It was 10pm on Saturday night. I got out of my car, waited for my friend to crush her Four Loko can underfoot, and walked into a house show in Fremont. The house was a nondescript two-story outfit that sometimes functions as a DIY venue. It was surrounded by the requisite gaggle of lanky, black-clad, twenty-somethings milling about, smoking, and lounging in the porch light.
The performance space was in the basement. It was small and crowded, with black plastic covering the walls and speakers flanking a small corner where the performers would stand and play their beats through a laptop. More often than not it was filled with weed smoke, stale air, and a melange of moving, gyrating bodies whose outlines blurred together in the weak illumination of strands of multi-colored Christmas lights.
I was tired, and probably too sober. But I was also determined. The concert I was there to see was a six-act marathon featuring underground musicians from around the Seattle area. I was mostly there to watch the de-facto headliner of the show, DoNormaal.
If that name sounds familiar, it’s because the relatively new-to-Seattle MC has made short work of invading the underground Seattle scene. Her first LP, Jump Or Die, attracted both local (Seattle Weekly, CityArts) and national (The Fader) attention. On April 9th she will open for Santigold at the sold-out Little Big Show #15 at The Neptune.
Her album is an ambitious, atmospheric exploration of the shifting, tenuous boundaries between the experiential and the surreal. It highlights not only her unique lyrical prowess but also her singular artistry.
It did not take long to find her. She was dancing in the kitchen, forty in hand. In person, Christianne Karefa-Johnson, the woman behind DoNormaal, has the kind of serene confidence that makes everything around her seem manic and overwrought. She wore a long, brown, fur-lined coat and clip-on hoop earrings which periodically fell off throughout the night. She told me she had bought them from Icing. Somehow this made her seem even cooler.
Perhaps I should have done the mental math beforehand, but six different acts doing sets of at least a half hour each made for a long show. I skipped the entire set before DoNormaal purely because I needed oxygen and a break from dancing.
That’s not to say that there weren’t highlights besides the act I’d come to see.
Ashtre Surfa was impressive, and opened the show with the correct amount of hype. Raven Matthews (with whom DoNormaal frequently collaborates) had one of the best, weirdest, and most stylistically wide-ranging performances of the night. He was joined at one point by DoNormaal for a performance of Jump or Die standout track Chocolate Delight, a laid-back party cut superimposed over a big band ragtime sample which garnered one of the most exuberant audiences responses.
Finally though, as the hour edged towards two, DoNormaal took the stage by herself. She’d lost both coat and earrings at that point. She stood onstage in a sailor shirt and jeans, slim and unassuming. Onstage she is in turns shy and intensely earnest. Her flow is laid back until it is suddenly not. Her verses pulse hazily over beats tending towards sparsity and coldness. It makes her sound as though she rapping in a dream world, at once immediate and surreal.
She is not the sort of performer who grips the audience and forces them to pay attention to what she says. In between songs she didn’t say much other than giving credit to her producers (many of whom were present). Rather, you listen to what she says because to ignore it would seem irreverent. Periodically she places her hand on her hip and seems to admonish the audience like a playground imitation of a stern teacher. When she softly groaned that “Summer’s coming soon/ I’m gonna smoke my soul away” at the beginning of Dime, it sounded less like a description of getting really, really high, and more like a journey to the edge of consciousness.
Her final song, the title track off Jump or Die, elicited a palpable reaction from the audience. As she opened with the creakily groaned invitation to “Take my hand or diiiiiie” people yelped and swayed with their eyes closed, lost in their own emotional responses. There were audience members who obviously knew every word to the song, but there seemed to be just as many who didn’t, but were nevertheless entranced.
Earlier in the evening she and and my friend Asia discussed the idea of producing music as women of color. “There’s going to be an explosion” she promised. Listening to her that evening, watching the audience dip and sway in time with her lyrical pronouncements, it was easy to believe her.
She is going to explode. And when she does, we will all be better for it.