Sofar Sounds Pop-Up Concert at MODA

 
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Sofar Sounds is a global community of music lovers, artists, and hosts who come together in 438 cities worldwide to put on secret, intimate shows in unique and unexpected venues. Artists like Karen O, Bastille, and Leon Bridges show up at these secret shows, performing for small, personal crowds in backyards, living rooms, and sometimes even museums.

This Friday, MODA was thrilled to host a Sofar show featuring three amazing headliners: DeJah “TooDopeforRehab” Ault, Ephraim Nehemia, and Travis Bigwood and the Lonesome Doves.

Sofar quickly transformed MODA’s back gallery into a live music venue, folding chairs and blankets laid on the floor and mics set up on our brand new stage, custom-made for MODA and installed just in time for our new exhibition, Wire & Wood: Designing Iconic Guitars.

Picture this: string lights twinkling on the stage, rain beating down on the windows, excited guests passing around drinks and jokes like old friends and vibrating with shared anticipation, all backdropped by in-progress instruments and lit by a Flying V chandelier. When the MC took the stage to introduce the first performer, it was with a sense of humor that he acknowledged the unusual setting—museums aren’t the first venue that comes to mind when you think live music, but then again, that’s the best part of Sofar shows. Bringing a group together for a secret show in a clandestine spot makes the gig feel like an exclusive club that everyone lucked into—it adds an intimacy and a camaraderie right from the start, a palpable sense of recognition between audience members before the performance even begins.

And when the performance began, it began with a bang. The first to perform was poet DeJah Ault, also known by her stage-name TooDopeforRehab. Braids piled on top of her head, dressed in a floor-length floral gown, DeJah began with a delicate song that seamlessly transitioned into a strong, impassioned spoken word poem that immediately elicited cheers and snaps from the audience. In a second piece titled “More than a Woman,” her exasperated delivery continued to delight: “He said I was abrasive. I said, ‘What, like the sun?’”

DeJah’s work—a combination of song and poetry, something she calls flowetry—is celebration of and a testament to spreading unconditional love, emotional intelligence, and self-acceptance. Her final piece showcased all that and more, topped off with a humorous twist. “I have another piece for you,” she said, hesitating as she looked into the crowd. “But it might be a little explicit.” Cue cheers and an uproar of laughter as the one child in the crowd is escorted by the hand out of the gallery by his mother, laughing and waving at DeJah to go on.

So she introduced her final piece—”Poppin”—written for her alma mater Spellman College’s Vagina Monologues. She said it was a happy piece above all else—a piece that evokes joy and pride and love and a firm denial of negativity. With the first line, the already-buzzing room was electrified, the poem garnering shouts of approval and peals of laughter and surprise with every stanza. It was like friends sharing banter—a few girls in the front would drop in quips and get responses mid-line, DeJah laughed at her own outrageous jokes and voices, the whole room lost its place in the poem as a particularly riotous line hit everyone—DeJah included—just the right way. “I’m sorry, y’all,” she managed through laughter, “we’re gonna get through this together.” She ended the poem and the set with another line of music woven playfully into her monologue—this time, fittingly, a quote from Rihanna’s “Sex with Me.” Do yourself a favor and take a listen yourself. You’ll be glad you did.

In a quick post-set Q&A, DeJah was asked about the origin of her theme of unconditional love, to which she responded with a favorite quote by bell hooks, the feminist writer and activist: “Love is the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” She furthered this sentiment when asked how she practices self-love, a topic that she addresses in an article from 2016; self love is about making hard decisions, having tough conversations with yourself, and focusing on personal growth. Her recommended self love methods? Writing affirmations, for one, and meditating—although she did have to miss her weekly meditation circle for the Sofar show.

TooDopeforRehab’s set was one of self love, positivity, and the strength of unconditional love; we hope we’ll see more work from her like this in future, as she will soon be attending Emory University in Atlanta studying unconditional love from a public health perspective, looking at love as a tool for eradicating violence.

He said I was abrasive. I said, ‘What, like the sun?’

DeJah “TooDopeforRehab” Ault is an artist who writes about emotional intelligence, spreading unconditional love, and increasing wealth and wealth consciousness. You can find DeJah and learn more about her upcoming performances on her Facebook page, @toodopeforrehab on Instagram, and @blackcynthia on twitter

The second performer only built on the interactivity that TooDope brought to the show. When Ephaim Nehemiah took the stage, he let the crowd know from the start that his poetry isn’t just about telling stories; it’s about experiencing them. Call and response? Absolutely. Audience participation? Highly encouraged—”Let’s go, poet!” “Go in!” “Yes!” and “Wow!” all acceptable examples. Fellow performer TooDope in particular took this to heart—her soft “wow”s could be heard from where she sat cross-legged in front of the stage throughout Ephraim’s set.

All of his pieces, whether he was explicitly asking for audience interaction or not, were so riveting that the audience was constantly on the edge of their seats (and blankets), gasping at particularly devastating lines and exclaiming with empathy or shock or excitement with what felt like every other thought. You see, Ephraim’s poetry is about healing—that’s even the name of his new book—but before healing, he makes sure you remember, comes pain. While his poetry often comes to some revelatory climax or fosters a new and valuable connection with the audience, the subject matter is tough. He promised when he took stage that he would bring us down and then bring us back up, and he was telling the truth.

He opened his set with a piece on mass incarceration (“Prison Got Bars”) that hit like a fist to the gut. He followed it up with a piece on police brutality and hopefulness—two topics that don’t often fit together well—and brought the crowd together for what felt like a church service in the end. In a striking call-and-response to close the piece, Ephraim shouted from the stage to a buzzing crowd filled with his same righteous fervor: “Turn to your neighbor, say we gon’ be alright,” over and over until one final call that “The whole church says amen.” The silence that followed the crowd’s final response, one unified, resounding “Amen,” was long, poignant, and loud.

