Atlanta owns hip-hop and soon enough, they’ll own the festival circuit. Depending on when you arrived on Mother Earth, your definition of a black music festival varies. Over 800 festivals fly by the U.S. every year with over 32 million people going to at least one a year. As hip-hop continues to be a driving force in festival and music culture, just a handful of festivals carry the themes of black culture. Atlanta’s ONE MusicFest has tapped into what they hold dear–an even distribution of hearty hip-hop and R&B acts while flossing their city’s impact in today’s music stratosphere.
Founded in 2010 by James “J” Carter, the first line-up would lure in conscious music lovers with performances by the likes of Common, Goapele and De La Soul. Despite the onslaught of rain in the sweltering month of July, Carter says his inaugural year and the years that followed were filled with L’s in the form of important lessons.
“Honestly my wife got me centered,” he explains to VIBE. “The first five years we took blows, like, heavy blows and she said, ‘You could look at it in two ways: Are you losing money or are you investing in your dreams and ideas?’ By the fifth year when I changed the way I was thinking, that was the year we actually broke through.”
That year (2016) would mark the first and only performance by the original members of the Dungeon Family comprised of Outkast, Goodie Mob, Sleepy Brown and Rico Wade.
Other legendary moments would include resounding sets by Jazmine Sullivan, Erykah Badu and a budding artist by the name of Anderson.Paak.
Making lasting music memories rather than fleeting ones is something Carter has always wanted to do with ONE MusicFest. This weekend (Sept. 8- Sept. 9) is bound to reflect the mission with sets from H.E.R., Monica, T.I. and the legendary George Clinton.
Carter shares with VIBE how ONE MusicFest came to be, its extending platforms and more below.
What was your first concert or introduction to live music like?
Carter: My real first experience with live music probably took place when I was around 11. I grew up in Harlem and during the birth of hip-hop. It was a rooftop party and Doug E. Fresh and Biz Markie were DJing. I was witnessing something I couldn’t explain, but it felt special.
I didn’t know who they were at the time but the energy was there. It was this thing called hip-hop that was new, fresh, and alive. It was something that was gonna be a part of me for a long time since it was the first time I really felt live music and just sort of how infectious it really was. You know, I obviously didn’t think I was going to form a career out of that but that was the first time I felt it.
What a foreshadowing moment. So tell me about the first official ONE MusicFest. What were some of the wins and what were some of the L’s you faced?
Oh, that’s gonna be easy. I used to own two clubs, one was live music-driven and the other one was just a standard club, nightlife. It was during the time where I knew that our music and our culture was bigger than just four walls. I started thinking about a festival and that was like a real cultural, homecoming, revival kind of thing.
I started visiting– and this was probably back in ’07, ’08–started checking out different festivals and kind of catching the vibe. I couldn’t find black festivals that spoke to what I was trying to create. I started doing my own research and I realized festivals are no joke. These joints cost hundreds of thousands and millions of dollars to actually produce. I thought to myself, “Let’s start small.”
After getting an activation deal going, I had a check in my hand to do something. We did it in the middle of July, in Atlanta on asphalt in a big a** parking lot in West Midtown Atlanta, so you know it was hot.
We set up two stages in the parking lot. The concept and layout was dope but it was 100 degrees and then it rained for like maybe 45 minutes so you had all this steam that started coming up from the asphalt. Every woman’s freshly done hair instantly turned into like an Angela Davis afro. I mean it was crazy, it was insane.
So we had Common, Goapele, De La Soul performed, we had a go-go band perform. It was dope. We had about 2,000 maybe 2,500 something folks who came out to the first but yeah lots of lessons learned. Do not plan a festival in July in Atlanta.
Speaking of lessons, what are some things you’ve learned about yourself throughout your career in the festival market?
Don’t give up on yourself, you know? Follow your dreams. Honestly, my wife got me centered. The first five years we took blows, like, heavy blows and she said, ‘You could look at it in two ways: Are you losing money or are you investing in your dreams and ideas?’ By the fifth year when I changed the way I was thinking and approached it as something I believe in, that was the year we actually broke through.
It’s just believing in yourself, believing in your investment, and it’s an old term but “trust the process” and build a team of individuals around you that feel the vision. If you’re not willing to take a few on the chin then you know you might just want to stand on the sidelines and watch.
How do you maintain that balance in the lineup while catering to millennials (festival culture’s biggest consumer)?
I think a lot of the current music wouldn’t be what it is if it wasn’t for a lot of artists from the past. I think art inspires art and inspiration comes from generations of things that have been created way before you. It’s connecting them all and also finding artists that have an overlapping fan base. Will a George Clinton funkster dig Big K.R.I.T? I mean, if you listen to a lot Outkast or K.R.I.T., there’s funk in that. It’s just finding a lot artists whose music speaks to that. The fanbase are progressive enough to embrace the aspects and pockets of urban music and culture. It’s a bit of a puzzle but we have fun every year putting it together.
How does it feel to exist in the festival culture now when former alternative rock-based platforms like Coachella and Lollapalooza have brought in so many hip-hop and R&B acts?
We feel it and that was another reason why mine was created. We would see a lot of brown faces on stage but not in the audience so the question was, ‘Why don’t we have something like this for the urban community?’ That’s why our fanbase loves and appreciates and that’s the authenticity of it. It was really formed, created and built by music lovers of the culture and from the culture. It’s not a money grab, it’s not a ‘let me find the hottest black pop artists screaming the most ignorant stuff over the airwaves.’ It’s, ‘Let me really curate something that’s special and really pushes the culture forward.’
“If you’re not willing to take a few on the chin then you know you might just want to stand on the sidelines and watch.” -J. Carter
I’m not gonna downplay any of them. There’s room for all of the festivals. They are what they are and they do what they do. Some of them are ridiculous and successful and they have a model that they follow. I’m modeled a little bit different and it’s coming from a different place of respect and authenticity. There’s a reason we’re growing every year and I think it’s because what we’re doing is hard to find. It’s also respected by the culture as well.
Where does ONE MusicFest go from here?
We’re looking to venture off in a couple of spaces, definitely the media space. I think the story that we’re telling and building is the same way I felt with the club. The culture is bigger than four walls. The culture is bigger than just this one festival so you have to wonder, ‘How do we get the messages out?’ We’re also looking to break ground with another festival in another city hopefully in the next couple of years.
Nice. And what about yourself? What are some other things that you wanna knock off your list?
The next five years for me is really building up the media space for ONE MusicFest. We’re already in talks with a few big dogs that love the concept and understand what we’re trying to build. I want to enrich the progression of urban culture while reflecting the positive side of the culture.
There’s so much random just muck and smut in media that I think for what we do at ONE MusicFest it’s a homecoming. How do you take that feeling and push it into a digital format so that you’re not only just talking to 40,000 that show up at your festival but you’re talking to 40 million people across the world? So that’s what we’re looking to do. That’s taken up a bulk of my time and energy and I’m excited, I’m excited for what’s to come.
Learn more about Atlanta’s ONE MusicFest here.