When I came to DC in 2000, it was no less than epic for me, a Missouri girl just coming out of a bad stint of being stuck in my college town, broke. I was hanging onto an abusive/codependent relationship and working as a pizza delivery driver. I'd already experienced some big setbacks and was no stranger to life. Still mired in grief from these, I couldn't muster up the courage to leave my college town, so I let myself spiral down until I had lost my job, followed by my rental house (a cute bungalow flat in Columbia MO that I not-so-cutely got kicked out of), and and was sleeping on friends' couches and eating their canned goods. So I went home, to the suburban lands of St Louis, and I grieved the loss of my innocence for a few days, crying tears into the Mississippi River, until my grandfather stood sternly above me as he never had before. Ever.
"You need to get yourself together." He said, brazenly. "You're breaking your mom's heart. You have all this talent and you're wasting your life.You went to college. You need to get a job."
My grandfather, who is now 92 and in a nursing home, had never spoken to me in any voice but kind and yielding. So this was new. Really new. And it struck a chord in me. So I started to do some searches for jobs online. In the process, I communicated with a friend who I had started an organization with on campus a couple years prior. "RAW," it was called. The Radical Alliance for Women. Kelly and I had both been in the journalism school at Mizzou, but she graduated before me, as I became ensnared by a double major: Music (oboe, to be exact), and an interdisciplinary studies major with English, journalism and women studies. 6 years + 2 Bachelor's degrees = I obviously had no real mentorship in college.
At any rate, Kelly was working for The Blade, a well regarded and popular gay newspaper in Washington, DC. She was working with a photographer named Cliff, who was married to a man named Pete, who worked as a researcher at the Hotel & Restaurant Employees Union Local 25, which was looking for another Research Analyst. Bingo.
I don't know how I did it. But I got that job. They flew me into DC for the first round of interviews and I'll never forget that visit. Staying at Kelly's in Brookland (a rundown area then; now you can't buy a decent house there for less than the high 500's), I took the metro downtown, got off at Gallery Place/Chinatown and walked to K St. 10th and K to be exact. And that's the day I met Henry Moses III.
|With Henry at a protest in NYC|
Henry Moses was the first person I met at Local 25. He had a beautiful face and a wedding ring. I know, because I looked. He laughed freely and heartily and was intelligent and not eager for anyone's approval. Over the next 7 years, Henry Moses became my friend, mentor and boss; then my lover and partner - we were drummer-activists in the Rhythm Workers Union, and co-workers at Local 25 exposing the misdeeds of the corporations not wanting to allow union organizing on their properties. Then for a little while we were something like enemies; and finally he became a strong supporter of my work with the Young Women's Drumming Empowerment Project, or YWDEP (we say "why-dep.")
How this all came to pass is part magic. Just getting that job in DC was magic in and of itself. And then meeting Henry - he was like a guardian angel - and my first real mentor. I was 25. Then, when the protests started and people flooded the streets of DC, I saw the drummers.
My ex boyfriend had given me a drum for college graduation, so I owned one, and I'd played it a lot on my own or with groups of hippies around Missouri. I have a long history in music and dance, including being a tap dancer for 12 years and a competitive dancer (in high school I actually won a chance to dance with the Queen of England, but had to raise the money myself so decided not to pursue it), and of course playing the oboe, a melancholic instrument that is rather obscure in most people's minds. Still today when I tell people I was an oboe major they often go into a diatribe about the oboe where they instead describe the bassoon. "Oh! Is that the long instrument with the piece that sticks out?" no. no no no! The oboe is the duck in Peter in the Wolf, ya'll. It's also the instrument that gives the "A" and tunes the orchestra. No, it's not a clarinet! okay okay, calming down....
At any rate after I received that drum, I beat it. I was so mad and sad and all I could do was beat my feelings into that drum.
|YWDEP Hottt - YWDEP girls and mentors performing at The Fridge in 2011|
Fast forward to about 2005; In my 5 years since coming to DC I'd already been the Steering Committee coordinator for the DC Statehood Green Party; research analyst at Local 25; outreach coordinator at Good Jobs First; co-founder and organizer of the Rhythm Workers Union; Anti-War organizer (professionally!) at both the Quixote Center and at Code Pink: Women for Peace, an organization that actually fired me (this is another story altogether!). Also I had worked at a start up social justice cafe called Cafe Mawonaj in the Howard University area before it became fancy upscale "Ledroit Park," and then I was a cook for an elderly couple for $100 a night. So whew. I was exhausted, and could not afford to keep paying for my insulin (I've been type 1 diabetic since age 13), so I applied for a job as the Assistant Studio Manager at Joy of Motion dance center in Dupont Circle. Soon after, my wrists started to hurt from doing data entry for hours a day. So I thought up an idea for a summer drumming program for Girls.
