed to be reserved for paying customers. And in the back, there were a gaggle of folks standing next to the DJ booth, who naturally, didn't pay for the luxury to sit down. Just as I had imagined, all pretense. As I grabbed my ticket, I happened to focus on the design on the shirt of the woman that greeted me. Interestingly, the shirt had a red heart with the letters “WGC” at its center. I looked up and scanned the room again. Many others were wearing the same design. Those with the shirts seemed collegial, familial even--a far cry from usual club environments like the one now shuttered next door. I was intrigued.
Moments later I realized my initial judgment was made in haste. In reality, the Revival DC showcase was intended to be full of love and soul. Yusha Assad, the night’s host, took the stage and made it his mission to promote community, uplift, and good vibes. He assured us that we were going to have some fun that night. And indeed, we did. The three-hour affair was jam-packed. Singers, poets, comedians, and bands all took the stage to wow us with their talent. There was even a visual artist painting the mood of the night. The house DJ and cover band took turns rocking the crowd with music old and new. In the back, a non-profit was promoting their book drive. Meanwhile, two micro businesses were busy selling their merchandise. There were so many things happening at once. The place was alive.
The monthly showcase is situated in a neighborhood experiencing a revival of its own. In 1979, DC’s Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) issued a report analyzing the conditions in each neighborhood within the district. The report placed each community into a category according to multiple factors related to community wellbeing. Conditions in Ivy City, a historic neighborhood in DC’s Northeast, were such that the department labeled it as a “distressed” part of town. Dead last in the hierarchy of neighborhood well-being due to the area’s depressed incomes and poor housing conditions. According to 1980 Census estimates, virtually everyone living in the neighborhood at the time was Black (98%) and over three quarters of all households earned below $40,000.* Fast forward thirty years, the conditions speak of a different story. While still a predominately Black neighborhood, the non-Black population swelled to 45% in 2015. And now, only a third of all households earn below $40,000. These statistics point to a neighborhood on the rise. But, for whom? The median income for black households in the neighborhood is now roughly $44,000, while the median income of a white household is $102,000. The neighborhood has become whiter and wealthier over time. It’s no coincidence that a variety show called Revival just happened to locate in such a dynamic neighborhood. I went searching for answers.
Days after the show, I got a chance to interview Yusha Assad who I later found out to be one of the founders of With Great Care, the collective behind the Revival showcase. I’ll mention that he’s also a touring rap artist, teacher, and entrepreneur. This brother keeps busy. We talked about his broad range of pursuits over a plate of tofu (we’re both aspiring vegans). And once finished, I came away with the impression of a man deeply committed to nurturing the thriving community of artists within the DC region. For him, Revival is the first step to building the infrastructure needed for local artists and entrepreneurs to shine. And I could tell he wouldn’t stop until it was accomplished.
Yusha and the rest of his team identified a perplexing truth within the entertainment world. Washington, DC is arguably the most powerful location on the planet. But, power and creativity aren’t necessarily correlated. Despite the city’s deep political capital, it’s pretty much devoid of the creative capital needed to support its cultural talent. This, in practice, leaves a vacuum sucking promising talent away from the region to more established ones with the support needed to gain exposure. “Between New York and Atlanta, there are no platforms for the artist.” The phenomenon creates a powerful disincentive for up and coming creatives to stay put in a town that inspired them. Revival intends to fix this debilitating market failure.
The line “where art meets soul” influences every team decision for the Revival crew. For one, the phrase speaks to the team’s intention to offer patrons a quality entertainment experience. Acts usually fall into three categories: comedy, poetry, and music. To ensure quality, artists who want to perform must first submit their portfolio. From there, the team chooses the lineup through a rigorous, democratic process. This is important. The Revival team never promotes the artist over their brand. While artists’ fans have a strong showing for a night, they usually aren’t repeat customers. The team wants to signal to the attendee that no matter who performs, it will always be a superb performance.
In addition to their focus on quality, Revival exists to quite literally revive the energy and condition of the soul. “It’s not church, but it’s still good for the spirit.” The night is successful when attendees know they saw really good talent, ate really good food, and met really good people. Positivity and uplift are must haves at each event. And the team protects this aspect of their business fervently. A potential act may be top notch artistically speaking. But, if the message doesn’t energize the soul, it will not be showcased—a principle not often practiced in the highly competitive entertainment world. A principle that proved to be just the ticket they needed to show the community-minded owner of the venue they are housed in that their vision is far greater than dollars and cents.
Greg Casten, owner of Ivy City Smokehouse Tavern and Market, has conducted business in the Ivy City community for 30 years. Always in the seafood business, in 2016 he set his sights to opening a restaurant that would appeal to the growing residential community. But, for him, that wasn’t enough. The restaurant is also a hub for cultural uplift. It supports positive artistic expression through a wide range of daily events. Last year, when the Revival team was looking to expand, they came across the restaurant and felt an instant connection. When Yusha met Greg for the first time, the owner exclaimed emphatically that he didn’t do parties, but focused only on community events. Yusha just looked at him and smiled. “Bro, we are the community.” Now, both are committed to celebrating and uplifting the neighborhood’s rich heritage.
With their first year behind them, the Revival team has high hopes for the future. Their ultimate vision is to create a platform with national acclaim and make DC a place where local artists can gain broad exposure. However, the team knows the vision can’t be achieved without help. “We don’t believe in competition on an entertainment level or a human level. Our greatness doesn’t have to outshine anyone else's.” The intention is to share their business model so DC can develop the infrastructure to truly support its local artists. With concern that the native heritage of the city is going away, places where creative people can flourish and continue to sustain is vital. “Our greatness is determined on the ability to revive awareness and see truth within ourselves. We are great all by ourselves. Live that out.” With a vision like that, they can’t do anything else but win.
*Adjusted to 2015 dollars