Ephraim continued to whip the audience from emotion to emotion for the rest of his set. He followed this hopeful ending with a piece on his experience with fatherhood (and absent fathers), the topic at the center of his in-progress one man show. The audience, left in shock after this stark and honest piece, was immediately whisked into one of Ephraim’s favorite imagined alternate universes—one where black people leave the planet and take their music with them. After making sure that the whole crowd could do the No Music clap, he brought the crowd back up in a celebration of black music. “In our creation story,” one line went, “God is the first musician.” A joyful call-and-response led the audience straight into Ephraim’s final piece, a truly riveting poem titled “Waffle House.” Please, go listen to Ephraim despair over the infamous diner’s misleading name (considering their sadly short waffle menu), if only for the final line: “You know what? I don’t even blame [the founders]. I blame Christopher Columbus for making white people think that they can just name things whatever they want.”

A brief Q&A after that bombshell ending brought about a discussion of Ephraim’s favorite drunken 2am go-to, since it certainly is not Waffle House (it’s either iHop, Steak and Shake, or some other establishment that is honest about what it serves), how his life of travel has helped him learn to never grow so attached to things that he can’t let go of what doesn’t serve him, and his inspirations—poets like Scott Woods and artists who bring attention to activism above all else.

Ephraim’s work is vulnerable, personal, and dialogue-invoking; it brings attention to that which is important, be it race or class or gender, in an accessible format that makes the audience join in the conversation (and sometimes laugh along) rather than just listen.

In our creation story, God is the first musician.

Ephraim Nehemiah a poet, a writer, a performer, and an educator. He is currently a program director and teaching artist at Twelve Literary Arts in Cleveland, Ohio as well as the coach of top 10 nationally ranked teams that competed at Brave New Voices and the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational. A finalist performer in several regional and national competitions such as 2017 Individual World Poetry Slam and 2018 Rustbelt Poetry Slam, Ephraim has also performed in collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, The Cleveland Foundation, TEDx Talks, Button Poetry, The Saul William's World tour and others. Learn more about Ephraim, his work and achievements, upcoming performances, and booking inquiries at his website, https://www.ephraimnehemiah.com, or on Twitter @ephraimnehemiah.

Our final performers seemed the most at home on our stage, surrounded as they were by guitars. After an hour of spoken word poetry that pulled the crowd in and incited participation each step of the way, Travis Bigwood and the Lonesome Doves—a folk trio from Knoxville—let the crowd slow down, take a breath, and listen to the sound of the south to wind down.

Travis Bigwood has what some might call the classic rock origin story: he was born and raised in Knoxville, Tennessee, growing up in a trailer park under traditional southern parents who didn’t necessarily approve of his musical inclinations. He bought his first guitar at a pawn shop as a teen—quite the classic rocker—and eventually recruited two friends and fellow musicians to round out the group. In Travis’s words, the trio performs to tell stories, much like his fellow performers Friday night. “I try to capture the sound of the hardships and all the goodness that echoes through these mountains,” he has said, and they definitely brought that sound to MODA for Sofar this weekend.

Watching the Knoxvillians perform on-stage was a grounding experience; three singers, two guitars, and one microphone playing for a room of strangers-turned-friends made for perhaps the most intimate set of the night.

The band began with a folksy opener that led into “Don’t Mind Me,” a twangy, crooning country piece. Travis addressed the music’s obvious southern influence, pointing to his love of artists like Elvis and Hank Williams as key in developing his own style. But one of his music’s major themes, he said, was the impulse to distance oneself from one’s roots: “I tried a lot when I was younger to get the southernness out of me,” Travis said, despite having (admittedly) one of the most southern names possible. Aubrey, another of the trio, took on the task of performing a song titled “Far From Home” about reconnecting with one’s past and the struggle to accept where you came from, trailer park or not.

The group ended their set by playing the two songs off of their new EP, “Paw’s Place.” When describing his thought process while writing the new tracks, Travis admits that he works through his past with his songs, writing about where he grew up and where he’s going and whether he’s “in the right place at the right time,” as he put it. (From the back, TooDope shouted “You are!” to that one, to much agreement from the crowd.)

The final two tracks, “Paw’s Place” and “Bad Conditions,” were warm, intimate stories about change and hope. They held in them some magical moments—the held breath and near silence at the end of “Paw’s Place” as Travis practically whispered a refrain, fingers barely brushing the strings; the subtle, collective inhalations at the particularly touching lines about childhood and leaving old homes behind; the slow eruption of stomps as the final song drew to a close, the energy from the night finally bubbling over. The trio carried the last song to its conclusion with a hopeful, insistent refrain that summed up the tone of their set: “It’s alright, you don’t have to worry. Everybody’s searching, trying to find the answer.”

The set and the gig ended with a word of advice from Travis, based on his experience growing up and striving for his dreams to make music. “Everybody’s gonna try to tell you what’s right or wrong…Nobody can tell you that but yourself.”

I try to capture the sound of the hardships and all the goodness that echos through these mountains.

Travis Bigwood and The Lonesome Doves are an Americana Folk trio from Knoxville, TN. Their songs bring together southern ideology, folklore, and harmony to “create arrangements yearning for simpler times.” To find more about Travis Bigwood and the Lonesome Doves and their upcoming performances, check out their Facebook page or follow Travis @tabigwood on Instagram. You can also find their new EP, Bad Conditions, on Spotify.