Since emerging in 2012 with his debut mixtape "Invictos," Abdu Ali has become a central figure in Baltimore's independent music scene. At 25, the Charles Village resident is also one of the youngest.
On Saturday, one of Ali's most significant contributions to the arts community — Kahlon, a bi-monthly party held at the Crown in Station North — celebrates its two-year anniversary. It features an unsurprisingly eclectic lineup that includes DJ sets from Dan Deacon, 92Q's DJ AngelBaby, DJ Juwan and Genie, along with performances by Ali, Phizzals, Blacksage and Abhi//Dijon.
Ali is undoubtedly a DIY artist, and Kahlon is an extension of his driving desire to provide platforms for artists less championed, including female musicians, people of color and non-heterosexuals. (For a smart essay on the complicated branding of DIY in Baltimore, read Brandon Soderberg's recent piece in City Paper. He also shared his favorite Kahlon moments.)
Kahlon's lineups are purposefully diverse, Ali said, and they promote local artists who don't fit in the boxes national outlets often gravitate toward when they spotlight Baltimore. Ali does not do it all alone; Baltimore music writer Lawrence Burney (who contributes to City Paper, a Baltimore Sun Media Group property) and Genie help curate. The party also continues to grow.
"The last one, 400 people came through," Ali said, still surprised. "That is crazy for a party in Baltimore!"
This week I spoke with Ali — who expects to release his next project, "Mongo," early next year — about Kahlon's history, the progress it has made and what he wants to see happen in the future. This is an edited and condensed version of the conversation.
Can you remind readers where the initial idea for the party came from?
Kahlon was provoked by wanting to fill voids that I saw in Baltimore that need to be filled. When I started doing music, I started playing shows in the city. What I realized, especially in the underground DIY scene, is that a lot of the shows that I would go to or even play would be a very limited demographic.
Whether it was just a party filled with hetero people or a party filled with only white people or a party with only punk acts on it. I just felt like a lot of the parties was just dry as far as diversity in so many ways, from genres of music to cultural backgrounds.
We listen to anything we want at any given time. A lot of people now, they might start off an hour listening to Gucci Mane but then the next hour they listen to, I don't know, Nirvana. Shows should start to reflect how diverse people's musical palettes are these days.
I wanted to curate a show that was diverse culturally, racially, sexual-orientation wise, music-genre wise and put people on a bill that were serious about what they were doing. That was the motive from the jump, and still is.
How has the party evolved?
For one, the audience. At first, it was just the people who came out were in my network of friends and maybe extended-network people. Now it has evolved where Kahlon is its own party. It's disconnected from me a little bit more. I think people see Kahlon before they see me, you know what I'm saying? That has been a really good thing. Now so many different people come out.
I remember when people started coming out from other cities just to come to the party, like D.C., Philly, New York even. People come down to experience it and see what's up. People from D.C. admit that yeah, D.C. might have more things going on, but the stuff going on in Baltimore is cooler. And that's what I really wanted to show people: Baltimore, we are a very unique city. Touring a lot this year, I realized how unique the city is and how much of an edge we've got culturally, and it's just a cool vibe here. A lot of the stuff that gets created here is pretty interesting, and I think Kahlon has shown that.
Saturday's lineup is rightfully crazy. Were you trying to do anything different this time?
We don't try to be obvious and like, "We need to have this kind of act" when we decide on who to book. We just go with our intuition for the most part. But we always have to have a Baltimore Club DJ for the most part, like every one. That's why we picked AngelBaby, who is honestly the [expletive] and doing her thing. We just wanted Dan Deacon again because last time he did something that was pretty epic and people love him. Phizzals, he turns up. I think he's a good contrast. My music is turn-up but in a different light. He turn up in one way; I turn up another way. Then we have Blacksage and Abhi/Dijon, who are kind of soulful R&B. That's another thing we try to cater to a lot more than other kinds of music — R&B. R&B, I feel like now, is kind of bigger than rap, to be honest. It's having a renaissance again.
Then there's [DJ] Juwan, who I think is a prodigy DJ in Baltimore Club music. Not saying that people who are 18 can't really do much, but the fact that he's so young and so good – he said he's been DJ-ing since he was 5-years-old or something like that. He's amazing. I think the city needs to pay attention to him, and start nurturing his talent, because he is special. And we've got Genie, who helps curate Kahlon, and she's a really good DJ. She adds a different flair. She plays a lot of South American club music, Miami Bass, and represents her people, because she's from the Dominican Republic. It's diverse, you know?
Anything special planned for Saturday?
We just gonna do it how we gonna do it. I might get somebody to pop in or something like that. I think we're going off with the visuals more than usual. That aspect really enhances the vibe at Kahlon. We have JEDICOM, who does the visuals at every Kahlon. He has projections everywhere, lights. It's just beautiful.
Many artists I've talked to in the city point to you and Kahlon as a positive bridge between different Baltimore scenes. How does it feel to you?
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We definitely built a lot of bridges between different people, but as far as who we connect together depends on the bill of each party sometimes. I think now it might be at the point where Kahlon has its own audience, and that audience itself is diverse and mixed. Kahlon is the only party where I feel like it's hella black people and hella white people, Latinos, Asians. It's people who do punk music, it's people who do Club, it's people who live in the community, it's people who live in West Baltimore, East Baltimore, and it's people who go to Morgan, go to MICA. I feel like Kahlon helps draw those people together that live kind of distant from the central city neighborhood area.
What do you still want to improve about the party?
I think we want to extend what we do. Maybe Kahlon cannot just be a party. Maybe we can do other events. Maybe do Kahlon in different spaces. That's what I told Baltimore Magazine last year: We do want to make this a festival. We're just taking our time, making sure we're doing it the right way and curating a really cool event. Doing it good because a lot of people do festivals here that either don't go right or they just, I don't know, fall short in a lot of ways.
Yo, this city is a college town. College towns across the country have hella music events because that makes sense. The industry's most valuable audience member is a college student. They always know what's up. They always engaged, et cetera. There's no reason we can't have a Trillectro, we can't have a small version of Afropunk, we can't have a small version of South by Southwest or CMJ. Stuff like that can happen here. We just need to make it happen, and the city needs to pay attention more to the arts and culture scene because that can just really enhance the vibe of Baltimore in general. If the city gives more money to people to open up spaces and do events or whatever, a lot of stuff can pop off here and they can get younger people coming to the city, wanting to live here.