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Even on a bad day, Vanessa Henderson will pull in about $200. Henderson, a singer/songwriter who performs as Vanny, spends five, sometimes six, days a week performing her original songs and covers on street corners in downtown D.C. Her soulful, stirring voice over her smooth and rhythmic guitar playing is mesmerizing. When she puts her unique spin on the Tracy Chapman classic “Fast Car,” it’s hard to walk away, as was the case on a recent evening on the corner of 7th and H Streets NW. Passersby spilling in and out of the Gallery Place Metro station stopped to appreciate the music. Some even threw cash in a tin bucket Henderson placed in front of her setup.
Of course, not everyone is a fan of Vanny’s music. “Right here, there’s a guy that lives up in the high rise. He hates—I don’t want to take it personally because I think he does the same thing to other people—but I think he hates me,” she says. “He comes down and he films [me] so that he can complain to whoever.”
Grousers like the man whom Vanny spoke about have recently taken their umbrage to the D.C. Council, which held a public roundtable on amplified-noise complaints in December and, in early June, proposed legislation to regulate the sound. Hot spots have been outside the Gallery Place and Foggy Bottom Metro stations, which see high foot traffic.
But at the beginning of July, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson introduced an accelerated or “emergency” version of the bill, saying regulations for “reasonable sound levels” were needed “during the summer months, when busker activity is anticipated to increase in the District.”
The move angered buskers and racial justice activists, who argued that the rules—essentially fines of up to $300 for people who make amplified noises that are “plainly audible at a distance of 100 feet or more” after receiving a verbal warning from law enforcement—would mostly harm people of color like Henderson.
At a rally in Chinatown organized by We Act Radio on Monday evening, on the day before the Council was scheduled to vote on the emergency legislation, Henderson spoke out against the bill and performed along with several other musicians and activists. The crowd held signs reading “#SoundProofDC” while they bemoaned the Council’s bill as a further example of driving the gentrification that is pushing out D.C.’s native residents and silencing their voices.
“Most of the people who busk out here can’t even afford to live in Chinatown right now, because the prices have gotten so high,” said Aaron Myers, a local jazz musician and activist. “So we ask that the D.C. Council don’t take away our voice, because music is the only voice that can speak truth to power.”
On Tuesday, the music-makers got what they wanted—for now. At the last minute, Mendelson withdrew his bill, noting that it did not completely ban amplified noise and that “for well over a year,” “scores” of residents and businesses had been complaining about performers. “[They are] concerned that the amplified noise has gotten so loud that there is never a quiet moment, whether it is in someone’s apartment or whether it is in a business’ conference room,” he said.
After withdrawing the proposal, Mendelson released the latest version of his emergency bill, which had not yet been publicly available. In an accompanying statement, he said the Council would hold another hearing on the issue so “that there can be more time to hear from those who are complaining as well as those who are performing, [and] so that there will be more comfort moving forward.”
“This is not about prohibiting music, but there is a proper balance to be struck between how loud one is, and the ability to make noise,” Mendelson said.