Washington D.C. has more than it’s fair share of talent. In a city full of potential, there are bound to be places for talented, special persons to express and share their uniqueness with the world. One such place I found interesting while on the road is Busboys and Poets, a restaurant and bookstore. Aimed at consciously uplifting racial and cultural connections, Busboys and Poets is one of the most frequented poetry café’s in the region, and with good reason.
From sponsoring programs that honor the communities in which their cafés are present,to donating over 15 percent of their annual earnings to in-kind contributions, the business gives back.
Founded on September 7, 2005, by Anas “Andy” Shallal, an Iraqi American activist, artist, and restaurateur, Busboys and Poets was created as a community gathering place. There, individuals may fraternize, dine, and immerse themselves within the experiences brought on by live performances from writers, musicians, and America’s progressive thinkers. Since the cafe’s inception at 2021 14th Street NW, three links have been added to the chain.
Melissa DePaulis, creativity and culture specialist for Busboys and Poets, is one of the contributing factors to the cafe’s continued success. As a marketing event coordinator, she, along with two other employees, utilizes social media like Facebook and Twitter to increase popularity, prominence, and notoriety. Invested in more than just the financial aspect of her career, DePaulis has been significantly impacted by the atmosphere surrounding the establishment.
“I recently got to introduce Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott-King, at the cafe in Arlington,” she said. “It was incredible because I always heard about the things Martin Luther King did but never very much of Coretta’s side.”
The revered civil rights leader’s daughter is one of many celebrities to have graced Busboys and Poets cafes with their presence. Musicians such as Common, Fabolous, India Arie, Keri Hilson, and Jordin Sparks have all made visits. Big television names like Larry King and Matt Dillon have also made appearances. A nod to Shallal’s history, Alice Walker, Cornel West, Howard Dean and Sonia Sanchez are some of the most-well known activists, authors, and politicians to show their support. The list continues to grow on a daily basis.
“We really run the gamut,” DePaulis said. “Everyone who attends doesn’t always perform, some just eat here or sit and listen. All kinds of people come. We have an upcoming event on May 29, 2012, with Howard Dodson, the former director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. He’s now the director of the Moorland-Spigarn Research Center and Howard University Libraries.”
Paying a five dollar cover charge ensures the performers a diverse audience and the patrons, a series of thought-provoking and moving performances. The experience also offers exposure. Local coverage first arrived with the DCist blog, jazz radio station WPFW 89.3 FM, and the Huffington Post. Media powerhouse channels NBC, TLC, and MTV have all done stories on the cafe.
Christopher Johnson, an 18-year-old poet from Silver Spring, Md., does not care about exposure. For him, speaking from his heart is the only thing that matters. He has performed at every Busboys and Poets cafe at least twice. Each time, he uses an alternate pseudonym to show a different side of himself.
“I have a very stressful life,” he said. “The school I go to is private and borderline all-white. Most of the people there seem snobby and that sort of makes it seem like I’m unwanted. I guess you can say I feel out of place. Most people would think that’s something you talk to your parents about or whatever but mine are lawyers. They never really had time to… play with me and stuff. That being said, I look at Busboys as a way to cope with the nonsense.”
“It’s not about some record label executive hearing me or a chance to be seen. I could give a damn if I get recognition. All I want is to be able to let someone know my troubles and inner conflicts. If anyone ever feels like no one cares what’s on their mind, I would definitely suggest going. It could be a lifesaver.”
Performer Ice da Goddess has the opposite outlook on the cafe. A jack of all trades, the Baltimore-bred artist hopes to use Busboys and Poets as a stepping stone. She dabbles in spoken word, singing, urban dance, and modeling. As a tribute to her deceased rapper brother, Chill Will, she recently added hip-hop to her repertoire. Heavy influences from the genre can be easily identified in her performances.
“I want to make it big, you know what I’m saying?” she said. “That’s why I put my all into performing, whether it’s at the cafe in Hyattsville or if I’m freestyling with my homies. I try to be as innovative as possible, too, so that’s why I do everything to a rhythm. My style of dress and way of talking ain’t the only tell-tales.
“When I flow in English or Spanish, I make sure you can nod your head to it because it rhymes. When I dance, its sultry and soulful. If I spit a poem I wrote, I might toss in a line from Biggie or Nas. That’s me showing you I’m innovative but, at the same time, I can pay respect to the people that came before me. I thank Busboys and Poets and all the other places I’ve been to for giving me the avenue to do that,” Ice said.
Been to Busboys before? Have a favorite poetry café? Share comments below.