Life Is Like an Airport: My Journey to Washington DC for Mannywellz' Homecoming Concert

"If you know where you’re going, you’ll get there."
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MannyWellz DC homecoming show.

MannyWellz performing on March 5 at Union Stage in Washington, DC. 

“For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business” - T.S. Eliot

I. God Did Not Create Hurry

“Everything must work perfectly in your favor to make this flight,” the Delta employee informed me with absolute assurance. Absolute is the law in which airports and airport employees abide by; their rules aren’t to be bent or broken, change isn’t achieved by begging or pleading. He asked if I was certain my flight to Baltimore from Atlanta was booked for 3:45 pm. His face wore no expression of jest, military stern. The clock resting above his crown ticked 3:15, the ides of March.

There was a later 5:00 pm flight, but the first class price wasn’t within the budget and my schedule couldn’t afford an arrival after 7:00 pm. My original flight was for much earlier, but a booking mistake led to the last minute conundrum. 

I was the guest of Mannywellz, the PG County Maryland-based, Nigerian-born artist who is bringing excitement to American soul with African influence.

That evening, Monday, March 5, was Manny's first ever headlining show in Washington, DC, celebrating the homecoming of a DMV son who had just returned home after opening for Jidenna. Doors would open at 7, the show would begin at 8. Arriving late defeated the purpose of boarding the mechanical bird; anxiety swelled where my heart would beat.

The seconds suffocated and minutes were murdered as the line for TSA stood Statue of Liberty still. Each toddler step more invigorating than the last. This was purgatory. I was in a hurry, yet, there was no alternative to my waiting. Watching a man spend five minutes to remove his shoes and belt could drive anyone to admit themselves to Arkham or Azkaban. Smino’s “Amphetamine” was my only source of soothing comfort: “Got no doubt I'll be alright If I just make it through the night,” he recited on repeat.

In the movie version of my life, I arrive at the gate just as the door is closing, and they allow me to board with a smile. But in reality, the version I’m forced to live, I arrived at 3:50 pm, with the plane airborne and my seat empty.

II. Good Things Come to Those Who Arrive

Four of us surrounded the United desk uncertain if our names would be called. After missing the 3:50 pm, I was given a standby ticket for the 5:00 pm flight, but a seat wasn’t guaranteed. Two faces lit up as their names were called; like witnessing contestants selected on The Price Is Right. Subconsciously, I think we both knew the flight only had room for one more. Relief swept across my torso as my name was said.

Instead of being seated in the back, I was given the very first first-class seat. After ordering a Jack and Coke, I toasted to my companion, who was also a standby rider who missed a few flights. A toast to our misfortune and the virtue of patience.

The Jack warmed my nerves. Playing Knxwledge instrumentals brought warmth to my ears. Above the clouds, I mused on my time in the airport. The patience necessary for this journey reminded me of when I started pursuing writing with career purpose. I had an idea of perfection; what my arrival in music journalism would look like.

Before joining DJBooth, I worked at Olive Garden. Every day, I expected my spaceship to arrive. In reality, a career in writing wasn’t going to magically abduct me. I had to do the work, and it had to be done in a space where the work could be seen. Similar to having a plane ticket and entering the airport, you have to arrive before boarding. 

Quickly, I realized the perfect dream was different than what I envisioned. Perfection is only possible in Disney movies and Jorja Smith selfies, not during the journey through a creative career field. I learned early nothing will go perfectly. Andre knew what he was talking about when he rapped, “You can plan a pretty picnic, but you can't predict the weather.”

It didn’t matter how fast I wanted to move, I couldn’t force a speedy arrival to my chosen destination. So much of dream chasing is like standing in the slowest TSA line and wondering why you feel like the only one in a hurry. Viewing the steady progression of others can make you feel as if you aren’t doing enough, that you are the only one rushing but not moving forward. All you want to do is board your plane, but at every corner, you are facing another setback. There is nothing worse than waiting when you feel the pressure of time weighing upon you.

III. Be Patient With Your Drum, the Night Is Long

I expected Union Stage, the sold-out homecoming venue, to be in a state of frenzy upon my entering. Instead, what I saw was a packed crowd still awaiting the man of the hour. The clock was slowly reaching 8:30 pm, Mannywellz had yet to grace the stage. Before hearing a single song my trip was already unforgettable.

