It was packed. The long hallway leading up to The John F. Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage was filled with fans, students and art enthusiasts milling about. The event was standing room only. Barricades had already been put up by the security guards to block any additional guests. It was only 6:30 p.m., 30 minutes before the University of Maryland’s Hip-Hop Orchestra was scheduled to perform.
The event was a part of the Word Beats & Life Hip Hop Festival, which took place Nov. 1-Nov. 6 and was free to the public. The closing evening’s performance opened with the Illharmonic Orchestra.
Hip-Hop Orchestra, also known as HHO, graced the stage next and was welcomed by booming applause and supporting jeers. As they warmed up, classic hip-hop played in the background, including Run-D.M.C.’s “King of Rock,” Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick’s “The Show” and Kanye West’s “Touch the Sky.”
The Kennedy Center is the latest of several major performances the HHO has done. Last spring, they opened for Lil Dicky and T-Pain in Art Attack, and over the summer they performed in Brooklyn as one of 16 semifinalists in Afropunk’s Battle of the Bands.
Founder Marcus Moody created the HHO at this university when he was 19. He has since graduated. Their very first beat was made on a table in the dining hall. Moody plays the viola, the drums, and he is learning the piano.
“UMD had the talent and the resources,” Moody said.
As the founder, he believes the biggest impact the orchestra has had is the “opportunities given to the members.”
Within the orchestra is music collective 20NVR, a longtime collaborator with the HHO. The group includes members Hasani, Baptizeee, Kassim, Fayson and D-Keyz. Together, they rap, sing and produce their own music. The end product is a creative powerhouse that captivates listeners as they tell tales of the everyday joys and struggles of friendships, intimacy and race.
Hasani said his favorite part of being in the orchestra is “being around so many talented musicians. Everybody’s so versatile. We can do anything, and that’s tight.”
20NVR provided the vocals for the set and performed several of their songs, with the instrumentalists playing alongside them.
“Ricky” began with quiet staccato strings countered by a slow piano. The song is dedicated to a friend of Kassim’s who lost his life. It narrated the obstacles black men often face, as shown in the lines “Mamase mamasa mamakusa / Momma say that’s my son, please stop shooting.”
That was followed by an accapella version of “Get Ready,” aided by what the group called a “soul clap.” The song is an unapologetically braggadocious affirmation of just how cool these guys are. “Tell the girls that I’m vintage / tell the girls that I thrift it.” The songis available on the group’s Soundcloud.
20NVR’s mixtape “NVR” was released today.
The orchestra’s chemistry was highly apparent throughout their performance.
“I love the people. We don’t all fit in … we’re all different and strange in our own way,” said sophomore economics major Aina Krupinski-Puig, who plays the alto sax and is the vice president of the organization.
She also appreciates the autonomy that comes with being able to create and collaborate with others in the orchestra. She joined as a freshman after hearing about it from a friend.
“I’ve met friends I’ll have for the rest of my life,” said senior physical electrical engineering major Ben Cannon, who plays the piano and is president of the HHO. On their journey to the Kennedy center, he said he’s seen the orchestra grow and shift, developing a “more mature sound and a better group dynamic,” which results in a “more together sound.”
From the beginning of the set, Moody’s unique edge became evident.
If your image of a composer is a stiff man in a tux with white gloves, now is the time to cast that preconception aside. Moody brought his own style to the stage. He commanded his orchestra in a sunshine yellow t-shirt that read “the plug” paired with overalls cast on one shoulder. His energy is contagious. Rather than standing still, he bopped along with the music as he composed, using his full body as opposed to subtle head movements. He would often leave his post to come interact with the audience.
Moody gains inspiration not only from hip-hop but from cinematic scores, as well. Some artists who inspire him include Kanye West, Kid Cudi and legendary composer Hans Zimmer, who has composed movie scores for films such as The Lion King, Inception and The Dark Knight.
“It’s by the grace of God that we’re here,” he told the audience while thanking them, something he did several times throughout the set.
The audience was an integral part of the set. Multiple times the orchestra chanted “HH” while the crowd replied with “O.” There was the quintessential hand wave. A few members brought kids onstage to dance.
20NVR walked the audience through the chorus of “Smoov,” which explores the repercussions of a faltering relationship due to the girl’s cheating: “I need you but I need me more / My heart’s gone purple from banging that broken door / I need you but I need me more / I wanna live forever, but I can’t behind that broken door.”
Singers Hasani and Aiyana Taylor beautifully harmonized the chorus to begin the song. Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black” was interpolated toward the end.
“I liked that it was unique,” said sophomore business major Jenna Griffith.
When asked if he expected such a turnout, Moody replied with a quick, “Not at all.”
The large audience “affirms our place in the future,” Moody said. “Right now, I’m trying to stay cool … this is huge for me.”
Of all of the HHO’s experiences, Hasani said their performance at The Kennedy Center is his most memorable moment yet. He said he tried not to think too much about the size of the audience, but that he expected a large one due to the caliber of talent The Kennedy Center is known to house.
“It means a lot, it means we’re doing something right,” Hasani said. “It’s one thing to do it. It’s another thing for people to back you up.”
Featured Photo Credit: Marcus Moody, the founder and composer of Hip Hop Orchestra, conducts his group during the show at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., Nov. 6 2016
Ayana Archie is a freshman journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.