Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?

Features

A Boston Music Festival is Helping Keep the City’s Black Music Story Alive

Boston was once a refugee for Black musicians fleeing or protesting New York’s racist cabaret card laws. From the early ‘40s to the late ‘60s, if liquor was served alongside danceable grooves in integrated rooms, the New York police would have their say in who was permitted on stage. A marijuana possession charge was enough to bar artists like Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday from earning a living in New York at the heights of their careers. They often turned to Boston, where nearly 200 jazz venues have closed in the decades since.

While Boston once helped sustain New York’s persecuted musicians, artists now so consistently flow the other way that the chance to have a sustainable jazz or hip-hop scene here is something the community has to organize for. A budding music festival, riding renewed vigor for saving the city’s under-funded cultural infrastructure, seeks to stem that flow — by establishing a presence for Black music in a city that has traditionally invested in any other narrative about its identity.

BAMSFest — the Boston Art and Music Soul Festival — is a nonprofit organization that started in 2018 as a single-day celebration of Afro-centric culture and music at Franklin Park in the heart of Roxbury. The festival was founded by Hyde Park’s Catherine Morris, a former radio journalist for the since-shuttered Hot 97.7 and current director of arts and culture for the Boston Foundation. Morris, who was dismayed by her hometown’s reputation as “not a place for Black people” and inspired by the inclusive joy and economic boons she witnessed as a festival organizer in Philadelphia, invested her life savings into bringing that experience to Boston. Five years later, BAMSFest has grown to include two days of music and art and a full-day conference of panels for the city’s artists of color, who otherwise experience little access to the information and infrastructure that make an arts career possible.

“How we have looked at the arts has been rooted in racism and classism. Whose art shows up depends on the city that you live in, what gets the most airtime, the most visibility?” Morris said to Okayplayer a few days before the festival, which took place earlier this summer.

Festival goers laugh in the shade of umbrellas brought to ward off the forecasted storms at BAMFest in Franklin Park, June 24, 2023.Photo by Brandon Hill for Okayplayer.

Boston artist and BAMFest performer ToriTori poses for photos with friends and family before her set in Franklin Park on June 24, 2023.Boston artist and BAMFest performer ToriTori poses for photos with friends and family before her set in Franklin Park on June 24, 2023.Photo by Brandon Hill for Okayplayer.

BAMSFest performer Dreion grips a mic onstage during his set in Franklin Park on June 24, 2023.BAMSFest performer Dreion grips a mic onstage during his set in Franklin Park on June 24, 2023.Photo by Brandon Hill for Okayplayer.

Boston’s hip-hop scene is shadowed by economic limitations

Earlier this year, when the city erected a sculpture commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. meeting Coretta Scott King during his time at Boston University, many were surprised to learn he had anything to do with the city. Up until The Embrace statue, the only public commemoration was a worn plaque on the apartment where he lived. A short walk from his stoop and a few years later, Malcolm X would make formative connections with musicians — many who’d lost their cabaret card licenses to perform in New York — at the Savoy Cafe, one of the many jazz clubs that once decorated those blocks.

“When you think about movies, TV, anything that’s talking about Boston at the national level, you don’t see the Black and brown community here,” said BAMSFest managing director Paul Willis. “There are all of these people who’ve contributed to Boston’s history in such a significant way, but the story hasn’t been told in that way.”

After New Edition, the Bobby Brown-led R&B group from Roxbury, exploded onto the scene in the early-’80s, the California-based MCA Records placed them in a music video with the LA Lakers, even though the Lakers had just defeated their hometown Boston Celtics in the ‘85 NBA finals. Nothing about Boston, a minority-majority city, sells Black music — or so the narrative goes.

“That has an effect,” Morris said. “Especially on communities of color that are already marginalized, under-invested, and overlooked about what they deserve to have access to.”

BAMSFest: Writing the Next Chapter of Boston’s Black Music Sceneyoutu.be

A 2016 study by the Boston Foundation found that not only did Boston’s arts and culture organizations receive the lowest per capita local government financial support of all similar cities, but it was the only city that required cultural nonprofits to contribute to a Payment in Lieu of Taxes program. Due to the program, in 2012 the city actually received more revenue from cultural organizations than it contributed. Because of this, Boston’s arts scenes are almost entirely sustained by private investments and financial interests, where there is a clear disparity.

During her 2021 mayoral campaign, Mayor Michelle Wu — Boston’s first woman and first person of color elected mayor — drew attention to the fact that, of 1,400 liquor licenses in the city, only eight were Black-owned. This disparity in private investment affects where music venues, the financial hubs of independent performers, can exist, and the populations they’re willing and able to serve.

The Middle East in Cambridge is the only ticketed venue in the Greater Boston area that regularly features local hip-hop, and plans currently exist to demolish it and build a hotel. You have a better chance at landing a show at another venue if you appeal to the demographic of the 150,000 college students who only briefly immigrate to the same pockets of space occupied by tourists and traveling professionals, than if you’re a local rapper with loud and proud rhymes about your city.

“So much of how we grow up comes out in our music. It’s a testament, it impacts the type of music that we make. It impacts what we talk about when we make music,” said Jalyse Ware, an artist by the name of Cakeswagg who is one of several of the city’s burgeoning female emcees to rock a BAMSFest stage this year. “I was in other countries before I had my first show here, and that’s because of space.”

Cakeswagg performs with her band and backup dancers at BAMSFest in Franklin Park on June 24, 2023.Cakeswagg performs with her band and backup dancers at BAMSFest in Franklin Park on June 24, 2023.Photo by Brandon Hill for Okayplayer.

Cakeswagg performs with her band and backup dancers at BAMSFest in Franklin Park on June 24, 2023.Cakeswagg performs with her band and backup dancers at BAMSFest in Franklin Park on June 24, 2023.Photo by Brandon Hill for Okayplayer.

Cakeswagg catches her breath after her performance at BAMSFest in Franklin Park on June 24, 2023.Cakeswagg catches her breath after her performance at BAMSFest in Franklin Park on June 24, 2023.Photo by Brandon Hill for Okayplayer.

As a traveling bartender, Cakeswagg got the kind of experience that’s always been valuable to hip-hop. The skills to set up your own equipment, work a crowd, and break down long after they’ve left, translated nicely to Boston’s forced DIY scene.

“People are creating their own spaces,” Cakeswagg said. “The quality performance venues, they wanted you to have a good track record. They wanted to know how many tickets were being sold at your other shows beforehand. Well, I hadn’t been in a venue yet. So I can’t tell you.”

Making the transition from the DIY space to even Boston’s small to mid-sized venues — from Brighton Music Hall to The Sinclair in Cambridge — doesn’t happen until a local artist beats the odds to garner national numbers. Even when they do make it to those stages, they’re far from the spaces that birth the music’s inspiration. That commute often costs more than bus fare.

“I don’t even know, if I try to book a show in Cambridge and Charlestown, that the neighbors won’t complain. Or if we show up with 20 people from Dorchester, that we won’t get harassed,” Willis said. “Across the board, Black volume, expression, the joy, you see how that gets muted and stifled.”

The spirit of New York’s cabaret card law — to regulate Black expression through economic burden — persists in the city that once provided shelter from it, in the form of extra expenses in security and noise violations that have more to do with 808s and integration than violence or volume.

“As an organization, we get penalized if we even feature hip-hop,” Morris said. “That’s everything from acquiring insurance, to dealing with local police, dealing with white establishments. We’re here to challenge that.”

A photographer leans in to get a shot of headliner Grandmaster Flash at BAMSFest in Franklin Park, June 24, 2023.A photographer leans in to get a shot of headliner Grandmaster Flash at BAMSFest in Franklin Park, June 24, 2023.Photo by Brandon Hill for Okayplayer.

Grandmaster Flash plays a 50th anniversary tribute mix as he headlines BAMSFest in Franklin Park, June 24, 2023.Grandmaster Flash plays a 50th anniversary tribute mix as he headlines BAMSFest in Franklin Park on June 24, 2023.Photo by Brandon Hill for Okayplayer.

Spoken word, diverse instrumentation and hope for the future at Franklin Park

BAMSFest is a young festival, but learning and growing fast. Forecasts for heavy storms all weekend shadowed a lower Friday (June 23rd) attendance and a slow Saturday start, but hardly an umbrella was wasted. Makeshift shade shielded lawn chairs and picnic blankets carted from home. Two stages pop up on the East side of the space, facing a row of pavilion tents that will be filled with local vendors of color, a small job fair, a fenced-in beer and wine garden, and a kids’ zone. There are no fences around the park, attendance is free. The sound of music pulls in at least one curious couple out for a Saturday jog who make it their whole day.

Aside from headliner Grandmaster Flash, most performers might not stand out on a major festival lineup poster yet, but they certainly do from a stage. Early Saturday afternoon, Cakeswagg brought dancers, live instrumentation, a sign language interpreter, and a performer’s persona. She opened with proud bars about Boston’s status as a sanctuary city. It’s a rare opportunity for those in attendance to see a new hip-hop act making music about a side of their city that the outside public doesn’t see.

The prevalence of live instrumentation is nothing novel for Boston hip-hop. Black students studying the source material of jazz, funk, soul, and blues at Berklee College of Music have been coloring the soundscape of hip-hop for quite some time. Even recently, Kendrick Lamar’s Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers had Berklee fingerprints all over it. Being home to a premier contemporary music school, combined with the city’s rich jazz history, means that those connections and influences often work their way into the city’s music.

BAMSFest performer and Berklee College of Music associate professor Tim Hall, plays saxophone and relays spoken word rhymes about family and music in Franklin Park, June 23, 2023.BAMSFest performer and Berklee College of Music associate professor Tim Hall, plays saxophone and relays spoken word rhymes about family and music in Franklin Park, June 23, 2023.Photo by Brandon Hill for Okayplayer.

A Berklee alum from Baltimore, Kevin Ross starts his BAMSFest set in a straightjacket, covering u201cCrazyu201d by Gnarls Barkley while his back-up singers escort him to the mic in Franklin Park, June 24, 2023.A Berklee alum from Baltimore, Kevin Ross starts his BAMSFest set in a straightjacket, covering “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley while his backup singers escort him to the mic in Franklin Park on June 24, 2023.Photo by Brandon Hill for Okayplayer.

“Folks think that Boston doesn’t have a sound,” Willis said. “But the Boston sound has always been something that’s really diverse. It’s high levels of musicality, and super intellectual in terms of lyrical content. It’s always experimental, because we’re looking for the thing that will help us stand out.”

Gang Starr is rightly credited with popularizing the blending of rap and jazz through their addition to the soundtrack for Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues. But it was Guru’s hometown Boston influences that made it possible. After the soundtrack caught on, he would go on to release four volumes of the Jazzmatazz series, combining rap with the style of jazz instrumentation that his godfather inundated him with from a young age. That same experimental live instrumentation present throughout the Jazzmatazz series could be heard all day on the BAMSFest stages, but Guru’s need to leave Boston to find success means that lineage often gets disregarded in favor of his New York ties through Gang Starr. Artists like Cakeswagg want to do the opposite and stay in Boston, showing future aspiring rappers that they don’t need to leave to find success.

“I don’t want all of the youth to think, ‘If I’m good at something, if I’m good at music, if I want to take music seriously, that I can’t do it here.’ I don’t want them to feel that way,” Cakeswagg said.

“I just want to be able to create infrastructure here for them to succeed,” she continued. “If I have to do eight tours a year, I want to have roots here. For the next generation to be like, ‘Yeah, Cake stayed in Boston. She lived in Boston and she did all of these things.’”

Zyah Belle says it's her first time being in Boston and sheu2019s u201chappy to be where the Black people are at,u201d at BAMSFest in Franklin Park, June 24, 2023.Zyah Belle says it’s her first time being in Boston and she’s “happy to be where the Black people are at,” at BAMSFest in Franklin Park on June 24, 2023.Photo by Brandon Hill for Okayplayer.

Building for the future of Boston’s Black music

One of the most appealing aspects of the BAMSFest experience is the sense that you’re getting involved in something at the ground level that’s truly meaningful. Where most music festivals today have taken to selling commodified mockeries of their counter-culture roots to content creators, BAMSFest serves a purpose beyond lining the pockets of monopolistic companies that use their leverage to squeeze every penny out of both artist and fan. Black music in Boston is counter-culture, so long as public perception tells you your city is not that.

“I think it’s radical that we’ve continuously advocated for physical space and presence, and saying ‘Hey, we’re going to do this, no matter what,’” said Tim Hall, an Associate Professor at Berklee who took to the BAMSFest stage twice as a saxophone player and once as a spoken word poet. “BAMSFest is doing that advocacy from both a political perspective, as well as creating a physical presence for Black and brown people to feel heard, be seen.”

The festival is right to plan for exponential growth. This year was their most comprehensive year of programming yet and, thanks to a drought-breaking $1 million dollar grant from the city that was announced a few weeks after the festival, they’ll be able to say that for years to come. The Cultural Investment Grant, totaling $7 million, will be split between 11 organizations of varying sizes and distributed over a three-and-a-half-year period, with BAMSFest receiving the maximum grant. It’s not only unique for Boston in its size and scale, but unique to all grants of its kind in the level of community involvement in the decision process.

“They’re thinking about the city in context to the nation,” said Samantha Rose, Director of Grants and Programs at the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture (MOAC). “They’re saying Boston is a place where not only artists can thrive here, but that other folks want to come in and be part of the scene here.”

Spearheading the design of the grant program with an emphasis on local leadership, Rose highlighted the importance of involving community members in the grant process to ensure first-hand input on the communities’ needs, and that those advisors stressed their confidence in BAMS’ mission and the boons of its success long-term.

“They’re [BAMSFest] thinking, ‘How can we provide folks with as much information that they’ve been excluded from historically, to be able to thrive in their careers,’” Rose said. “They’re doing that all year long.”

At a full day of informational panels, professionals talk about subjects like balancing motherhood with industry demands.At a full day of informational panels at Berklee Performance Center on June 22, 2023, professionals talk about subjects like balancing motherhood with industry demands. Pictured from left to right: Joëlle Fontaine, Dyana Williams, Terri Lyne Carrington, Maimouna Youssef.Photo by Brandon Hill for Okayplayer.

Headliner Mumu Fresh wraps up the first night of BAMSFest performing with her band in Franklin Park, June 23, 2023.Headliner Mumu Fresh wraps up the first night of BAMSFest performing with her band in Franklin Park, June 23, 2023.Photo by Brandon Hill for Okayplayer.

Headliner Mumu Fresh wraps up the first night of BAMSFest performing with her band in Franklin Park, June 23, 2023.Headliner Mumu Fresh wraps up the first night of BAMSFest performing with her band in Franklin Park, June 23, 2023.Photo by Brandon Hill for Okayplayer.

“The festival is our largest program, it’s graduation,” Morris said. “All the work we do leading up and in between each festival is what we like to call the prelude. It’s the work. It’s going to the shows, it’s having artists and creative entrepreneurs on panels. It’s hosting different workshops to develop the professional business side for artists, creative entrepreneurs, and cultural workers.”

This year was the first year for BAMS CONX, a full day of free and accessible panels hosted at Berklee, where aspiring artists could hear career advice from panelists before catching many of them on stage over the weekend. Discussions covered balancing a career with motherhood, sustainability in songwriting, and financial advice that set pens scribbling.

“The artist born in Roxbury or Dorchester doesn’t have the privilege to attend an institution like Berklee,” Hall said. “Coming up through the game thinking one day I’m going to write a grant for this hip-hop album, that’s a foreign concept.”

BAMSFest’s receipt of such a significant grant signals more than just a secure future for a festival with more melanin and musical variety than any of the city’s other premier festivals. It signals a change in Boston’s willingness to invest in a future for its artists of color, and BAMSFest is equipped to spread that dream horizontally through its own growth.

“There’s so much more work we have to do, but we are enough,” Morris said. “We have so much to offer and we have to believe in that. It’s gonna take a collective effort. We have to understand the value that we bring to the table, and if it’s not the right table we can create our own table.”

A young girl gets a great vantage point to enjoy Grandmaster Flash from a moving seat in the middle of the crowd at BAMSFest in Franklin Park on June 24, 2024.A young girl gets a great vantage point to enjoy Grandmaster Flash from a moving seat in the middle of the crowd at BAMSFest in Franklin Park on June 24, 2024.Photo by Brandon Hill for Okayplayer.

A young girl gets a great vantage point to enjoy Grandmaster Flash from a moving seat in the middle of the crowd at BAMSFest in Franklin Park on June 24, 2023.A young girl gets a great vantage point to enjoy Grandmaster Flash from a moving seat in the middle of the crowd at BAMSFest in Franklin Park on June 24, 2023.Photo by Brandon Hill for Okayplayer.

Read the full article here

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Advertisement
Advertisement

You May Also Like

HipHop

Kanye West‘s beachfront property in Malibu has plummeted an awesome deal in worth because the mogul remains to be attempting to eliminate it. Ye...

HipHop

Boosie Badazz doesn’t look like a fan of Lil Uzi Vert‘s new advert marketing campaign with Marc Jacobs. Launched on Friday (June 14), it...

HipHop

LL Cool J could have seemingly traded in his rap profession for one on TV and movie, however the Hip-Hop icon is aware of...

HipHop

Lil B has bestowed his blessing on the Boston Celtics as they’re only one sport away from successful their 18th championship within the league....

Advertisement