Imani Makell had never stood on a stage, never belted out a tune in front of strangers until she was persuaded to participate in an November open mic night event in Annapolis.
But when the 25-year-old Annapolis woman picked up the microphone on the What’s Dope stage and opened her mouth, out poured a voice so pure, rich and strong it made listeners feel as if they’d just been handed a present wrapped in fancy paper and tied with a bow.
After Makell finished her second song, the audience erupted in applause.
”I’m still shaking a little bit,” Makell admitted later. “It was pretty cool. As soon as I got out there, it felt natural.”
It’s moments like these that make Malcolm McFadden, the 29-year-old dynamo who founded the monthly event, beam.
McFadden, whose rap name is “Justice the Genius Child,” began the event in 2016 to provide a performance space for rap and hip-hop artists in his hometown.
”I started writing poetry and putting it to music when I was 14,” he said.
“I was going to Baltimore and [Washington] D.C. to perform. I didn’t understand why there weren’t any open mics in Annapolis for hip-hop. I wanted to create a space for people to network and perform their art.”
”What’s Dope” events are held on the first Tuesday of every month in ArtFarm, a multiuse cultural space co-owned by McFadden’s sister, Darin Gilliam.
The performance room contains a spacious stage flanked by red velvet curtains. There are seats for about 35 people, which quickly filled up on a recent Tuesday. Around the perimeter are paint-splattered picnic tables that provide additional seating. Original art lines the wall, much of it for sale.
It is the kind of place so relaxed and unpretentious that visitors feel immediately at home.
What’s Dope welcomes anyone who wants to perform in any genre. November’s open mic event included rap, beatboxing, some jazzy blues, erotica and stand-up comedy.
On a cold fall night, a line began to form outside the front door 90 minutes before the show was scheduled to begin. The audience was a diverse mix of performers of all ages, gender orientations and ethnic backgrounds.
Gilliam, 38, thinks her younger brother’s event is successful because he cares so much about everyone who performs.
”Malcolm is very charismatic,” the Annapolis woman said.
”He talks to every person who walks through that front door. He believes in every person who gets up on stage, and he encourages them. He wants to see people thrive, and he’ll extend whatever he has to help them grow.”
Justin Villa, 36, frequently makes the 65-minute drive each way from his home in Fairfax, Virginia because he knows that at What’s Dope, he can count on honing his stand-up routine before a small crowd.
”I look forward to performing here,” he said. “It’s hard to find places like this that do a good job of getting people to come out.”
Karii Giselle, 23, a singer and producer, says the supportive atmosphere at What’s Dope brings out the best in performers.
”They make you feel really comfortable here,” she said. “It’s like performing in front of friends you don’t know yet.”