All photos courtesy of Ryan “RaRah” Stevenson

On Friday, July 6, poetry troupe Word Wide hosted a birthday party for a man named Femi. The Creative Alliance at the Patterson saw a wondrous ruckus. The “costume concert” saw a colorful crowd, some of whom were dressed as Alice In Wonderland characters and other personas. The performers were also a mixed group. Poets (Olu Butterfly, Chris August), emcees (Abrock), poet-cum-emcees (longtime collaborator David “NativeSon” Ross), and indie rock bands (Greasy Hands, goatFISH) all performed. The headliner was birthday boy Femi the DriFish and his band, the Outta Water eXperience, who released their new album, Mad As A Hatter (which you can listen to on ReverbNation!).

Femi the Drifish, born Femi Lawal, is a musician. It’s hard to pin him down under a more specific title. His sound is not just rock or just hip hop; his flow is neither solely rap or spoken word. He’s still trying to find out exactly what that means to him and to his audiences. “It’s hard…when you don’t fit in a box, sometimes you have to overly-describe what you do,” he said.

Performing has been Femi’s main source of income for twelve years, and performing seriously for about fifteen. The English-born musician of Nigerian descent was once known for his a’capella performances at local poetry venues. Since those days, his list of accomplishments has not stopped lengthening. He’s performed on BET’s Lyric’s Cafe with his duo, The 5th L, and opened for huge talents, among them Musiq Soulchild, Saul Williams, Ursula Rucker, Raheem DeVaughn, Bill Cosby, and KRS One. An avid participant in community service, Femi has also used his skill in undertakings like The University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center’s violence intervention program (where he co-founded the PHAT program), as well as creative writing programs to allow students to find their individual voices.

This time has seen him morph and grow in a number of ways. He’s seen a lot, and he’s a sponge to external influence. Growing up in England, he listened to a lot of rock music. He heard a lot of pop music in Nigeria during the ’80s. Upon moving to America, he fell in love with rap music. Both his solo tracks and his work with the groups 5th L and the Out of Water eXperience clearly display his appreciation of and loyalty to each of these influences.

“Right now, we’re mostly alt rock,” he said. “I like the way rock feels…We like to give a good show. In hip hop, I mean, there’s great hip hop, there are hip hop artists I’d love to perform with, but I’ve noticed a lot of it is about how you look.” Aesthetics and theatrics are important to Femi and his crew, but as seen by their wild outfits and costume parties, they like playing with them rather than adhering to pre-set norms. “When you’re allowed to let go, it don’t matter how cute you are or if your clothes match.”

Over the years, Femi has built a continual collaboration with other artists who love this sort of boundary-pushing play. The Out of Water eXperience is certainly included amongst them, if only because rap backed by bands is still hard to come by. The collective includes sound engineer, keyboardist and producer named MoRece Carroll, who is a longtime friend and collaborator and who releases the group’s records on his label, Stinkiface. Another talented producer, Kevin Powe, contributes tracks and also plays the bass guitar. Soulful voiced Alexis-Joyce provides vocals, and Spyda plays the drums. They’ve recently been joined by guitarist Joe Mills.

The Outta Water eXperience released their eclectic debut album, The Clown With No Circus last year to positive reviews. This support enabled Femi, who writes all the material, to take Mad As A  Hatter in a slightly different direction. Femi believes he’s maintained his wit and cleverness, but “the last album had a playful undertone.” Now, Femi’s still having a great time performing, but he brings a level of seriousness to Mad As A Hatter we’d not seen before.

The new album came at an exciting time for the Out of Water eXperience. They’ve just been featured on 98Rock radio station’s local show, Noise in the Basement, as the local band of the month. Their future prospects are also hopeful: they are currently in the running (vote here!) for a place in New York City’s AfroPunk festival, alongside the likes of acts such as Erykah Badu, Gym Class Heroes and Das Racist.

This past Monday, the eXperience headed to New York City for the festival’s battle of the bands. The experience was invaluable. “Being in that environment was like, wow…even though it was “Afro”-Punk, it didn’t block out people from other cultural backgrounds.” Femi expressed his appreciation for the diversity at shows like last Saturday’s album release, but noted that such occurrences aren’t common for Baltimore. Crowds usually represent the rock scene or the rap scene, and often, skin color is the main indicator of homogeneity. Femi feels lucky that he’s found a way to bridge worlds. “But I do wish I could go to more events where it happens on its own.”

No matter the crowd, however, it seems that Femi is always captivating. A performer at heart, Femi’s shtick is his ability to blend things that clash. “I’m hoping the crowd we’ve got sees a well rounded person…I like to show all sides of myself. People constantly show just one or two sides.”  The new album speaks to this: his 90s-reminiscent, poetic flow is enhanced by his brash, larger-than-life stage personality, backed by genre-bending-and-blending beats that are generally abrasive (the costumes didn’t hurt, either). Belligerence is rife in Mad as a Hatter, but somehow, balance is maintained. The obnoxious crassness of Femi’s voice on “Where I’m At,” for instance, is countered by bowed strings that, out of context, could be straightforwardly pretty.

In truth, this eclecticism isn’t really an act for Femi, or, rather, he plays and performs it in his day-to-day life (“Life is not a bitch, it’s a stage,” remarks the Drifish on “Trapped In My Mind”). Perhaps its this honesty which he brings to his craft that has allowed the music world to create a space for him. He’s not exactly sure how he and the Outta Water eXperience will use this space in the future, but he truly believes that they’ll use it well. “There’s a crowd for every band. There’s an arena for everything. There’s a box for everything. Even for those who don’t have a box, there’s still a box for those who don’t have a box.” We’re sure that he and his band will push even that box’s walls.