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On the last Saturday night in April, Bar Nun’s open-mike-night followers cluster in the U Street NW club’s red-glowing belly. A few sit on couches and some sprawl on the floor, but the majority are standing, packing the corridor, listening as, one by one, people get up to offer a verse. Performances can go on for 10 minutes, and skill varies from bad to outstanding. But the folks in Bar Nun’s crowd aren’t Apollo-style boo-mongerseveryone who steps up to the mike gets love in the form of healthy applause.
Choosing Bar Nun as the venue for its CD release party seemed only natural to Psalmayene 24. The band members have regularly hung out and made friends at the place for about four years, so when they take the stage to perform songs from their debut album, Independence, people start hooting and hollering. “I love you, Psalm,” someone calls out from the back. “I love you, too,” answers the band’s percussionist, David “Jali-D” Foreman. Open-mike host and founder of the Movement artists’ collective Matthew Payne introduces the group by saying, “This is a manifestation of work and divine grace.”
Five years ago, starting what would become a weekly ritual, lead vocalist Gregory “Psalmayene 24” Morrison, then 25, stood in Malcolm X Park’s dew-damp grass, clasping hands in a circle with a group of fellow artists that included Payne, spoken-word artist Raquel Brown, reggae singer Ras D, and vocalist Ayanna Gregory. All took turns voicing what they wanted to accomplish, such as being able to reach people all over the world through their art. “We would give thanks for the benefit of all those who came beforethose alive now and for the future,” Psalmayene says. At one of the Sunday-morning gatherings, he remembers, a peculiar kind of sensation came over him, and “it felt as if the ancestors were in the wind.”
“A lot of the seeds that we planted then have actually come to pass,” he continues, referring to the current success of the circle’s members.
Back then, the Helen Hayes Award-nominated actor and former KanKouran dancer didn’t know that he’d be making music someday, even though he’d been performing in one way or another all his life. After all, the boy from Brooklyn, N.Y., liked to chatter up a storm. His Jamaican grandfather, Psalmayene remembers, used to scold him with mock annoyance, remarking, “All Gregory want [to] do is dance and give speech.”
Psalmayene initially expressed his creativity through theater, playing an orphan in Annie and the romantic lead in Our Town, as well as various other roles in elementary and high school productions. When he came to D.C. in 1991 to go to Howard University, he studied film production, acting, and dance.
Since leaving school, Psalmayene has continued to dance and act. In the early ’90s, he performed with Subtle Motion in a hiphop-based dance showcase at the Kennedy Center, where, he recalls, “people were comparing what we were doing with movement to Alvin Ailey.” In 1998, he co-wrote, choreographed, and acted in The Hip Hop Nightmares of Jujube Brown. In 1999, he choreographed and consulted on the local hiphop play Rhyme Deferred. He’s done productions with the African Continuum Theatre Company and is now an actor and educator with the Living Stage Theater Company. He also recently received an artist fellowship for theater from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities and has been commissioned by the Smithsonian Institution to teach a master class in hiphop movement at the University of the District of Columbia.
But Psalmayene’s only formal music training was one vocal class and a single opera gig. He didn’t start singing regularly until about four years ago, when he caught a songwriting fever. “It’s like a possession,” he says, remembering how he would wake up in the middle of the night, sometimes with complete songs in his head.
The singer’s name, which he shares with his band and which means “one who creates sacred songs,” was coined in a similarly mystical fashion. It first came to him as a word-sound, “samayene,” while he was sitting on the back of a bus with an artist friend named Preach, going down Georgia Avenue and brainstorming for a name for a hiphop dance group. After a couple of local showsone at a post office and another at an Army basethe troupe disbanded. But months later, while riding in a friend’s car, the name came to him again: “Yo, I’m Samayene 24,” he blurted out.
