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So you despise Donald Trump and all he has wrought. You might donate money to Beto, Andrew, or Stacy. Or you could take it to the streets and attend occasional demonstrations. A few angry Tweets or Facebook posts, maybe?
However you resist, Justin Johnson might be doing it better. Johnson, who goes by Yaddiya, is the emcee of the nightly Kremlin Annex protests at the White House. The protests, which started on July 16 as a response to Trump’s ignominious Helsinki Summit, are currently at day 106. Johnson joined early on; as of tonight, he’s done 102 nights in a row.
Raised in Silver Spring and a graduate of Paint Branch High School, Johnson was for many years more focused on music than politics. He promoted bounce beat shows and rapped under the name Just-I before renaming himself Yaddiya. (“I wanted something that sounded a little more edgy, and Yaddiya sounds like a brush-off,” he says). But once he got involved in the pushback against the Amplified Music Amendment Act, he heard his activists’ views on Trump and realized he had to do more.
As the Kremlin Annex emcee, Yaddiya is an engaging presence—part griot, part rapper, part talk show host, and the purveyor of some rather satisfying anti-Trump chants, e.g. “Jail to the chief, he’s a liar and a thief.” Occasionally, celebrities like Rosie O’Donnell, Michael Avenatti, or Alyssa Milano drop by. But most nights, the dazzle is provided by Yaddiya working the mic in front of large light-up neon letter-shaped signs condemning the president as a “liar” or “puppet,” depending on the day’s news. Yaddiya is often flanked by costumed sharks or T-Rexes as well as the local musicians he books. Performers so far include singer-guitarist Emma G, DuPont Brass drummer Stan Banks, and several go-go artists: members of the What Band as well as Mickey “Mick III” Freeman and Brion “Beejay” Scott.
Kremlin Annex’s regular drummer, Marcellus Day aka kingthedrummer, formerly played in bounce beat bands XIB and BWA and now performs as a church artist. For the protests, he favors rock, hip-hop, and reggae-styled drumming as well as marching band cadence, all of which work perfectly with Yaddiya’s banter.
“As emcee, Justin brings a positive vibe and really interacts with the people. He brings energy and provides the news for people who might not have heard what happened during the day,” says Day. “When you see kids come down and they start to do the new dances to the beats, you know we’re drawing the younger crowd along with the older crowd to give them the political news.”
For Yaddiya, talking to those assembled for the evening protest as well as whoever happens to be passing by—tourist families with kids and/or MAGA hat-wearing hostiles—is not so different from the role of the go-go lead talker. “A lot of what we’re doing is heavily inspired by my involvement with go-go,” he says. “That the messaging is being given to the audience musically makes it sink in a little deeper.”
Iryna Verity, a Kremlin Annex co-organizer, explains that Yaddiya’s lack of credentials as a political junkie works to his advantage. “That he is new to political expression allows him to engage people just like him who are not necessarily following the political industry,” she says. “Justin brings a lot to the table with his musical personality and his natural talent.” She believes that his ability to turn a chant into a five-minute song, while incorporating whatever musical instruments demonstrators have brought on any given night, is invaluable. “At some point, it’s hard to say whether this is political art or the art of protesting,” she says.
There’s currently no end date for the Kremlin Annex protests, and Yaddiya is cool with that.
“We right there; it’s still like a thing,” he says. “This kind of blatant corruption, it’s so disrespectful and it’s so weaselly. Someone has to be out here because what we symbolize is so important—the people who want to defend democracy. I think we’re a strong symbol for them, and people all around the world are watching.”
Yaddiya will perform at “Chocolate City Live Part II,” a get-out-the-vote event tonight featuring Critical Condition Band, DuPont Brass Band, and Champion Sound at U Street Music Hall. 7 p.m. $20. Tickets are available here.