It came out of a realization that happened while I was leading an after school drumming club a middle school on Georgia Ave in 2004. One day, the boys didn't show. What happened that day kind of blew me away. The girls grabbed their drums with their legs, not "side saddle" like they'd been playing them when the boys were around. And they played them. Loudly and confidently. With the boys around, they barely hit them at all. So, I wrote a grant to the DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities, and I got the it; my friend Alice and I recruited young women by reaching out to schools, churches, youth centers; she created a website and I flyer'd like a champ. We called it the Young Women's Drumming Empowerment Project (YWDEP), and ran the program that summer out of DC's beloved All Souls Church.
|Sistas - YWDEP 2009 graduates|
The girls who came to the program that first year are now in their mid and late twenties but I remember each of their respective magics as clear as day. One was quiet and smart with a lot to say; one was hurt, but resilient and open; two were incredibly naturally talented; one was rock solid and the other was 17 and the primary breadwinner for her mom and sisters. One was extremely shy. 5 in all. They went through something that summer, as did I. Through writing to find their voices, and learning to drum to release their fears, their authentic selves began shining through. I didn't realize how profound this experience would be for them, for myself, and for the audiences that saw them perform that fall at the DC Arts Center. Deep corners of their consciences came through their poetry and knocked audiences out. Their sheer talent became a sword cutting through all the bullshit they had faced up until that moment in their lives. And we all witnessed this - a true right of passage for these young women. Awe-inspiring.
Indeed, I did not know what to expect when I began the program. But after that first year, there were 5 more years like that, each group with different young women, each with different experiences. And I took it on myself to study the drum in a serious way, to learn everything I could about the djembe, it's roots, it's rhythms, it's notes and sounds and the kind of spirit required by a person who chooses to play it.
|YWDEP Fanga - from the YWDEP performances 2008|
In 2007, after 2 years of being like the father many of these girls never had, my soul mate Henry Moses died on Oct. 25th. For months he had been complaining about issues with his gut, which was swollen. We thought it was due to his switching HIV medications. But then his breathing became labored. He got a chest X-ray and the doctor said it looked like he had shards of glass in his lungs. The folks at GW did their best, I guess... but they really missed the ball for the first 4 or 5 days. When they finally found the cancer, and figured out it had started in his pancreas, moved to his liver and stomach, then attacked his lungs, it was just way too late. Henry went into cardiac arrest when they put him under to probe for the cancer. Then he went into sepsis. The last time I saw him "alive," he was hooked up to so many tubes and machines I could barely look at him. This man was a mentor, warrior - someone who loved me fully for who I was and who supported all of my crazy projects and who told me I needed to "get out of my own way" (still working on that one). Another friend showed up that last night, and we sang "3 Little Birds" to Henry. His eyes responded, with a small wink. I told Henry it was okay if he needed to go. So the next day, he pulled the tubes out of his throat (I only heard about this, but it was completely believable.) He said "I didn't want it to be like this." And then he died.
Henry was someone who wanted to die in the woods. He identified as a Pagan, a queer, a musician, a brother, an activist, an intellectual, an artist.
|Bele Bele Birchmere - Bele Bele Rhythm Collective before our performance at the Birchmere, 2015|
I had a son about 4 years ago, and had to give YWDEP a rest for a few years. Henry always wanted to go to the continent (Africa), so I went for him. I've been back several times with my husband Kweku, taking tours and drumming up business for the craftworkers Kweku grew up with in the Arts Center of Accra, Ghana. We have a pop up shop in DC where we sell these in support of the community, and are currently also building an artist's home for the craftworkers. Meantime, I lead a performance group of women drummers, as well as groups of drummers at All Souls church and many area schools. My stories from my time in DC as an activist and creator of projects have each a beginning, middle and end which I hope to tell in much more detail with a book in the near future.
Sometimes I say the drum has made my life rich. I could say that with each challenge I've faced, the drum has a magic dust that seems to spray off of it when I play, which makes things turn out okay. This could be true; but there is no denying that playing the drum brings beautiful people into my life, and the relationships I've built with these folk is the true magic. Ashe.
|Kristen & Kwe in Ghana 2011|
Note: (Except for Henry Moses III and Kweku, the rest of the names in this story have been changed to respect people's anonymity).
This is Week 44 of 52 Artists in 52 Weeks. Thank you for reading and sharing Kristen’s story today. To connect with Kristen, learn more about her work or see a live performance, please visit the following links:
See a video on YouTube of Bele Bele Rhythm Collective performing Fanga at NPR studios, 2014:
Pictures of Henry with Kristen and the Rhythm Workers Union:
Pictures of YWDEP: