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Friday, August 7, 2009

Art & Soul Organizer Explains What Happened To This Year's Festival

Posted By on Fri, Aug 7, 2009 at 10:33 AM

click to enlarge You Know You Want This, Oakland: Shawn Colvin
  • You Know You Want This, Oakland: Shawn Colvin
Earlier this week I wrote about discovering that Oakland's Art & Soul Festival--which happens August 15 & 16--had managed to almost completely ignore the youthful 16-35 demographic with its bookings for this year. There's no live hip-hop, indie, or alternative rock, easily the most popular genres for teenagers and young adults. It seemed only right to follow up that post and ask the people behind the festival why that is.

According to Samee Roberts, a Manager in the Cultural Arts & Marketing Department of the Community & Economic Development Agency for the City of Oakland, there was no concerted attempt to alienate any demographic, especially young people. It just happened that way.

"Due to budget constraints, we rotate musical styles from year to year," Roberts says. "We have featured hip-hop in the past and definitely will again, but due to losing nearly $200K in funding, we could not afford to do it all in one festival. [It's] Important to note that there is no World, Reggae or Alternative Rock this year either."

Duly noted. But aren't jazz, blues. and gospel featured every year? And isn't it a fact that last year, the Hieroglyphics were the first hip-hop act ever to be featured at A&S during its eight-year tenure? I posed these follow-up questions to Roberts but didn't receive a direct response.

What Roberts did say, however, was that "We are not trying to alienate anyone - it is the opposite - we are trying to appeal to a broad cross section." Also, Roberts added, "for additional proof that we are not trying to alienate any age group - we also produced the hugely successful June 18 "Uptown Unveiled!" event with Kev Choice headlining (Oakland artist)."

Well, that's partially true, anyway. The Kev Choice Ensemble did headline "Uptown Unveiled!", which was technically a joint production between the City of Oakland's Cultural Arts Dept. and the Lake Merritt/Uptown Community Benefit District. Yet if Art & Soul wasn't trying to alienate hip-hop and alternative rock fans, it's hard to see how their headliners--Shawn Colvin, Will Downing, the BoDeans, and Bobby Caldwell--could have possibly done a worse job of it.

Still Around: the BoDeans
  • Still Around: the BoDeans

Roberts also defended the fact that none of these headlining artists are from the Bay Area--which has produced "World Class Rock" acts such as Green Day, Third Eye Blind and the Counting Crows, as well as world class R&B artists like Raphael Saadiq, D'wayne Wiggins, Tone Tony Tone, Martin Luther, and EnVogue (to name a few). "Our lineup over the years has been 75% or more Oakland artists - probably closer to 80 or 85%," Roberts claims, adding, "We try for and have booked local acts whenever possible - we get who is available."

After touting the festival's localism, Roberts then went on to suggest that Oaklanders--a proud bunch of folks who still follow the A's, Warriors, and Raiders with a passion, even when they aren't very good--aren't happy unless they also hear groups from other areas at Art & Soul as well. "Would you expect San Francisco, Los Angeles, Austin or any other city to feature only local artists at their festivals? I would bet that our percentage of local acts trumps anything out of any of those cities."

Hmm, I'm not so sure you'd win that bet, Samee. Most SF street fairs do feature local artists, almost exclusively. Noise Pop features indie rock from everywhere, but always includes a large contingent of local buzzworthy acts. And even the rock-and-electronica-besotted Outside Lands and Treasure Island Music Festival found a way to feature a couple of local hip-hop, world, or soul artists-- in fact, Outside Lands actually has more local R&B acts (Raphael Saadiq and Nino Moschella & Darondo) than Art & Soul (zip. zilch. nada.). Also, it's worth noting that Colvin, Downing, Caldwell, and the BoDeans collectively haven't exactly been chart-toppers of late.

Still, there's no need to be a meanie about this. Roberts divulges
that the main reason Art & Soul has downsized was the loss of its
city subsidy. Plus, as you may have heard, we're in a recession, and
the city of Oakland faces a deficit in the tens of millions of dollars.
As a result, "this is indeed a transition year," Roberts says, noting
that "Honestly, we are doing what we can to stay afloat.... we do this on
a shoestring with lots of passion for our city."

Roberts hopes folks will still attend this year's festivities, and
promises that next year's will be an improvement: "Look for a big
Oakland show next year--our 10th anniversary. I am planning an Oakland
reunion jam session with notables from then and now." Sounds promising. But first we've got to make it through one headliner from Wisconsin and
another from South Dakota.

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Eric Arnold


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