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Making a smile in the world

A night at Tha Juice Joint

"Tha juice joint more than anything is a community," says Melanesia Hunter in our interview on Zeitgeist Radio. "It's really a family. But the event itself is an open mic/jam session, which is mostly improv. And kind of chaotic, but also magical as hell."

You can listen to the episode for a background and history of Tha Juice Joint, and Mel's heart-focused WHY. Here, I want to share my experience going to the event, and some things that stuck out to me.

Tha Juice Joint is an event on Monday nights in Los Angeles. It's currently monthly, but was weekly before Covid. The line to get in was full of fabulous looking people, dressed nice. It has been a while since I've been in a club! I started to feel out of place, until I saw someone in crocs, baggy jeans, and an oversized t-shirt. Hats off to you, whoever you are.

I overheard two girls talking behind me. One had been before, one had not. "It's a good vibe," the first said, from the belly.

Mel had told me that everyone was welcome, and to expect a lot of different kinds of folks. Truth! The crowd was majority Black, but I also saw folks of all sorts of other ethnicities and backgrounds; as a white person I was definitely in the minority. I also noticed several folks I wouldn't be surprised to learn were non-binary or trans. Overall the crowd was full of people who seemed like they each had really cool stories to tell, who led lives that were interesting to be around.

Mel was there, looking fabulous. She came over and gave me a hug and I felt special.

I wandered across the room, taking it all in. The DJ booth was on one side, the stage on the other with Tha Juice Joint logo looking fine on the wall. I walked to the bar and got a drink. Mel had a booth with her Hippie Chick inventory on one side of the stage.

DJ Sean Prince, the first class house DJ, was spinning. Mel spoke his praises earlier, and I had to agree - he's a damn good DJ. But the moment that I knew this was going to be really good, the moment when I first connected to the WHY and the community, my Zeitgeist Moment, was actually the pass off to the house band.

DJ Sean Prince started fading out, but kept his beat high. Then slowly I realized the house drummer had taken over the beat and I was hearing it in stereo. Then someone hit a chord in the same key. DJ Sean Prince faded out completely and the house band took over.

It was so seamless, so together, passing the vibe from one side of the room to the other, that right away I could tell that not only was this going to be an awesome evening musically, but I felt like they were cradling my experience. I see Sean Prince wander over to the bar to get a drink.

When the house band started the energy in the room started to shift. The crowd kind of perked up, and engaged with the music differently. The house singer started up - completely improv. "How it starts is how it ends" she chanted, over and over, in different variations.

Tha Juice Rules

Finally, Mel got up to speak about the jam. There are a few rules to Tha Juice Joint:

  1. NO EGOS. "I don't care if you're booked, I don't care if you're touring. Here we're all the same."

  2. Keep the train wrecks to a minimum. I laughed when I heard this one. Like, how do you stop that? But then she clarified: "don't stop the groove!" If you're falling apart, just get off the stage. You can jump back in line and give it another try - just respect the groove. I absolutely love this rule because it encourages attention to the overall vibe rather than your personal performance.

  3. Don't hog the mic. Do your 2-3 minutes, then move along. You can get right back in line but keep it moving.

  4. Keep it cute or put it on mute. Even though it's a 21+ event, Mel says "Minimum R-Rated content. Also if you ain't black don't say n*****!" That last bit got a cheer from the crowd.

  5. To the musicians (aka instrumentalists): Don't play like you're in a stadium. "You have got to be able to hear the singer. Look at where we are. This ain't a stadium," Mel says.

  6. Finally, there is a "Bad list" of songs they just don't want to hear anymore. This reminded me of when I was young and a blues band came through town. The lead singer/guitar player had a sticker that had Mustang Sally with that red "NO" circle sticker on it. I couldn't catch all of Mel's list but Superstition was on it. Hey, when you're sick of something, you're sick of it!

We jammin'

When Mel was finished with her announcements, the band started up again, fading up as Mel came down. The house singer started up again: "How it starts is how it ends." A line had already formed of folks wanting to get up and perform. The music swelled in a monumental crescendo, and at the top of it all the singer screamed "And Tha Juice Joint ends strooooooong!" I laughed with joy at the artistry of it.

And just like that, the jam started. A singer took the stage and started belting some pretty impressive vocal runs. Person after person had their moment, most of them damn fine musicians. I'd say overall the vibe was heavy R&B, but the band followed the vibe of the singer. At one point it shifted almost to metal, with a drum/bass thrash that was super cool.

Can we talk about this house band tho.

Mel told me earlier during our interview that they were "literally hands down the best musicians and vocalists in... hey, all of L. A. is making it small. In the world, like in all of the world!" I laughed at the time, loving her dedication to her team.

BUT. PEOPLE. She was not wrong. These incredible folks flowed and grooved and followed so many things that came at them. They created such a space for people to get up and jam, and if a musician came up they gave up their spot with a warm smile, helped them get settled and made sure they were ok before leaving the stage.

Most of the people who performed were amazing and needed no help. But there were a few folks who froze when they got onstage, or forgot their lyrics, or needed some kind of help. The band was instantly there to help people get started, or to bring the volume down when someone sang softer than the others. This was important because there was a lot of belting going on, so when someone sang a ballad or in a softer style it would have been easy for them to be overwhelmed by the instrumentalists.

Vibe at all costs

Because I'd spoken with Mel about her boundaries and how hard she works on curating the perfect environment, I was extra tuned in to moments when something might have gone sideways. At one point someone got up and just started talking, almost like he was doing stand up comedy. It was ok for a minute, but did start to change the vibe. Mel was on it like a hawk, and I watched her give a signal to one of the house singers. He tapped the guy on the shoulder and I saw him mouth "that's your time man" with the kindest smile. The guy moved on, no feelings hurt, and the vibe recovered almost immediately. I wonder how many people even noticed.

Around midnight, the feature was set to perform. Mel got up one more time. She made a call for everyone to follow their socials (@thajuicejoint on Instagram and Facebook, @thajuicejointLA on TikTok). She also talked about the WHY behind this event, which is ultimately healing and love for musicians and artists, "in a world that seems to be trying to exploit us and take ownership of our art without pouring back into us."

"We gotta be lovin' on each other," she says. "Let's love on each other right now. I want you all to find someone standing next to you and give them a hug." The audience laughed; the OG's clearly knew this was coming and started giving everyone hugs. New folks laughed at the idea while looking a little taken aback. A woman in front of me turned around. "Do you want a hug?" she said with bright eyes and a massive smile.

I did.

Tha Juice Joint Ends Strong

There was more to the night: the feature acts were a mind-blowing display of talent. The jam started up again after the features. I didn't get up to perform; I wanted to take in the night this time around. But who knows, you may see me up there someday. It's a badass event and Mel is a badass person.

My key takeaway is really the power of cradling an experience, or "protecting the vibe." It was powerful to see it in action, and it felt like no time at all until it was time to leave. The night flowed so seamlessly I didn't even feel time passing.

And yah, how it started was, in fact, how it ended.

Follow Tha Juice Joint on Facebook and Instagram @thajuicejoint

Follow on Tiktok @thajuicejointla

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