Beats of Change: Q&A with Kristen Arant of Hands on Drums

A local “artivist” explains what the city loses when gentrification squeezes artists out of DC

Beth Anderson
730DC

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Credit: © 2015 Tamzin B. Smith Portrait Photography

Drummers Kristen Arant and Michael Kweku Owusu are musicians, teachers, activists and proprietors of Hands on Drums, a community arts space and store offering handcrafted drums, clothing and accessories sourced through direct trade with an arts collective in Ghana. Kristen is also founder of the Young Women’s Drumming Empowerment Project, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this summer. After learning that Hands on Drums was being forced out of its space in NE due to redevelopment, Kristen spoke with us about her work, how art and activism are intertwined, and the necessity of supporting grassroots artists in Washington, DC.

You call yourself as an “artivist” — a cross between an artist and activist. How does your activism influence your art and vice-versa?

I became an activist as soon as I was able to grasp what was going on in the world. I wanted to do something with that, not just play the oboe, which was my original instrument. In 2000, I came to DC and spent four years working full-time in activist roles. I became steeped in community — connecting daily with others who were passionate about issues. At the same time, I began learning djembe technique and rhythms from teachers around DC. After 9/11, the activism community became more organized and began using expressive arts to amplify our message. Marching through the streets of DC on dozens of protest marches, leading others in rhythms and chants — those were my rite of passage as a drummer. Movements are places where art thrives and an artist can grow into him or her or themself, because it’s not just skill they are expressing — it’s passion. It’s not about which influenced which. The art and the activism are inseparable.

Kweku and Kristen

Teaming up with my husband Kweku and our work together has inspired and lifted me so much — and has lifted so many people through our sharing of it. I think of what we do together as cultural revival. It’s spirit-filled, healing, empowering, rhythmic activism.

You describe your store Hands on Drums as a “community space and arts empowerment initiative.” Can you explain what that means and what some of your activities are?

Our store grew out of the desire to find a permanent space for our work as performers and teachers.

The first iteration came through a grant from Cultural DC’s Storefronts Initiative. We were given a warehouse space for three months in Ivy City. We utilized it to its full potential: held drumming, dance and yoga classes; organized cultural community events and partnered with nearby businesses. We scheduled master drummers and dancers to teach workshops. We held drum circles for both our opening and closing.

Luckily, Emily Arden from Recreative Spaces (now closed) noticed, and we began talking about whether there was somewhere for us to go next. She found us our space on 602 Rhode Island Ave, an old auto parts shop that we cleaned up, where we’ve been for the past two and a half years.

There, we do all the above, but more regularly. Having a space of our own also means that we can support a network of other artists and makers. For example, we have hosted drummer Yuma Bellomee’s classes and rehearsals of his group Nii Dembaya since we opened. The growth he has been able to achieve is in part due to paying reasonable rental fees — our artists keep 70 percent of the profits from their classes.

Children dance during a Saturday morning African Drumming 101 class. Credit: Binahkaye Joy

Your nonprofit the Young Women’s Drumming Empowerment Project (YWDEP) brings girls together with established female teaching artists to learn drumming, write poetry and songs and perform. Tell me about the program and some of its graduates.

In 2004, I landed a job teaching in an after-school program in DC. One of the hardest aspects was keeping the students focused in a coed environment. The boys were loud and raucous, trying to impress the girls. The girls were indifferent; they held their drums side saddle and barely touched them.

One day, the boys were part of a sports event, so the girls came without them. They pulled the drums between their legs and played them, HARD. And they were focused. It gave me the idea to start YWDEP, so that girls could have a safe space to drum, to be loud, to become artists. I did not realize the magnitude of this work until after our first summer program, in 2005. We staged four shows at the DC Arts Center and after the first, the rest were packed with people blocking the only exit. We’ve had ten summer programs in all, the last two being held at Hands on Drums. Girls 10–18 can participate, and no one is turned away. Novie Craven’s success might be the most phenomenal. She joined YWDEP in 2007, and this month, she is traveling to Seattle to compete in the Special Olympics.

A YWDEP session led by Kristen

What do you think Hands on Drums adds to your neighborhood in NE and how does it reflect the surrounding community?

Either Kweku or our partner Kwasi are at the shop every day. When I am there, teaching, running rehearsals, or leading YWDEP programs, this is what I see:

  • People accessing culture; primarily people of African descent, but not exclusively;
  • People diverse in ethnicity, income, ability and age taking part in activities that promote the well-being of mind, body and spirit;
  • Families experiencing culture together; kids and adults attending classes together;
  • Local artists accessing affordable space to meet, teach, and grow;
  • People from the neighborhood walking by and stopping in for black soap and shea butter on a regular basis, staying for conversation, learning about our programs, and considering coming to Ghana with us;
  • Youth empowerment: youth drumming, YWDEP sessions or family capoeira, all of which use art to educate youth about their ancestral history and teach them about confidence and self-esteem;
  • People having a place to drum, anytime, any day. And to purchase drums that are reasonably priced and support a sister community in Africa.
Hands on Drums’ second anniversary party in March 2018. Credit: Thierry Rosenheck

You were informed rather abruptly that Hands on Drums would have to vacate its space by June 30 to make way for redevelopment along the Rhode Island Ave corridor. What are you doing in response? How can people help?

On June 23, we began our move just up the ramp to a temporary space we have through August 30: 630 Rhode Island Ave, near the Forman Mills. In the meantime, we have a real estate broker to help us look around, but we are quickly seeing the reality of our situation. There are three tiers of pricing. The top tier (around $6,000/mo + utilities) are storefronts where we could keep moving forward with most aspects of our current business. The second tier ($4,000/mo) are mostly warehouses in obscure locations — more of a destination, not a storefront. These two tiers are far above what we’ve been paying. The third tier includes shared spaces. We looked at a space in a church, which might be great for our programming work, but not for retail. And it’s still expensive — around $2500/mo.

The best way people can help is via knowledge, connections and resources. The biggest helper we ever had was Emily Arden, who had a connection to a developer and used her incredible negotiation skills to get us into an affordable space. We brainstorm constantly; like, what if the DC Arts Commission created a grant program where cultural arts entities like ours could be welcomed into neighborhoods across DC for a one- or two-year stint, as a way of bringing our healing arts into different neighborhoods?

Other artists have struggled to continue to live and work in DC in the wake of gentrification. Why is important for the city to ensure that artists have the ability to thrive in DC?

Artists are literally leaving the city and it’s sad. I think about moving to Baltimore. But for 18 years I’ve been an artist building community in Washington, DC. Here, I’ve developed, found my own teachers, used my art as a tool for change, and helped people of all ages and abilities access the drum and experience personal growth and healing.

The job of the Artist is to not just to entertain. The job of the Artist is to inspire movements of people to change; to bring together isolated individuals and build community; to awaken neighborhoods to culture, one person at a time. To give alternatives to violence, addiction, depression and rage. To provide spaces for catharsis. To provide rites of passage for struggling youth. To educate, via arts integration; to give children more accessible tools for learning. To bring families together. To uplift. To provide a place to essentially be human, in a world where we are increasingly focused on technology more than each other. Grassroots artivists deserve a place to thrive in DC.

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Beth Anderson
730DC
Writer for

Writer, pop culture junkie, tech nerd, marketer & mom. DC resident, TX native. Co-host, Bad Vocals podcast.