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D.C. Celebrates Its Unsung Native Musicians and Songs

The African American Music Association (AAMA) paid tribute to two unsung D.C. pioneers, Billy Stewart and Van McCoy, at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library on Saturday, June 25.

The public event that celebrated D.C.’s music history included performances from local artists and discussions. Stewart and McCoy were known to be some of the District’s most talented but underrated. They made a huge impact on music between the 1950’s and the 1970’s. McCoy produced songs for Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight, and spawned the international song, “The Hustle.” Stewart was known for his unique squat style and his song, “Summertime.”

The AAMA was established specifically to preserve, protect and foster the development of African-American music and the legacy of those who compose, record and perform the music.

Saleem Hilton, the president of AAMA and a D.C. native, said the timing couldn’t have been better.

“We’re doing this event now because June is Black Music Month,” he explained. “So this just recognizing native artists that have made an impact in music. Our mission is to promote, preserve, protect and foster the music that has been performed by African American artists.”

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Billy Stewart (Courtesy photo)

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library was filled with eager listeners who wanted learn more about artists and have a chance to go down memory lane. Throughout the day, guests danced, sang along and participated in dialogue amongst each other and panelists.

Several artists, such as the Calvin Ruffin, Jr. and Dane Riley and the Live Inspiration Band, paid musical tribute to the artists by performing throughout the day. The National Hand Dance Association also paid tribute through dance showcases, which showed the most popular dances during the time of the artists’ careers.

One attendee in particular was Renita Smith, who was enjoying herself the whole day. Smith is also a District native that grew up on the music that was being recognized.

“Today’s event has been great. I’ve learned a lot myself, but I think it’s great that we’re talking about these D.C. legends and how important their contributions were,” she said.

Friends and family of the musicians also came from states away to support and attend the event. April Edwards is musicians Billy Stewart’s and Dane Riley’s cousin and drove about eight hours from Greenville, South Carolina to attend the event.

Edwards believes that it’s important to preserve and black music and culture and thinks the event helps people learn about music in the community.

“Being part of the family, I actually learned a lot that I wouldn’t have known if stuff like this hadn’t taken place, so I think it’s a great idea,” said Edwards.

Being part of a family of musicians also helped to broaden Edwards perspective on music.

“It broadens your perspective of music because it’s not like your everyday music. You also learn to appreciate good music,” said Edwards. “There’s a whole lot of musicians within our family, so it really broadens and makes you appreciate music.”

Richard Lyon, who works with the library, believes that it’s important that the library hosts this kind of event.

“I think it’s an awesome way to keep music alive. It’s history, let people know what’s going on and Billy Stewart as far as his career,” said Lyon. “It’s a highlight for the library too, so I think it’s a [nice event].”

Growing up in a musical family and being a musician himself, Hilton believes it’s important to remind people how much we as a people have accomplished as well as the road that lies ahead.

“There are many people that have never heard of Billy Stewart or Van McCoy. That’s why we have events like this — to educate them. We must not forget where we came from,” he said.

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