For Musician-Slash-Reporter Debbie-Marie Brown, Curiosity Is Essential
Written by Vocalo Radio on May 18, 2023
Journalist and musician Debbie-Marie Brown shares the stories of Chicago organizations and community members to positively highlight the city’s culture, spirit and music scene.
Connecticut-turned-Chicago artist and writer Debbie-Marie Brown uses their naturally curious personality to tell stories of Chicago’s underrepresented groups and organizations. Drawn to the history of the city, they strive to paint a more accurate image of what Chicago has to offer. As a social justice reporter and Magazine writer for the Chicago Reader, their articles center around events and community members who are making Chicago a better place, and who add to the city’s diverse culture.
“I am so aware of how there’s not a lot [of culturally connected people of color] who are journalists, and it makes me really mad,” Brown said. “It’s my job to make sure people know what’s going on.”
Raised in a religious household, Brown wasn’t allowed to listen to any music other than gospel. Now, as an up-and-coming musician, they blend multiple genres into their sound. Brown takes pride in playing the guitar, and in their vocal performance which they describe as “Tracy Chapman mixed with a Midwest emo,” with raw emotional lyrics to match.
“[My music] is very lyric-driven, it’s raw and emotional … and it’s always very vulnerable for me,” Brown explained.
Even as a Chicago transplant, Brown has found a home in the city — especially among the DIY music scene. Inspired by the welcoming heart and skills of other self-made artists in and around Chicago, Brown feels they fit right into the community.
“Oh, Chicago, thank you so much,” they expressed. “What can I say? What can I say but thank you to the city of Chicago?”
In this segment of “This Is What Chicago Sounds Like” Debbie Marie Brown shares their current musical influences, growing up as a preacher’s child and turning their poetry into music (which is featured throughout the segment).
What do you do?
I work at the Chicago Reader as a magazine writer and social justice reporter. I’ve been there since August, and, mostly, I like to focus on organizations or people who are trying to fill the gap in creating community or resources when the government is not doing that, or was failing to or not able to. I really love, for example, writing about different spiritual groups, or different queer parties, or writing about queer sports clubs, or writing about Black people starting legal cannabis businesses. Just a lot of anything adjacent.
What brought you to journalism?
It’s just true that most mainstream legacy newspapers have not recorded history accurately, since the beginning of American history. Even when I was in college, I would do history on different things that happened in Chicago, or different places, I’d have to look at Black newspapers, because usually the mainstream newspapers … were not reporting about it. So I really definitely recognize myself, a dark-skinned queer person who’s deep in community, I’m just so aware of how there’s not a lot of us who are journalists. And it makes me really mad. I’m like, it’s my job to make sure people know what’s going on. And, I mean, you gotta know, you gotta know. It’s such a privilege. There’s so many people … and I’m coming of age here. I’m 25. And I’m a naturally curious person that wants to connect with people. And I feel like being a journalist is just … writing about what I’m already curious about and doing.
So you came to Chicago for school?
I lived in Evanston. Northwestern University, went to school for journalism. I was in Evanston for four years. Throughout my time, I took a lot of jobs in Chicago. I worked at Free Spirit Media in Homan Square, I worked with In These Times, and then I got my masters at Northwestern downtown. And I moved to the city proper, in 2020, in the fall. [Sings] Oh, Chicago.
Where are you from?
My family’s from New York. And Chicago is a little smaller. And it’s like, this is manageable, we can work with this. I’m Dominican from the East Coast. And you know, we aren’t really out here. I was in a Latina sorority in college, and a lot of my community here are folks who showed me a lot of Mexican culture, and would bring me to their family stuff. I just love how different places are crafted by the people who live there. The history of Chicago … I just feel compelled to learn more about it. I’m reading about Harold Washington and the Daley administration and the history of Black and queer newspapers here … I love this little city.
What do you do when you’re not writing for The Reader?
