Pharrell Williams is a man of many talents, and now he can add festival organizer to that list. The producer/singer/rapper/fashion mogul welcomed the world to his hometown of Virginia Beach, Va. for the inaugural Something in the Water, a festival chock full of superstars and events that delighted both locals and visitors.
From Jay-Z to Deepak Chopra to Virgil Abloh to Sylvia Rhone, Pharrell leaned heavily on the shield of his peers in the music and fashion industries to create something that hasn’t been seen in Virginia in well, ever. Something in the Water was not just another Coachella or Lollapalooza — and it was clear that Pharrell, his team, and the folks who partnered with him were intentional about making sure the show went smoothly. Virginia, with its recent political embarrassments, needed this win. The residents and business owners who had their own challenges around large events, needed this to work. And the city of Virginia Beach also stood to gain significant financial benefits from the success of the festival—35,000 tickets for the event sold out far in advance, and beach accommodations were snapped up just as quickly. Something in the Water was essentially a proof of concept that Virginia could support this level and style of event.
The Commonwealth of Virginia is a unique place; in her 2017 Elle profile of music titan Missy Elliott, writer Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah aptly describes its geography as “Southern, hanging off the edge of the East Coast.” Once you leave the corona of the 495 beltway around Washington, D.C., Virginia is wholly the South with southern sensibilities. While Miami Beach culture is centered on the hottest clubs and letting the good times roll is New Orleans’ motto, Virginia Beach is a family-oriented beach town, which is evident by prominent “No Cursing” signs across the oceanfront.
In the ViBe Creative District of Virginia Beach just beyond the oceanfront, psychic reader and new resident Kathy Marie talked about the shifting energies that swirled around before Something in the Water. “It’s been really interesting because I’ve only lived here about six months and the history of this weekend has been a little bit scary for the other residents, but as I walked around and talked to the police and the people that are working here today, they’re all just business as usual, you know, they told me they’re ready for anything.” Security was certainly tight, with state troopers, mounted police and other details out in full effect to manage crowds and direct the flow of traffic.
Reservations about the large influx of folks that came into Virginia Beach for Something in the Water were likely tied to the long history of challenges for young people of color organizing and partying in the city. Something in the Water took place a few months shy of the 30th anniversary of what are now known as the Greekfest Riots. In the summer of 1989, black college students partying in Virginia Beach over the Labor Day weekend clashed with police, prompting city leaders to call in the National Guard.
Something in the Water also fell on the same weekend as College Beach Weekend, an event which has been a point of contention in recent years. Incidents of unanticipated violence rattled residents and made it more challenging for students to gather.
In a statement on Instagram, Team FaceJay, the organizers behind College Beach Weekend, are adamant that the event was created to give college students the opportunity to celebrate post-finals and to build community together. “At its core, the event was conceived for and with college students in mind to be able to enjoy themselves, network, and build lifelong connections with other like-minded individuals across schools on the east coast.” Pharrell gave a nod to the students of College Beach week in an interview with local news station WAVY-TV 10. “Those students are the inspiration,” he said. Where other events had challenges around scaling, it seems Something in the Water was able to leverage deep community partnerships and colossal star power to get as many folks to table as possible to put Virginia and its residents front and center.
Throughout the weekend it was clear that Pharrell, the crew, volunteers and partners put in a lot of work to make sure Something in the Water was a success, but even Skateboard P was no match for Mother Nature. On the first day of the show, severe storms rolled in, raining out all the scheduled acts. Those amped to see performances from groups like Migos, Dave Matthews Band, and Virginia trap jazz artist Masego were disappointed when they weren’t able to perform, but attendees were promptly notified that they would be reimbursed for a third of the ticket price. Still, many folks were anxious to see the event get started.
Day two brought better weather, and was packed with activations by Timberland (including a giant classic wheat boot that would be the envy of any New Yorker), adidas and Sony, an art installation by KAWS, civic engagement programming via Trap the Vote, and performances by Amber Mark, Kaytranada, Ferg, J. Balvin, and SZA.
The best parts of the festival, however, were the reunions. If you are from or went to school in the commonwealth, it’s likely you ran into more than a few folks you knew or grew up with. That same energy was replicated on stage during Pharrell’s set, where it seemed every heavy hitter he had ever worked with graced the stage. Anyone who was a child in the ‘90s or went to college during the turn of the millennium felt a wallop of nostalgia, with Snoop Dogg, Charlie Wilson, Missy Elliott, Magoo, Timbaland and Jay-Z offering up a relentless torrent of jams. The roar of the crowd was confirmation that despite any hiccups from the rollout, people were pleased with the fest.
The final day of Something in the Water was much warmer, but also felt more settled. Festival goers and community members alike had the opportunity to enjoy a Pop-Up Church Service facilitated by local church leaders, and a Walmart community brunch that was free with the donation of a nonperishable good. The highest caliber of gospel artists were on tap to perform, including Mary Mary, Israel Houghton and Kirk Franklin. Further down the beach on the main stage, artists like Pusha T, Jhene Aiko, Virginia’s own Chris Brown and Trey Songz, and Anderson .Paak rocked crowds that stretched out as far as the eye could see.
Love and awe were particularly felt by the artists on the lineup with Virginia roots. There was a clear understanding that what was happening at Something in the Water was rare and important. Though Virginia has been a hotbed for black musical talents who’ve fundamentally shaped the sound of music within the past 20 years, there has never really been local infrastructure to showcase that talent. Musicians from the commonwealth often have to take off to places like New York or LA, which has a density of record companies, music publicists, and performance venues to have the type of exposure and impact they need to launch successful careers.
“It’s lit because we never had a festival, we never had that moment, you know what I mean?” says Hampton native DRAM. “For it to be this year, 2019, it’s like damn bro, it’s still right on time.”
The ability to perform at a grand scale in front of the friends and family who made you was meaningful to musician Leikeli47, who rocked the crowd Sunday in a Norfolk State hoodie and her signature ski-mask in a matching yellow. “No words can describe how truly grateful I am. This is my first show home, it’s the first year of the festival, so it’s definitely a special time for myself and the fam.” When asked about what she missed most about Virginia, she had this to say: “I don’t have to miss much because I’m there often, but there are those times when I wish I could be there even more. The hustle is different in VA. Life’s lessons grow you and keep you wise. I’m a proud VA/BK hybrid but it’s always two up, two down. There is an indescribable magic that resides in Virginia and in it’s people.”
Teddy Riley, the architect of New Jack Swing and the man responsible for giving Pharrell a larger platform during his Wreckx-N-Effect days, also saw the beauty of Virginia early on. “I said to my girlfriend at the time, who is the mother of my four children, that if I ever wanted to live anywhere, it would be here, which was Virginia Beach.” Originally from New York, Riley saw Virginia as a place to escape the rowdiness of his hometown, but also as a place to grow. “I love seeing talent coming out of Virginia because it’s so raw. It is so raw. They’re coming with a buck and a dream,” he said. And now with the festival completed and cleanup underway, it seems there’s hope that more space for that raw talent has been carved out.
Prior to Something in the Water, there was healthy skepticism from all sides about whether it would live up to the hype — as a first-time festival, it had never been done in Virginia before. But it looks like Pharrell, Virginia Beach, its residents and patrons of the event pulled it off. SITW is a win not only for the people here craving a creative space to express themselves but also for the city of Virginia Beach, which had an opportunity to show off the beauty of the beachfront while also significantly boosting revenue. The formidable star power that Pharrell wielded and his fierce dedication to creating a love-filled experience for his hometown was the stuff of dreams. Hopefully, the success of 2019’s event means there will be Something in the Water for years to come.