Tuesday, May 3, 2016

5/4/16 Airis Smallwood: A is for Ambition

A is for Ambition

By Dexter Kendrick

It's sunset on the third Sunday in April. Churches have opened and closed their doors following service. Families are relaxing after their Sunday dinner and the River City Blues Club is revving up for a different kind of soul saving. “Did you see all that drama going on over there?” exhales Harrisburg's newly crowned queen of soul, Ms. Airis Smallwood as she recovers her seat next to me at the background singer's booth of what will be her third monthly soul showcase, The Singer's Lounge. Housed within Harrisburg's newest jook joint, River City Blues Club, tonight's show will play to a packed house with standing room only. People have begun grabbing chairs from the back and sitting in front of the restrooms in what has very quickly come to be the Go-To event to attend every third Sunday in Harrisburg. The band is having a jam session on the stage as their warm up, the background singers are primed for performance, the 16 performers for the night are dispersed throughout the crowd waiting to reveal themselves, and the walls of the entire lounge are vibrating with anticipation for the great show to come. To the onlooker, everything is copacetic and harmonious, but behind the scenes Ms. Smallwood has been working hard to discreetly prevent a small fire from raging out of control.

Airis tells me that one of tonight's female performers has demanded that her slot be moved up from its position on the performance list because she has a cab to catch. When her request is denied for the sake of keeping continuity in the show, said performer ignites a trail of negativity from the ticket booth at the front of the venue, all the way to the ladies restroom in the rear. “She's drunk!” declares the poised and controlled Ms. Smallwood, tastefully clad in her zebra print cloak, ripped stonewashed jeans, and silver stilettos. It takes the music director and Airis herself to douse and diffuse the situation with the artist, now crying hysterically, in the privacy of the ladies restroom before the discord has a chance to spread like wildfire. When a dream finally comes true not all moments will be perfect, but Ms. Smallwood has no time for petty. Especially not having come so far; and not to mention...it's showtime.

“I'm a perfectionist. A late perfectionist, though.” Airis laughs, as she wipes off her red wine colored lip stain, and replaces it with a wetter, and more inviting lip gloss. “That other color made me look like somebody's grand mom." This night she and I are surrounded by dim lighting, a fireplace, and bottles of wine at Carraba's Italian Grille. Airis takes the opportunity, in this relaxed atmosphere to paint me a picture of her uphill climb toward what is now known as the “Singer's Lounge”. An open mic showcase that has seen a packed house every month since it's debut in February. She emphasizes humbly, “The purpose of this event is to create a community of singers in Harrisburg, because being around like minded people makes you better and more creative”, she declares. “I remember going to a showcase in Philly called the Black Lily”. The home of emerging neo-soul artists such as Musiq Soulchild and Jill Scott. “I only went once, but it changed my life. That night India Arie performed in the showcase, and I had no idea stuff like that existed”, she reflects excitedly as it begins to sink in that she herself is now seated on the throne of a new renaissance in music. One that she has created, this time in her own hometown. Inspired by what she experienced, she asked a friend in Philly what he thought about her doing something like that in Harrisburg, to which she received the response, “Are there even any singers in Harrisburg?” This would mark the beginning of the many labors Airis would have to overcome on her groundbreaking crawl toward the spotlight. “ I said to myself that's exactly why we need this platform.” I had been trying to make this happen for a long time, but something would always fall through. The venue would back out or the cost would be too expensive.”

Before a seed that has been planted can break out of its shell and begin its upward climb in darkness toward sunlight and water, it must first have the self-esteem to believe it can succeed. It must also be resistant to weeds and circumstances that threaten to sap and drain its energy. “Egos”, she responds when I ask her what her biggest challenge was when pulling together her masterpiece. “Some singers didn't want to be a part because they're not being paid or because their name wouldn't be on the flyer.” Her voice climbs an octave as she recalls the struggle intimately. “ I was like, where's the grind [Harrisburg]? You should be showcasing yourself. You should be inviting your people. You should be putting your own name out there. I'm an artist, I'm not a promoter.” There have also been no-shows. “One girl stood us up twice”, she reveals. I was disappointed that the band wasted time learning her music, and then she didn't show.” When I ask if that singer will be allowed a third chance to touch the stage, Airis emphatically replies “Absolutely not; for soul music in this area, there really is nothing to do besides karaoke night. Rock and alternative bands have their night. Rap and poetry have their scene, but nothing for the singer.” She tells me that some people from those music scenes have felt neglected by the Singer's Lounge's exclusivity and partiality to soul music. “You can't make everybody happy”, she retorts. “My biggest fear has always been not having enough attendance.” She lets out a nervous laugh as if four months in to this endeavor, her fears have still not been fully laid to rest. “I've even had some gospel friends of mine say they couldn't be a part because people would be drinking alcohol, and they would have to answer to their religious circles.” The disappointment in her eyes becomes immediately apparent. “Who would have thought that the same gospel that is supposed to unite all people would be the wedge that would drive us apart? You just have to respect people's beliefs.”

With the multiple setbacks and obstacles that had come in her way when trying to bring her dream to life, many would have thrown in the towel, but Airis' resolve is firm. “If you have a dream and a vision you have to follow your intuition.” She praises her dream team of supporting people who she says blessed her by saying 'yes' in a sea full of 'no's'. Background vocalists Janell Scott, Joy Hymon, Jaren Tucker, and Vanessa Slaughter are among those mentioned. “The background singers make the sound to me”, she states. Her countenance glows as she mentions her band director Jarrell Franklin and his wife Tajuanna who manages the artists and their repertoire for the showcase. Jarrell was the only person I wanted to work with. He was down right from the start. He introduced me to the owner at River City and the Singer's Lounge was born. It feels so amazing seeing your dream thriving and being successful.” Airis tells me that she and Jarrell are currently producing her debut EP tentatively scheduled for an October release.

With her next Singer's Lounge showcase approaching on May 15, Airis says that she has more sign ups now from singers than she ever expected. “I get about 30 messages in my inbox a day”, she shares. We can't fit everybody into one showcase now.” The May showcase will also present talent from all over the region, and will include a tribute to the artist Prince, who has just passed at the time of this writing. “I couldn't have a showcase during this time and not pay respect to the best who's ever done it”, she says. Pulling together a group of all-star performers to lay a legend to rest in style, Airis is hoping to produce yet another legendary night worth remembering.

Like what you see? Well follow Airis and The Singers Lounge here




Dexter Kendrick is an indie correspondent for www.levelsreadyent.com and a lover of all things indie. He can be reached at saturnsfirst@yahoo.com