Downtown Minneapolis is a bustling scene on a summer’s Friday night, with crowds of people walking the streets, moving in and out of clubs to the rhythm of digitized beats blaring out of subwoofers.
But not all the rhythms are blasting out of bars. Walking along the street at midnight, you might find your toe tapping to a slightly different beat, a more organic one. Looking around to find the source, you’re likely to happen upon somebody like Oyebisi Nalls, sitting there on the street corner playing his drums. He’s not on disc or on the stage, but that doesn’t stop him from trying to “move the spirits.”
Nalls, who calls himself “The Ambassador of Harmony,” is in his mid-50s, but he plays with all the enthusiasm of somebody half his age. His hands fly over the congas, cranking out rhythms that demand to be danced to.
Nalls is part of a select club, a group of people who are as much a part of the cityscape as buses and billboards – Nalls is a street musician.
Lots of different types find themselves plying their craft out on the streets, or in the skyways. For some, it’s seen as the first step before they move on to bigger and better things. For others, like Nalls, playing on the streets is a way of life.
“It wasn’t my decision to play. I was called,” Nalls said.
“It’s a kind of communication. The first instrument God gave man was the voice. The second was percussion.”
Nalls said playing on the streets is his only job, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. “I’m an artist, and I’m an extremist, and everything I do, I do all-out,” he said. “I’m not gonna sit here playing, wondering about what I’m gonna be doing at the post office tomorrow morning, giving my time to them. I either do it all out, or I don’t do it at all.”
It’s a living
While playing on the streets certainly isn’t going to get anybody a place featured on Cribs, someone playing on the corner on a Friday night can rake in about as much as one of the bartenders pouring drinks inside.
“I make $100, $150 on a weekend night, easy,” said Joseph Terry, a jazz and blues saxophone player who was playing First Avenue on Friday night (not the club, the street).
Terry has lived in the Twin Cities for 30 years, but said he has played music all over the country, touring with bands and playing with such blues greats as Willie Murphy.
Terry said he likes the freedom that comes with working something other than a 9-5 job. “I like going to work when I want to,” he said, “I like living by my own schedule.”
Terry said it’s a competitive business playing on the street for a living, that there are a lot of talented musicians out there and it’s important to be able to put on a good show in order to get passers-by to drop money into the open saxophone case.
Despite the competitive nature of what he does, Terry emphasized that it really is a personal thing.
“Music is an individual part of myself,” he said. “It’s a part of myself that can’t nobody get to.”
Not everyone who practices their art on the street is doing it to make a living. If downtown Minneapolis is filled with grizzled veterans doing what they can to get by, the Uptown area is a mecca for aspiring singer-songwriters, looking to take their first step to fame and fortune.
Marcus McCann, a 32-year-old Philadelphia native, just moved to Minneapolis. Although he is a songwriter, he said he is “a street musician just by chance,” after he got laid off shortly after moving to Minneapolis.
“For the next couple of weeks, this is what I’m gonna be doing” he said.
McCann didn’t start playing guitar until he was 25, and said he started doing it so that he could write his own songs.
“I think that music is that universal language,” he said. “Rarely do you listen to a song that doesn’t make you wanna do something, even if it’s just turn off the radio.”
Standing on Hennepin Avenue, a smoking cigarette wedged in the head of his guitar as he strums, McCann said playing music is a great way to meet new people, especially for somebody like him who is new to the area.
“I’m just trying to play in front of people,” he said. “I like people, and everybody likes music. People are great.”
Eric Lowry is another recent transplant to Uptown. Lowry, who moved to Minneapolis from Phoenix two months ago, said he has been playing guitar for about three years. “I’m not making any money off it yet,” he said, “but I’m looking to get more serious about it.”
Although he has been playing guitar for only a few years, Lowry said he always has been a writer, so writing music is a natural extension of that. What’s important for him is the independence. “I like making music on my own terms.”
Johnny Anderson, who goes by the name Persuasion, said he has a self-titled CD coming out in a couple of months. He was sitting in a more secluded part of downtown Minneapolis Friday night, using a credit card as a pick to strum on his all-white acoustic guitar.
But Anderson said he is more than a one-trick pony. He’s been playing music his whole life, he said, and laid down the vocals, bass, keyboards and percussion for his forthcoming album, which he said is a mix of R&B and alternative music.
Anderson was much more low-key than most street performers, and said he was hoping to get practice more than anything. When asked what his favorite part about playing music was, he didn’t respond, but kept strumming his guitar.
From the street musicians A&E talked with, each possessed a similar labor-of-love ethic.
While some might have ambitions for the bright lights, they do what they do because they genuinely enjoy playing, expressing themselves and entertaining people. For them, it doesn’t matter if they’re on a big stage or sitting on the corner outside a nightclub on a weekend night. Just to be able to touch somebody, that’s what makes it worthwhile.
“The reaction of the children, the smiles, and sometimes the grown people, too, that’s what makes it worth it,” Oyebisi Nalls said as he took a break from beating on the skins.
“We’ve got so much bullshit on our minds, all this indoctrination,” Nalls said. “But every time I play, something comes back to me. Every time I play. All the stuff I’ve been through, that’s how I survived all these years.”