Prior to my whirlwind travel day, my knowledge of Mannywellz was rather minimal, but Soulfro, his 2018 EP, did reach my radar after Uproxx writer Aaron Williams penned a glowing review.

“He slips autobiographical stories of betrayal and crises of conscious into uptempo productions that skip and bounce along with African-inspired rhythms offsetting trap-influenced bass hits that blend to create a distinctive groove,” Aaron wrote, which encouraged me to add the album to my Apple Music.

Though I never listened to the entire project prior to the show that evening, I thought, "Nothing leaves a lasting impression like a great performance." When all the noise is muted and social media numbers are made irrelevant, that is where careers are made or broken.

Swimming in a sea of red and blue hues, Mannywellz stepped before an adoring audience. What first caught my eye was his frame, a few pounds more than Wiz Khalifa slim. This detail is only worth noting due to the sound of his voice. When Manny opened his mouth to sing, you would’ve guessed he was the size of Zeus. The boom vibrating from his texture was warm and powerful, thunder on a clear summer’s day. To hear a singer not lean on Auto-Tune or the miracle work of engineers is striking. Manny stood before us sounding even better than his crisp recordings. Early during the performance, he performed a breathtaking rendition of Kendrick’s “Alright.”

You can find Manny’s version on SoundCloud, along with renditions of Frank Ocean’s “Thinking About You” and Drake’s “Controlla.” His renditions aren’t remixes, but complete reconfigurations of the original source material. The songs we know so well are only the basis of a new blueprint; the musical homes built belong solely to the Nigerian-born artist and producer. As he performed “Alright,” a song I've heard over a million time was given a rare newness, the power of bringing creative uniqueness to a familiar space. It may have been Kendrick’s song but Manny was the show-stealing feature.

Immediately, I could tell Manny is a musical sponge. Soul, Afrobeats, R&B, and hip-hop all overflowing. Yet, how he filters this abundance of genres is reminiscent of a cook who understands the balance of various flavors and how they can coexist in a single dish. There’s a richness to Soulfro that’s like eating a meal well-seasoned with spices―flavorful but never overbearing. Hearing the fan-favorite “Do Not Disturb” live gave me the lasting impression of Manny as a creative chef who cooks in studios rather than kitchens.

IV. SoulFro Is for the Soul

As a performer, Manny is focused on keeping the audience in his palm. They wave their hands on command, shout back at his every request, and dance when possessed by the groove. I was impressed when he brought out the talking drum and bongos to play alongside his extraordinary band. As a multi-instrumentalist, he played and produced on every song from Soulfro. The energy shifted as he banged on the bongos, the singer completely lost in the rhythm produced by the percussion. Rhythm filled the entire sold-out venue; you wanted to move as much as you wanted to stare in amazement.

My first show in DC was unlike anything I’ve seen in Atlanta or anywhere else I’ve traveled. I can’t recall seeing an artist’s DJ spend an entire set also playing the guitar. The drummer was exhilarating, playing with such fiery intensity was like watching someone who decided to drum until the state of human combustion. The music was alive; it had a pulse. I’ve never attended a go-go but I'd imagine this was as close as it gets.

Every Soulfro record was like entering a jam session. With infectious grooves the entire night moved through the seven-track EP, a featured artist, and additional covers of Lauryn Hill and Bob Marley. The lead single, “Wrong Place,” which has amassed over a million plays on SoundCloud, set the roof ablaze. The immensely popular “Watermelon” blew the roof off. Manny's passion and intensity didn’t waiver, either. I’m almost certain he didn’t take a single break during the hour-long performance. He left nothing on the stage but a message of love and unity.

There was no encore, but there was nothing left that had to be said. With satisfying smiles and cheers, the exit doors filled. To say Mannywellz is a must-see performer is an understatement; he makes music meant to be experienced in the flesh.

I had a long journey back to Atlanta ahead of me, but I was leaving with a newfound appreciation for patience, a fan of Mannywellz, and the knowledge that life is just an airport. Sometimes it’s empty, sometimes it’s full, but if you know where you’re going, you’ll get there. Not when you think you should, but when you are supposed to. 

I pray we all get there.

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