Raising their voices in protest (Sam P.K. Collins/The Washington Informer)
Raising their voices in protest (Sam P.K. Collins/The Washington Informer)

Percussionist Malik Dope Drummer made a name for himself on the streets of D.C. playing covers of popular songs on a uniquely designed snare drum as passersby at the city’s busiest Metro stations made their daily commutes.

Last year, a viral video clip of Malik’s public shows propelled him to regional and national stardom, cementing his status as a prominent figure in D.C.’s music scene and reinforcing the benefits of public platforms.

However, pending legislation penalizing high noise levels in public spaces could discourage street vocalists and instrumentalists from making what Malik asserts has been a lucrative career move.

That’s why his attention has turned to rallying support among his fellow performers to protect a resource he said afforded him numerous opportunities as a performer and entrepreneur.

“This bill would make people who use their talent of instrumentation less motivated. It would make them not want to be out there so much anymore,” the artist, whose real name is Malik Stewart, told The Informer days after attending and livestreaming a July 3 D.C. Council hearing about the Amplified Noise Amendment Act of 2018.

If passed, the bill would expand noise protections to residences in the District’s commercial areas. It would also impose a $300 fine and 10-day jail sentence on street performers repeatedly cited for playing amplified sound that travels beyond 100 feet in a public space. Those penalties, Stewart said, further marginalize the wide pool of local talent eager to showcase their craft.

Because he learned about the hearing at the last minute, Stewart missed the deadline to sign up for public testimony. However, as he sat among those against street performances, he placed two drumsticks on his lap throughout most of the proceedings.

“There were only a few of us compared to 50 of them,” said Stewart, a 25-year-old resident of LeDroit Park in Northwest. “I had to let all who disagreed know they were talking about me. The street is the most consistent platform we have to express our culture. There are no daily spaces and gateways to express the arts. It’s all people got.”

As it currently stands, the D.C. Noise Control Act allows for “noncommercial noise” near residences that doesn’t exceed 80 decibels during daytime hours. Metropolitan police officers may provide verbal warnings and citations to alleged offenders. There are no noise level caps for unamplified voices.

Residents near Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro station in Northwest aren’t protected under D.C. Noise Control Act. In recent years, that areas and other parts of Downtown D.C. have experienced significant population growth amid construction of condos, setting the stage for a clash between old and new.

During a D.C. Council roundtable last year, a significant number of complaints came from those living in above the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro station who spoke of how the blasting of speakers affected their quality of life. Some recounted measuring noise levels with phone apps, lobbying the D.C. Department of Consumer & Regulatory Affairs and calling the Metropolitan Police Department with little change.

“Apparently street musicians have increased the volume and extent of their music playing to the point that offices, residences and so on have serious difficulty dealing with what they consider a barrage of jarring music,” D.C Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), told The Washington Informer.

Cheh, along with fellow council members Anita Bonds (D-At-Large) and Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), introduced the amended bill last month, adding the fine and jail time at the request of Metropolitan Police Department officials.

Cheh said her decision was informed by anecdotes from constituents, including one who struggled to get adequate rest as performers outside of George Washington Hospital in Northwest played music from speakers.

“This bill was introduced to find some reasonable accommodation between the people living and working in the area being subjected to loud music for long periods of time and the people who want to play in the public space,” Cheh said, downplaying concerns that the needs of White, well-to-do residents get priority over the city’s Blacks.

For hours, residents and business owners from the western parts of the city expressed their support for the bill, telling D.C. council members that the sounds from the street impeded their daily activities.

In his testimony, local playwright and activist Kymone Freeman countered the dominant perspective, drawing parallels between fines and jail time for street noise to what he described as broader efforts to paint D.C. youth as criminals.

“I’ve heard words like ‘assault,’ ‘terrorism,’ ‘under siege,’ ‘prohibition’ and ‘afraid’ — all buzzwords for criminalization,” Freeman, program director and co-founder of We Act Radio in Southeast, told council members before explaining how implementation of punitive laws often affect the city’s most vulnerable residents.

“They have accommodations for [hockey] fans leaving the games but not for the natives trying to make a living in an expensive city,” Freeman said. “I’m offended by the speed of this emergency legislation that’s not for the retention of longtime residents getting displaced but for the powerful, the wealthy and their comfort. This seeks to provide suburban amenities in urban settings by criminalizing youth.”

After the hearing, the D.C. Council issued a call for written comment about the bill. Freeman, Stewart, and others have taken to social media to urge their peers to make their voices heard.

Regardless of the shape the pending legislation takes, some street performers like D.C. rapper and go-go artist Mikey Dee refuse to let the threat of prosecution stop them from spreading their message in public spaces.

Mikey Dee, 31, who hails from Northwest, is gearing up for the second installment of his Metro Tour that includes shows outside of Gallery Place-Chinatown, Eastern Market and other Metro stations with heavy foot traffic.

Last year, Mikey Dee performed original songs from his album “Math & Literature” as onlookers enjoyed the vibes. This year, he looks forward to continuing his movement and connecting with new people.

“I play my position as ambassador for my community,” Mikey Dee, whose given name is Michael Dorsey, told The Informer. “It connects me to people of different backgrounds. You’re out there with your brothers and sisters. The noise amendment is [made] to silence what we got going on in D.C. There has always been people trying to shut us down.”

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Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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