On Wednesday night, two tense days after the federal government ordered police to tear-gas protesters by Lafayette Square, Kenny Sway turned on his powered speaker and backing tracks, and began to sing on 16th Street, Northwest, with the bell tower of St. John’s church behind him. His rendition of “Lean on Me” enraptured not just the people present but those who watched clips on social media afterward.
Video by Evy Mages.
“It took a lot for me to go out there,” Sway tells Washingtonian. He’d spent the previous days following the protests, asking himself What is missing from these protests? “There’s no music,” he says he thought. “There’s no calmness to the people.”
So Sway decided to pack his gear in his trunk and drop the balm. “I was like, You know what? I’m just going to take that risk,” he says. Sway’s frequently sung downtown over the years and has begun to carve out a higher profile locally and nationally, with club gigs and concerts in New York, Georgia, and California and a new single, “The Way,” that features Veronica King.
Sway is no stranger to viral moments, either. He’s caused lots of people to smash share buttons before, like when he sang “I Will Always Love You” in Chinatown to his then-infant daughter who dangled on his chest in a baby carrier, or when he sang “The Tracks of My Tears” to a cancer patient who unexpectedly got up and danced with him. He possesses a silky, confident voice with miles of falsetto, the product, he says, of self-training and God-given ability. He’s inspired by Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, and especially DC native Marvin Gaye: “I look up to him a whole lot. Musically, him being a humanitarian, and loving the people and his city.”
Will he return to the protests? “I do plan on going back out,” he says. He plans to take a day to strategize his next move. “I’m definitely going to always go out and stand for my people,” he says. “I really want to make this clear, I went out there to not only bring calm to the city but to bring calm to the people.” I asked him whether his daughter, now three years old, has any idea what’s been going on in the streets here and around the nation in the last week. Not now, he says, but “She will get taught.”