Baltimore’s first big cultural moment was arguably 209 years ago, when a local lawyer, trapped on a ship in the middle of a battle, wrote a poem about his relief at knowing the American flag still waved over Fort McHenry. It was similar to a lot of the artistic splashes the city would make in the next few centuries: dramatic, concerned with race, identity, and sense of place, and more than a little messy.
Since Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner,” we’ve continued to have big artistic moments that have captured the world’s attention. We’re the birthplace of Billie Holiday and Cab Calloway, of “The Wire” and John Waters.
And lately, we’ve been in the news in the worlds of music (Beyoncé collaborator Tate Kobang won a Grammy and Drake took Baltimore club mainstream), art (digital artist Bria Sterling-Wilson’s Janelle Monae Ebony magazine cover) and photography (the striking portrait of “Creed 3″ actors Michael B. Jordan and Jonathan Majors for The New York Times by Baltimore native Gioncarlo Valentine).
There have also been blockbuster live events like Chris Rock’s Netflix special, taped at the Hippodrome Theatre, and notable newsmakers like current NCAA women’s basketball star Angel Reese of the Louisiana State University Tigers. The common thread between many of these moments is a singular brashness — a proudly iconoclastic bent that sets us and our notable people apart from larger, allegedly more cosmopolitan cities. We’re loud. We’re a little weird. And we don’t try to hide it.
Is there something special happening here right now? Or have we always been this cool, and every once in a while, other people notice?
“While part of the bigger noise in the world right now happens to center on this city, I think the arts scene here has been on fire for a while,” said Jackie Downs, senior director of programming for the Arts Council at the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts. “It’s a place to just be, to come here to create and be accepted for your craft. I love this city. It’s a really powerful place.”
Everyone I interviewed for this column used a specific word to describe both Baltimore and the art, artists and personalities it creates: “unapologetic.” We are us, all the time, whether the outside world notices it. Just look at Reese, who proudly represents the “girls who look like me, who want to speak up on what they believe in,” openly questioning why her championship team might have to share a White House visit with the runner-ups.
“She is Baltimore,” said Milton Kent, professor of practice and multimedia journalism at Morgan State University and a former longtime Baltimore Sun writer. “She’s like, ‘I’m gonna do what I do. If you like it, you do, and if you don’t, that’s on you.’”
Our iconoclasm, and the fact that we don’t always get credit for the good things, makes us singularly proud, possessive and “very hyperfocused on Baltimore,” said artist Juliet Ames. “We can’t even talk about ‘The Cosby Show’ without mentioning Vanessa running away to Baltimore. We catch onto those things. We’re proud of this little town.”
I understand the possessiveness of the people we claim, even in our losses. Baltimore native Lance Reddick, who died in March, played a variety of memorable roles in “Fringe” and “John Wick,” but to us he’ll always be Cedric Daniels of “The Wire,” filmed in his hometown. And when actor and comedian Richard Belzer passed away in January, I was quick to remind readers that his most enduring character, Detective John Munch, originated not on the New York-set “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,” but on “Homicide: Life On The Street,” made down in Fells Point.
Back up off our stuff.
“On one hand, we get our backs up looking at the national weather maps, where you see D.C., but never see Baltimore, which is the kind of thing that ticks us off,” Kent said. “But at the same time, we are the least self-conscious people that I know. We are out of effs to give. We just don’t care. Once you’ve reached that point as a city, you’ve hit your sweet spot.”
That sweet spot, whether it’s Holiday or Sterling-Wilson’s work, is often bold and always “authentic. I feel we feel comfortable enough to be weird here,” said Ames, who makes beautiful art out of utilitarian things like broken plates and wooden salt boxes, a very Baltimore thing to do. “Even my weird stuff, I don’t think I could do anywhere else,” she said.
Sure, the attention we get isn’t always positive, starting with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” into which Key, an enslaver, wrote derisively about enslaved people who escaped to fight the British in the third verse. “The Wire” often centered our crime rate over our other qualities, and even comedian Rock seemingly chose Baltimore for his special as an insult to homegirl Jada Pinkett Smith, whose husband slapped him in the face at the Oscars. That wasn’t great.
But here’s the thing. We own our triumphs and our foibles. Pinkett Smith may overshare her personal life, for instance, but does it on her own show, on her terms. She’s us. In the future, there will be other famous people from here, and more art produced. But Baltimore will remain Baltimore. As Ames put it, “We’re not those other places. Why would we want to be?”
And when people come from those other places, they will get a reminder. “I was really pleased when the Yankees were in town last weekend and there were a couple of times when their fans tried to stir up a ‘Let’s go, Yankees’ chant, and got booed down,” Kent said. “We’re laidback, but you’re not coming into our house and jeering us down like that.”