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DoNormaal Recreates the Underground Seattle Music Scene

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DoNormaal Recreates the Underground Seattle Music Scene

Musician discusses her journey from Seattle’s underground scene to Bumbershoot

August 30, 2016

Christianne (Christy) Karefa-Johnson is adding a distinct sparkle to the Emerald City’s music scene as DoNormaal.

Christy’s journey began long before her rise in Seattle. While her first release was fairly recent — an EP in June of 2014 — her passion for the arts are firmly rooted in the poetry she wrote as a child.

“I think one of the first poems I wrote was for my mom and it was called Honey,” Christy says, laughing, “and it was about how she was as sweet as honey.”

Christy credits the support to her mom who, she says, adds fuel to her creative fire. From an early age, Christy’s mom encouraged creativity, affectionately referring to Christy as her “little writer.”

A decade after writing her first poems, Christy found herself studying poetry at Sarah Lawrence College in New York.

“I also learned a lot of stuff about the ‘poetry world’ that I did not like,” she said of her experience. “And I didn’t connect with that at all. I didn’t like how academic it gets at that level, and kind of competitive and stuffy. I’d rather you not edit it 15 times, ya’ know.”

After college, she took the leap from poetry to music. In fact, this leap is the basis of her LP’s title: Jump or Die. Christy feels like she came to an artistic intersection in which one road seemed to be a dead end while the other lead to a destination unknown. She took the latter.

“When I started doing it, I was just like, this is it,” she said. “This is what I couldn’t do when I was writing poetry, or anything else. This is that exact thing that really speaks to my heart.”

In part because she lost her father as a child, Christy’s history and heritage are sacred to her, a vital part of how she understands her roots. It’s her family roots, she says, that spark much of her creativity.

 “I do have a lot of ancestors that were musicians and griots and storytellers. They don’t get to connect with this world as much,” Christy says, referencing the music scene, “except for through me…. I feel like I’m special because of my family, because of my blood. They’re real infiltrators, my whole family, ya’ know. Like, black excellence.”

Christy shares her family pictures, a source of inspiration for the music she creates.

Christy’s grandpa is from Sierra Leone. He was a doctor in the World Health Organization, a foreign minister of Sierra Leone, and even ran for president there. Her dad was also born and raised in Sierra Leone. Her great-grampa on her mom's side is from Jamaica, and her mom was born and raised in West Africa. 

“Kind of going back to the ancestral thing, I kind of have an accent when I do my music,” she says. “It’s like a… weird pidgin, Caribbean-type thing.”

More than once Christy’s fans have asked her why she sounds like that only when she sings.

“I don’t know, I’m not doing it on purpose,” she laughs. “I really think that it’s my history that comes out in this moment where I’m being very open and creative. And it just flows through.”

When it comes to DoNormaal’s sound, the genre is hard to pin down. There’s a trap music feel to it, intertwined with hip-hop and remixes, but also something else. Something nameless, distinctly poetic.

“It is genre-less,” she concludes. “But based in hip-hop. That’s the tone. I love hip-hop… that’s what inspired me to make music in the first place. But I’m very experimental and I’m really trying to… not have a box.”

The rawness of DoNormaal’s music is unique. It’s been labeled by Seattle Weekly as “playful,” and dubbed by The Stranger as “sharp, psychedelic and spiritually charged.”

The 24-year-old artist won the Underground Producers Alliance’s Andreas Robbins Scholarship for 2016. It’s given out every year to talented artists “with emphasis in innovation, ingenuity and the courage to defy categories despite lack of funds,” according to the scholarship’s website.

The scholarship allowed her to study in New York City with well-known producers, cultivating an experience with analog and digital music production, composition, recording, performance, and other skills.

Most of DoNormaal’s music is only accessible online through her Soundcloud. She has a total of two albums and hasn’t yet made a vinyl — granted, she is just getting started.

Christy performs for a crowd. DoNormaal regularly performs at low-key, local venues. Occasionally she’ll appear at bigger events. The typical performance sighting is made up of young teens and 20-somethings bobbing up and down, giggling with friends. The crowd size, however, depends on the venue. She can draw anywhere from around 50 people at a small venue to a few hundred at a larger one.

But numbers don’t tell the full story when it comes to the audience-performer relationship. For Christy, the goal is to inspire people, to make her audience feel like a part of something bigger.

“I just want them to know that I’m looking at them,” she says. “I want them to feel like they’re not just an audience member and that they’re there to share and transfer energy to me and I’m there to transfer energy to them.”

Her intersectional identity shapes her experience as an artist. She’s black, a woman, and taking on the underground scene — a place predominantly occupied by white males.

“I just feel like racism and misogyny are so pervasive and I encounter it all the time,” Christy says. “Even with people who really love my music.”

Many times, DoNormaal has shown up for her own performance and been underestimated by her appearance and the minimal equipment she brings. “Are you sure you’re playing the main stage?” she was once asked, after arriving to perform for the West Seattle Film Festival.  

I just want them to know that I’m looking at them. I want them to feel like they’re not just an audience member and that they’re there to share and transfer energy to me and I’m there to transfer energy to them.

While she contends that the underground scene has been — for the most part — supportive, bad energy can sometimes emit from onlookers.

“I feel vibes sometimes that are like, very competitive,” she says, “and kind of coming from a place of not necessarily being comfortable with a woman being so successful in the underground scene.”

While her roots remain underground, DoNormaal is just starting to blossom into mainstream music. Just a few months ago, she performed live at KEXP. She’ll be performing at Bumbershoot on Friday, Sept. 2.

“A lot of pressure gets put on me because I’m doing well,” Christy says. “And it’s like, well… I’m just a kid. I didn’t really plan of any of this. I visualized it and I dreamed about it, but I’m just starting out.”


Kelsey Hamlin

Kelsey Hamlin is a former intern with Spark Public (formerly What's Good 206). Hamlin attends the University of Washington, majoring in journalism and law, societies  and justice. She completed an internship with The Seattle Times as an Olympia legislative reporter and is currently interning with South Seattle Emerald as well. See her other work on her website, or find her on twitter @ItsKelseyHamlin.

Fun Fact: When Kelsey was three years old, she had to have emergency eye surgery after her eye swelled itself shut. To this day, the doctors have no idea what caused it.

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