These Are The Best D.C. Submissions To NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest

By Ally Schweitzer

D.C. producer and MC Kokayi rocked his Tiny Desk contest submission, and he didn't even have to stand up.
D.C. producer and MC Kokayi rocked his Tiny Desk contest submission, and he didn't even have to stand up.

I’m using both the terms “D.C.” and “bands” loosely when I say that 130 D.C. bands submitted videos to NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert contest.

NPR received more than 5,000 eligible submissions to the national competition, which gives musicians a shot at performing a live concert at the radio network’s headquarters in D.C. But fewer than 60 submissions came from inside D.C.’s borders.

NPR’s data shows that more than half of entrants from this region identified as Marylanders or Virginians, many of them far outside the beltway in places like Bluemont and Clarksburg. And if you watch all 130 local submissions like I did, you’ll find that many went the coffee-shop route: a solo performance, usually involving an acoustic guitar and a tender song.

But those who took another path made a big impression. That’s why — if you asked me to judge a regional Tiny Desk competition — I’d hand the prize to D.C. hip-hop artist Kokayi.

The established producer, vocalist and rapper from Deanwood has been nominated for a Grammy. He was a member of ’90s-’00s hip-hop ensemble Opus Akoben, who had a short stint on a major label. He’s prolific — last year he challenged himself to release a new track every day — and he’s taken hip-hop to Senegal with the grant-funded DC2DK project. So it’s no surprise that Kokayi brought his A game to his Tiny Desk submission.

On a song called “The Lick,” Kokayi sings, speed-rhymes, plays the keys, chair-dances and punctuates his verses with goofy faces. NPR’s official Tiny Desk Contest rules say that stage presence and charisma make up 20 percent of the judges’ criteria. Kokayi nailed that category, all while sitting down.

As for the rest of the field, I’m finding it tough to pick a clear runner-up, so how about I just name a bunch? D.C.’s M.H. & His Orchestra, Stranger in the Alps and Virginia’s The Plank Stompers turned in dynamic performances — and brand-new local band The El-Mansouris made a strong impression for a group that hasn’t even played its first show yet (see their debut Feb. 26 at Transformer).

I also enjoyed the videos from Reston’s Space Waste (they start the song by chanting “Yoko! Ono!”), Takoma Park guitarist Angie Head, Silver Spring smooth-pop trio The Walking Sticks and D.C.’s Be Steadwell, Sara Curtin, The Sea Life, Boon and The Highballers.

Watch Kokayi’s video plus 12 handpicked runner-ups in this playlist, below. NPR announces the national Tiny Desk contest winner on Feb. 12.

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