First virtual Mayor’s Arts Awards ceremony celebrates the ‘district of creativity’

By Kelly McDonnell

This article was first published November 23, 2020 in The DC Line here.

Since 1985, the Mayor’s Arts Awards have offered a chance to highlight notable DC venues such as the Lincoln Theatre, a sprawling auditorium on the historic U Street Corridor and a frequent host to the annual event. But the 2020 awards, presented on Sept. 30, relocated to a virtual format like most other celebratory events this year. 

Though the 35th annual awards ceremony couldn’t be held on the historically Black-centric U Street, most of this year’s winners produce work that focuses on Black creativity and empowerment, and many performers showcased Black Washingtonian pride. 

“There’s never been a time, there’s never been a day, like this in our city or in the world,” said Chaz French, a DC-based recording artist and featured speaker at the awards. “Overall, it’s the perfect time to show the rawness of our city, our flaws, our beauty.” 

Award categories ranged from nightlife creativity to arts education, encompassing the many aspects of DC’s “creative community.” The mayor’s Creative Affairs Office — part of the Office of Cable Television, Film, Music & Entertainment — took over administration of the awards in 2019 when the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, which used to host the event, became an independent agency.

The night’s award winners, presenters and performers repeatedly voiced solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and encouraged Washingtonians to vote in this year’s elections.

Virginia Ali, the co-founder and owner of restaurant Ben’s Chili Bowl — a U Street staple — accepted the Mayor’s Arts Award for Distinguished Honor. “I want to take this moment to thank our extraordinary mayor and her extraordinary team,” Ali said. “We expect to be at Ben’s Chili Bowl another 62 years.”

DC Black Broadway, which hires exclusively from the DMV area and produces Black-centric theatrical shows and television programs, won an award for Excellence in Performing Arts.

Indya Wright, a photographer, graphic designer and producer who goes by “Icy the Artist,” won for Excellence in Media Arts. “All of the art I’ve ever created is for the love of this city,” Wright said as she accepted her award.

Wright has done production work for the film Transformers: Dark of the Moon and the television show The Colbert Report. She currently works as the director of content development at Artiste House, a public relations and branding organization that centers on Black design and storytelling.

Purify Love — an activist and a poet who has written more than 600 poems, raps and songs — won the Larry Neal Writers’ Award. As the leader and founder of the Purify Love Movement, she uses motivational speaking to spread her belief that sharing peace and love are the best way to “create lasting change in any society,” according to her website.

Other nominees for this award included Karen Zacarías, an award-winning playwright and the founder of local education nonprofit Young Playwrights Theater, and Randon Billings Noble, an essayist. 

The virtual event also featured many pre-recorded segments from performers such as drummer and America’s Got Talent contestant Malik Dope, 9-year-old rapper Zyah, and the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC., a collaborative music project that highlights musicians in DC, performed in both Spanish and English. In separate Zoom boxes, the artists played drums and guitars, and sang lyrics about unity: “I know that everything will be alright as long as we are united.”

The Chuck Brown Band dedicated their song to the homegrown culture of go-go, which became DC’s official musical genre in February. “You can never mute DC,” the band sang over images of Black Lives Matter protests. The phrase refers to a 2019 dispute that arose when T-Mobile forced a Shaw Metro PCS store owner to turn off the go-go music that emanated from his store after a nearby resident complained about the noise. Local residents rallied around store owner Donald Campbell, and T-Mobile reversed its decision, allowing his store to play the music. 

The resulting #DontMuteDC movement highlighted challenges faced by DC’s Black community, such as displacement, and has helped spur new policy initiatives. In July, the DC Council voted to allocate $3 million in funding to go-go music programs and musicians that have been especially struggling during the pandemic.

The Mayor’s Arts Awards also featured short clips of famous native Washingtonians like Grammy-nominated rapper Wale and Laz Alonzo, who stars in the Amazon Prime series The Boys. They praised Mayor Muriel Bowser and DC, which host and comedian Tommy Davidson dubbed the “district of creativity.”

The complete list of winners:

  • Distinguished Honor: Virginia Ali
  • Excellence as a Community Arts Advocate: Ron Moten
  • Excellence in Arts Education: Rain Young
  • Excellence in Media Arts: Icy the Artist
  • Excellence in Performing Arts: DC Black Broadway
  • Excellence in Visual Arts: Rodney Herring
  • Excellence in the Creative Industries: Nelson Cruz
  • Excellence in the Humanities: Joy Ford Austin
  • Excellence in the Nightlife Economy: Hendres Kelly
  • Visionary Leadership: Tiara Johnson
  • Emerging Creative: Artbae
  • The Larry Neal Writers’ Award: Purify Love

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