Around 2016, I became obsessed with Harrisburg’s underground music scene.
I loved seeing performers turn regular coffee and bike shops into concert venues, the thump of music spanning for blocks.
But, despite a few shows here and here, the majority of artists that took up these spaces were white.
That was until La Cultura came around. Black musicians quickly found a home in the two-year-old venue. Aside from hosting Black-owned shops and food vendors, La Cultura holds open mics and gives a space for local artists to perform.
“I feel like I’m doing its purpose. I feel so much aligned with my purpose and my vision on why I created this space originally,” said Elyse Irvis, owner of La Cultura. “But, I can’t take credit for the idea, just part of the execution.”
The performances are curated by Raeshell “Shelly” Thompson, a local artist with too many talents to list. She started hosting the open mics in La Cultura last year and has since fallen in love with it.
“People pull up for this, people get excited for it,” she said. “It’s something that people can commit to, and it’s something that people want to do, which also makes me happy.”
Down for It
Thompson was familiar with hosting performers before it became her regular at La Cultura. Two years ago, she hosted an event at Little Amps with her crew of musicians. The event was so packed that people were spilling out on to State Street.
“Because there’s not a lot of space for us, it almost seems like when we do these events, it gets packed like that, because it’s like ‘Whoa, like, what’s going on?’” she said.
For Thompson, it felt like there was a shortage of spaces for these musicians, and she wanted to help fix that.
Her first order of business when she returned from Howard University was to host an open mic.
She got her chance when a friend who worked at H*MAC came up to her and said, “Hey, we got a show coming up, and we just lost a host. Would you be down to do that?”
She was, of course, down for it, and loved the event. She loved hosting so much that, shortly after, she reached out to La Cultura to hold her own event.
Now, Thompson has a full cast of regular performers. Some of the frequent artists include her best friend singer Monica Cooper, Nick Bryd, Chewdo Ju, Andu “Geniuz” Desbele and his group Naomi17, among others.
Even though the energy in the space is large, the performers still feel a level of intimacy in La Cultura.
When Desbele is on stage, the rapper looks into a crowd of familiar faces, all within an arm’s length, as they rap along with him. It feels like home.
“When you go there, it feels as if these are all your people,” Desbele said.
There are three rules of Thompson’s open mics. All artists need to introduce themselves, everyone shows respect, and lastly, make a friend.
Not only does Thompson want to give opportunities for these musicians, she wants to help build connections and friendships between them.
Building connections is especially important for Thompson. In January, a friend of hers who came to her open mics was killed during a string of shootings in Harrisburg. He was at her event right before he died.
“When I think about that situation, I mean, it’s a far reach, but he could have met somebody at this open mic that maybe he was out at lunch with instead of where he was when that happened, you know what I mean?” Thompson said.
So, bringing people together is especially important for her. The first 45 minutes of each event are carved out so people can get to know one another.
And it works.
“There’s a lot of people I’ve met there that, now, when I see them out or on Instagram… my mind connects them to [La Cultura],” Desbele said.
Despite being in the midst of a pandemic, Thompson is still working to connect Harrisburg Black artists—just virtually. At least once a month, Thompson opens up La Cultura just for the artists and livestreams their performances for viewers.
While it’s not quite the same as the live shows, Thompson and these artists are still bringing more recognition to Harrisburg’s Black art and business scene.
“[La Cultura] allows us to be the face of the operation, as a Black-owned business,” Desbele said. “Our face will be associated with this because we’re here, and they won’t take it. They won’t ride us out this time.”
For updates on La Cultura’s open mic events, follow them on Facebook and Instagram @LaCultura717. You can also find Thompson on Instagram @Shellyifyanasty. La Cultura is located on 214 Verbeke St., Harrisburg.