Five minutes before her set, Carolyn Malachi was at a corner booth near the stage, pulling up poems and song lyrics on her tablet.
Behind her were two open booths. The empty chairs last night outnumbered the audience in the Langston Room at the 14th and V streets Busboys and Poets.
The empty seats were noticeable enough to unsettle Busboys poet-in-residence Derrick Weston Brown.
“This is embarrassing,” he told me. He put the word out through Facebook and his email list. Still the crowd was small. “Is it because of the three-day weekend,” he wondered aloud. To which I said, “It’s possible.”
But the turnout didn’t faze Carolyn. She’d performed for fewer people back in 2005, when she was building her reputation as a singer. That’s before she made her rounds at various open mics throughout DC and Baltimore, before her songs made it on the radio, before the buzz and Grammy nomination. So no, she wasn’t bothered by the turnout Sunday night, even if the crowd appeared to be there for just dinner and drinks.
Before her performance that Sunday night, I was the only person who signed the open mic list. The low murmurs of conversations continued despite the poet-in-residence kicking off the night with his poem “The Mic Is Now Open,” which has been customary since Derrick started the Nine on the Ninth event six years ago.
“Attention! Attention! The mic is, and ever shall be, open,” he concluded. “Check 1. Check 2. Next up to the mic”—he pointed throughout the audience—“is you, and you, and you, and you.”
The talking stopped abruptly when Carolyn Malachi took the stage and pulled the red shawl from over her low-cut fade.
Whatever the crowd expected, I’m sure it wasn’t a six-foot woman wearing baggy African-print pants and a dark form-fitting blazer. She also had a feather taped to each side of her face.
Noticing the puzzled looks, Carolyn said, “I wear the feathers because I want everyone to remember vision takes flight.” The crowd nodded “ah-haa.” And in that moment, the 27-year-old songstress, musician, dancer and spoken word artist went—in the audience’s mind—from an oddity to an eclectic entertainer worth listening to.
I’ve seen Carolyn perform before. She’s usually with three or five other musicians bringing the house down. But that Sunday night, she was solo.
Her set last night reminded me a lot of Lauren Hill Unplugged, where the former Fugees artist stripped away the big budget production sounds and, instead, made it about her guitar and raw feelings.
For 20 minutes, Carolyn gave the audience a raw glimpse at some unsettled things in her life. “Is it hard to love?” she asked the crowd. “Shout it out.”
One guy said it wasn’t and quoted Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “In Memoriam: 27”: “‘Tis better to have loved and lost/ Than never to have loved at all.” A woman countered by saying, “You might not get the love back.”
There was a time I might’ve agreed with that woman, when each relationship at the time was a one-sided scale. In each case, I had more invested than the other person. Those times, it was important for me to surround myself with positive people. I thank Derrick, the poet-in-residence, who I’ve known for a decade, and my boy Fred. Both guys kept me optimistic during those turbulent times.
Going back to what the woman said that Sunday night, I recalled a quote from Sharon Salzberg, a spiritual teacher, author and cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts.
“If we go into a darkened room and turn on the light, it doesn’t matter if the room has been dark for a day, a week, or ten thousand years—we turn on the light and it is illuminated,” Salzberg once put it. “Once we control our capacity for love and happiness, the light has been turned on.”
My light has stayed on since I met my fiancée two years ago. Now, I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I wanted to tell that woman who said it was hard to love to turn on her light.
It was obvious Carolyn Malachi kept hers on, even as she reminisced about past loves. Her performance was as much therapeutic for the woman and others in the crowd as it was for Carolyn herself. So much so that we all cracked up when the artist said, “Remember, what’s said here stays here.”
Carolyn’s been compared to avant-garde artists such as Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, and Janelle Monae for the otherworldly vibe of her music. Her Grammy-nominated song “Orion,” off her EP Lions, Fires and Squares, is a love story between an astronaut and mermaid.
She sang it capella:
Hey, Space Cowboy. I want you in my interplanetary good vibe zone…Don’t be coy, Space Cowboy. I’m a dish you’ll enjoy. At least I will be when I get rid of these scales. I’m all fins and tails. You’re all stars and fly and just like you I like to stick to what I know, dear. Lately this water’s been jail. I feel the need to get me some sky and, just like you, I could use some variety.
The highlight of Carolyn’s performance was her “capacity for love and happiness” despite her romantic setbacks. She laughed about past loves, not bitterly but remembering the good times.
She read an epistolary to a lover, a letter she said she sent him and didn’t get a response. “Dear Sir,” Carolyn read, “In the afterglow/ of yes and no, I bask/ beautifully.” The women nodded while they snapped. “Dear Sir,” Carolyn continued, “You are fresher/ than Adam’s first breath.” To which the crowd yelled “What?!” and “Go on, girl!”
Carolyn smiled and cleverly spun her past lover’s rejection. “I know, right?” she said, responding to the outburst. “Fellas, what would you say if a woman came at you like that?” Silence. Then Carolyn, still smiling, said: “That’s what I thought.”