Meet Some Of The D.C.-Area Musicians Who Entered NPR's Tiny Desk Contest This Year From D.C.'s "Queen of the Blues" to a classically trained vocalist and rapper from Prince George's County.
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Meet Some Of The D.C.-Area Musicians Who Entered NPR's Tiny Desk Contest This Year

Prince George's County native ChiniGettinSaucy is an up-and-coming rapper who studied theater at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. Photo courtesy of Shannon Hayes/ hide caption

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Photo courtesy of Shannon Hayes/

Since it first launched in 2008, the name Tiny Desk has become synonymous with not-so-tiny names in music. A quick search brings up past performances from T-Swift, Alicia Keys, Lizzo, Khalid, and Coldplay. Though the pandemic kept the NPR Music team at home, millions of video streams kept pouring in as major artists recorded their own virtual performances from their home cities and studios, creating something of a global desk.

In keeping with its foundational theme of helping music fans discover up-and-coming artists, the Tiny Desk Contest has given unsigned artists a platform to introduce their work to wider audiences since 2014. The contest's winner — who NPR says will be announced "soon" — will get their own Tiny Desk concert at the headquarters in D.C. and an interview on All Things Considered. The panel of judges this year includes Tiny Desk creator Bob Boilen, last year's winner Linda Diaz, and singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers, among other critics and musicians.

Thousands enter the contest each year, adhering to the rule that artists include an actual desk in their submission and feature only original music. DCist checked in with three local acts to find out what motivated them to send in their music, how they got started, and what keeps them going.

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Carly Harvey

A few seconds into Harvey's track "Human Too," it becomes apparent why local blues radio host Dr. Nick Johnson, of WPFW, named her "D.C.'s Queen of the Blues" back in 2016.

She wrote the song in the wake of George Floyd's death, singing painful melodies punctuated with vocable chants, a nod to her Tsalagi and Tuscarora heritage. Blues, she says, is a southern tradition, of course, but it also features elements of Indigenous minor pentatonic melodies and stomp dance songs.

In her song, Harvey addresses police brutality, "kids in cages," and land being stolen from Native Americans. At its core, she says, blues has always been about addressing issues of the current moment.

She says, "In the middle of the pandemic, people were like, 'Carly, are you going to write any socially conscious songs?' I said, 'I don't force myself to write music.' The song wants to be written and it comes to me.'"

"Human Too" won the self-taught musician a 2021 WAMMIE award, and when the 2021 Tiny Desk Contest was announced, a friend told her the song would make for a perfect entry. (She also submitted a song for last year's contest.)

Harvey, a Chevy Chase resident, grew up in Bowie, Md., and initially leaned more toward the singer-songwriter and folk genres. After listening to Harvey sing, a few friends at St. Mary's College of Maryland convinced her that blues might be her calling. Now, with a polished EP she released in 2019 with one of her bands, Kiss & Ride — the other group is her all-women blues trio The Honey Larks — it's hard to believe blues was a second choice for the 35-year-old artist.

"I grew up listening to blues and jazz and decided I didn't want to sing it. And then it kind of chased after me anyway," Harvey says. "Basically, it chose me. It was like, 'You're the vessel' ... so I just surrendered to the process."

You'd be forgiven for surrendering yourself to Harvey's soulful music, too.

Water Bears

The D.C. duo Water Bears — Sam D'Agostino and Lisbet Portman — first started making music together during the pandemic, which they called "the ultimate creative constraint." One day, sitting outside on D'Agostino's porch in Fort Totten, Portman asked a question aloud — rather, a string of questions:

"What if we forced ourselves to make an EP and then never have to show anyone? What if we were each other's 'accountabilibuddies' for creating something, and we refuse to emerge from this time having made nothing, even if that something is something we never want to return to?"