I am a musician. I play guitar and I sing. I have a four-piece band. It’s indie, alternative soul, or maybe, alternative emo soul, depending on how I’m feeling. I often describe it as Tracy Chapman singing midwestern emo. It’s very lyric-driven. It’s very raw and emotional, always comes from a very contemplative place. And it’s always very vulnerable for me, even before I show my band, I’m like, “Oh, my gosh, I’m writing about this intense situation. What’s my band gonna think?” And then I play it and they’re like, Oh, that’s a good song.” And then I’m like, “Oh, okay, great.” And … now I have the confidence to go on stage. Yeah, that’s my music.
Debbi-Marie Brown shares the best of what makes Chicago a great city. Ari Mejia/Vocalo Radio
How did you get into playing music?
I’ve been playing guitar for a long time, been playing since I was 12. I grew up … my dad’s pastor, and I went to a lot of churches. I was on three or four worship teams, worship bands, non-denominational Christian. Yeah. I would write poetry all the time in high school when I was mentally ill. And then I got to college and I met a friend who had their own band. I was like, “I wish I could write music like you … I just know how to play guitar and write poetry.” And they were like, “Debbie. You can write a song … you have all the tools you need to write a song.” And they helped me write my first song. And then after that, I just did not stop writing.
Because my parents are pastors, I wasn’t allowed to listen to a lot of things that weren’t Christian or Disney until I was like 12. So I feel like the things that I really … navigated towards in high school were pop, post-punk, contemporary Christian music and gospel, rap music. And then I really got a lot into R&B and singing rap, like Kehlani and Jhené Aiko and SZA.
How would you describe your music?
I definitely am constantly melding genres. We’ll have a moment Where it’s a very, like, indie pop … and then the chorus is gonna be, like, post-punk … and then it goes back. So I definitely feel those influences in how I sing, how I express my gospel and church influence … even spontaneous singing and being able to riff on the spot. And just feeling comfortable performing, because I’ve been doing that since I was 14. When I think of my influence, from Chicago, I think of the people from Chicago who’ve influenced me. I think of my bandmates. My drummer is Manae Solara [Vaughn]. She is a sound engineer at several venues throughout Chicago. Her mom is DJ Lady D. Her bandmate Arya, who’s now my bandmate, Arya Woody. He is a bassist, I call him the best bassist in Chicago. When I first moved here, me and … one of my bandmates from college, his name is Jared [Zvonar], and he’s been playing with me for like seven or eight years.
How has Chicago influenced and inspired your music?
Oh, Chicago, thank you so much. What can I say? What can I say but thank you to the city of Chicago? Every time I find a friend who’s a lead singer of a band, I become best friends with everyone in their band. I feel so inspired by the DIY nature of Chicago. Everyone will help you. I just feel so welcomed. Darien, who books now to California Clipper, who booked my first show in 2022 at Cafe Mustache, and then also helped me get a gig at Sleeping Village in September later that year. Everyone just sees each other and is tuned in and … everyone’s excited. I feel everyone’s inspired by the opportunity here. And it’s not as deep as it might be in some other places.
Where do you live now?
I’m everywhere. I have a rehearsal space in East Garfield/Humboldt Park that we’ve been renting for the past year and a half. And I’m always on the West Side. My friend lives in Logan Square, and we basically live at Cafe Mustache and Cole’s Bar. I’m there at least three days a week … on a good week. I live on the West Side, and then I go home in the morning, and then I also teach an after-school program at Gary Comer Youth Center in Englewood. I love me some Rogers Park. Wherever I can get a one-bedroom for less than $1,000, you let me know, and I will love that neighborhood. [Laughs]
Since 2016, we have been profiling people who give their all to Chicago and enrich us socially and culturally by virtue of their artistry, social justice work and community-building. Take a listen. Read their words. Become inspired.
Interview and audio production by Ari Mejia
Introduction written by Joshua X. Miller
Photography by Ari Mejia, edited by Omi Salisbury
Transcription and editing for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca
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