“I said it with a sense of enlightenment for that moment of that split second, and I said, ‘I’m gonna go with it,’” Psalmayene recalls. A week or two later, he says, “The spelling came to me. It’s a book from the Bible. A psalm is a sacred song, and with me being a songwriter, it only made sense.” The 24 signifies his birth date. The two-part moniker, Psalmayene claims, is more than just a stage name; it’s also his “other self.” “It’s like a Dr. Jekyll to deal with my personality shifts,” he says. “It took over my life in a certain sense, almost like an alter ego run amok.”
When he began singing at local open-mike nights, Psalmayene wasn’t searching for a band. Ralph “Waldo” Robertson, a 35-year-old Texas-born guitarist who has played with local groups Dead Presidents, Café Soul, and the Suburban Funk Society, recalls hearing Psalmayene sing with Bar Nun’s house band, the Sound Poets, in the spring of 1997. The singer’s lyrics impressed Waldo, and the guitarist remembers thinking that Psalmayene should get someone to write music for him. “Every time I saw him, it was a different song, and the crowd really liked what he was doing,” Waldo says.
But Waldo soon left for a yearlong tour of Europe with the Somali band Shego. And when he returned to D.C., he headed to Computer Analytics in Silver Spring, Md., to study computer-systems engineering.
Meanwhile, Jali-D, who had been working on his own Rappercussions project, decided to perform a few songs with Psalmayene as a one-time thing, backing up the singer for the 1999 Black Luv Festival at Freedom Plaza. The following year, Waldo saw Psalmayene play again. This time, Waldo, who had completed his course work at Computer Analytics, offered to compose some music for the lyricist. In April 2000, the two played together at a benefit for Rhyme Deferred at 14th Street NW’s Metro Café. Jali-D offered to join the group after seeing the performance. “I thought the music would sound even better with percussion,” he says. The three soon began to rehearse together regularly.
“A lot of times, I’d be playing on an unconscious level. Psalm would like it, and that’s how the song starts: nervous energy,” says Waldo. Within a month, the trio had about 10 songs, enough for a 45-minute Wednesday-night show at Metro Café, where, Psalmayene remembers, “it was like pulling teeth to get a crowd up in there.”
After the show, Waldo remembers, “We started creating like a whole rack of songs together, more than we could handle.” So the group focused on paring its output down to a set list or two, performing at local clubs on what Waldo jokingly calls “the U Street tour.” After about 25 performances, the band took two months to plan for an album, which it recorded in a single studio session. The trio released the result, Independence, on its own 3hree of Wands label, just a year after its first show, and it has been promoting its music through MP3.com and Adams Morgan’s DCCD.
For a group that opens its shows with a rallying cry to free Mumia Abu-Jamal, the Philadelphia journalist on death row, Psalmayene 24 offers surprisingly subtle music, with Psalmayene singing witty, patois-dipped lyrics over Waldo’s fluid, folksy guitar and Jali-D’s hefty, beat-box-like djembe drums. After debating daily how to classify its sound, the band finally settled on its own label: “folk-hop,” which Jali-D explains simply as “a combination of folk-type songs and hiphop rhythms.”
“I guess most people would consider [our songs] like a contemporary form of folk music,” Psalmayene says, “but because we’re all part of the hiphop culture, hiphop inevitably colors our worldview and, specifically, our performance, in terms of our attitudes and mind state and just overall philosophy of life. But it definitely pulls from that folk tradition of people like Bob Dylan and Bob Marley and even Tracy Chapman.”
Waldo says he’d like to see the band’s music go as far as it can. “I don’t try to limit it by putting a destination on what I hope would happen,” the guitarist says, pointing to the “organic” way things have happened so far. But the others express hope that the group will be heard by “millions and billions of people” all over the world.
“I think African-American artists have so much potential power internationally, and, hopefully, we can effectively use that,” says Jali-D. “Because we’re American and in America, our image is pushed out all over the world, but I don’t think that the image that we portray of ourselves to the world by and large is a positive one, especially in pop music. A lot of kids overseas look to us as role models, and I want to provide a positive image of us to them.”
Psalmayene dreams of the music going even further, adding his wish that the group will be “permanently tattooed in history”: “People are traveling to outer spaceI’d love for them to be playing Independence and looking back down on the Earth.” Ayesha Morris