Though both have dabbled in various bands for years, neither D'Agostino nor Portman does music full time. Perhaps that's what gave them the freedom to record songs as unconventional as their Tiny Desk submission, "Nowhere." They recorded the video for it at Calleva Farm, their friends' farm near Poolesville, Md., where they found a literal tiny desk in an attic in the barn. In the video, that desk hangs out of a nearby window while D'Agostino — rocking silly sunglasses, a signature bathrobe, and a hefty boot from a recent leg surgery — jams on a synth and then a bass as Portman croons away wearing a floral shirt.

They recorded the video in the middle of Brood X season — but rather than attempt to mute the cicadas' cacophonous buzzing, they set up a microphone to make the insects louder, putting the listener directly outside during a strange summer.

Their sound is more Midwestern than Mid-Atlantic— D'Agostino is originally from Missouri and Portman is from Ohio. Both moved to D.C. after landing jobs at nonprofits, meeting a few years ago when Portman became roommates with one of D'Agostino's former bandmates. In the past year, the two have gotten new jobs, started their band, and married their respective partners.

D'Agostino says he began writing "Nowhere" a few years ago after a tough breakup. At the time, he felt a lot of shame and sadness about feeling lost in his mid-thirties. "It started off as a 'where do we go from here?' kind of song," he says.

After writing the bones of the song, he felt the lyrics were too generic and set it aside. A year later, after working through some childhood trauma in therapy, D'Agostino came back to the song and gave it a second life. His now-wife helped him realize it's not just about a breakup, but also captures "the moment after the storm and trying to figure out how to pull yourself back together."

Portman's voice adds an ethereal quality to the song, as she sings, "You don't have to act so strong/ 'Cause you have never been alone dear/ We have been here all along."

The forthcoming EP is filled with a range of perspectives, but this one, which carries an optimistic approach to trauma, resonated with Portman, who is now expecting a baby with her husband.

"It felt like a confident voice saying that the world can be decent and loving," she says.

ChiniGettinSaucy

As one of just a few hip-hop/rap submissions from this year's local crop, it's hard for Shannon Hayes, aka ChiniGettinSaucy, not to stand out. The Prince George's County native and Duke Ellington School of the Arts graduate says the famed high school "made me that artist that I am."

"You ever see the TV show Fame?" she asks in a voice that's way more laid back than her hard-hitting, fast-flowing lyrics. "It's just like Fame. I mean, you walk in in the morning, you see dancers pirouetting through the hallways. You get a violin playing while you're walking upstairs to class. You hear the classical and opera singers doing their thing."

She started as a classical vocal major then switched to theater, so her stage performances — like this one from a few years back in Atlanta — carry a bit more swagger than even the most respected rappers in the game today. Her stage name is an ode to one of her favorite old-school hip-hop groups, Camp Lo, which had the 1997 hit "Luchini AKA This Is It." Hayes says she draws more inspiration from artists of decades past — a mix of foundational rappers like Notorious B.I.G. and soul singers like the Mary Jane Sisters — than from what she hears on the radio today.

"I hope that when I finally am on the radio, people aren't quick to turn it off," she says. "When I'm listening to the radio, everything sounds the same. So I'm really trying to bring the people something original."

That mindset is why she told New York beatmaker Raydar Ellis, specifically, to make her an energetic beat that didn't just loop, but had a lot of soul. About halfway through the short track, a new baseline comes in, matched with funky horns and Hayes' own harmonies.

At 28, she's already moved to and from Atlanta, a five-year journey that taught her hard lessons about the rap business. Hayes says she wasn't taken seriously within the male-dominated industry — producers made it clear that if she wanted them to represent her, she'd have to sleep with them, she adds.

"That's just not my style," she says. "I do think that has hindered me from being further than I am right now. The industry is definitely 100% still misogynistic."

But where others would stop progressing, Hayes has kept pushing her own limits. Even as motherhood has slowed down some of her music production, she's working on an EP and hopes to get back to performing live with Sofar Sounds, a traveling set of pop-up shows at venues across the U.S.

As her Tiny Desk song makes clear, Hayes is hungry for more.

"I have three children ... I mean, it just motivates me to go even harder. It makes the experience better because you have somebody to fight for," she says. "Plus, it just makes you a cool mom."

This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.

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