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Years ago, Justin Rood, the co-founder of one of D.C.’s most cherished nascent street celebrations, the Funk Parade, had a prophetic dream.
“There was this rumble in the distance, and coming east down U Street there was a parade, and at the front the Grand Marshal was George Clinton and behind him was the Howard University Marching Band, and there were all these dancers,” Rood says. “As it came through the neighborhood, people came out of their houses to see what was going on, and they all joined the parade, and by the time it wrapped through the neighborhood and back down U Street, there was a column of thousands of people dancing together.”
He called the dream one of the best he’s ever had—so good, in fact, that he told person after person about it, and everyone he spoke to agreed he should make it a reality. Together with a team of volunteers as well as co-founder Chris Naoum, who had experience in the local music industry programming the Kingman Island Bluegrass & Folk Festival and as the founder of Listen Local First, Rood did just that (albeit without George Clinton at the helm). The first Funk Parade took place in 2014, and hit its highest attendance levels in 2016 with an estimated 70,000 visitors. Last year’s rainy iteration attracted around 35,000 attendees.
But this year, the annual gathering on U Street NW that celebrates the eponymous genre and D.C.’s local music scene posted an announcement on its Facebook page on March 6: “It is with great sadness that we announce that the Funk Parade will most likely not be happening in 2018.”
After the post went live, comments asking how to help came pouring in, and the organizers quickly set up a crowdfunding page, which has raised nearly $21,000 from more than 400 individual donors.
Music retail store Chuck Levin’s Washington Music Center, which has supported the event since its inception with free equipment rentals, jumped in with a pledge to match crowdfunding donations, currently leaving the parade with a $20,000-plus shortfall.
The event’s co-founders both say that they are more optimistic now that the event will take place than when they first publicly announced the funding challenges, although it may not feature all of the spin-off events—like a day fair—of years past. They’re also considering requesting small donations for the evening indoor Funk Parade parties, at places like Tropicalia, that have traditionally been free.
While hundreds of supporters have donated through the crowdfunding campaign, organizers say the funding shortfall stems from the inability to secure corporate sponsors.
“The donations have been inspiring—the fact that people are willing to put their own money up, even when you don’t see the same level of commitment from the folks and developers who are profiting off of the changes in the city,” Rood says.
According to tax returns for All One City, the 501(c)(3) organization that puts on Funk Parade, the event cost $126,712 in 2016. That year, the largest private sponsor at $10,000 was developer JBG, which declined to support the event this year. The company has been involved in a number of projects in the U Street NW neighborhood, like the Atlantic Plumbing condos.
The neighborhood’s reputation as one of the city’s most gentrified is part of why the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC 1B) has supported the event since its first year with grants of several hundred dollars, according to commissioner Jessica Smith.
“The Funk Parade is an event that brings all different groups of people together, it’s an equalizing event that everyone can attend and enjoy,” she says. “With so many people coming in, it’s important that we respect where the city has been and the history, especially in an area of the city that’s changing.”
Local musicians have also jumped in with offers to donate or play for free, but co-founder Naoum says that runs contrary to the event’s mission of celebrating and supporting local music. He says the Funk Parade, unlike other free festivals, is committed to paying all musicians a fair and standard rate for their work.
“I see artists telling me they want to make a contribution, and I want to tell them we love you guys, but we want to be the ones paying the artists,” Naoum says. “The individual donations are amazing, but they are not going to sustain this festival in the long run … I feel bad in a way because there are definitely people and institutions that could make this happen in a heartbeat.”
In addition to corporate sponsors, the parade has traditionally been paid for with grants from the city, as well as donations from the businesses in the neighborhood. One of those businesses is Lee’s Flower Shop at the corner of 11th and U streets NW. Co-owner Stacie Lee Banks sees an economic benefit to the event, even if attendees don’t necessarily buy flowers the day-of.
“It brings people to the street who may not normally come here, or if they do they may come in the evening, when we are closed,” she says. “I don’t think it increases our businesses that day, but it does increase exposure.”
Lee’s Flower Shop has operated on U Street NW as a family-owned business since 1945, but the wave of gentrification along 14th Street NW and U Street NW has ushered in many other businesses that lack D.C. roots.
“It’s difficult to get buy-in from anyone who’s not a business that’s owned in D.C.,” Naoum says. “They’ve got a whole corporate ladder to go up.”
Chuck Levin’s Washington Music Center, like Lee’s Flower Shop, is a family-run business that has operated in the D.C. area for more than 50 years. Adam Levin, one of three family members currently managing the store, says he and his family were motivated to match crowdfunding donations because they see the event as embodying the spirit of the city.
“I think it’s very much like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Funk Parade is to D.C.—the heart and soul. The Funk Parade is the opportunity to show what D.C. is about,” Levin says. “It’s not often there’s a full day just to celebrate local music, specifically local.”
And the local musicians who’ve participated in the past are eager to see the parade continue, as it’s important for the scene they helped foster. “I think D.C. has a reputation for being a transient city, if you aren’t from D.C. you may not be aware of the culture that’s here,” says Stephane Detchou, the frontman for local band Aztec Sun. “Funk Parade is focused on highlighting bands that are created here, showing you all of the ways you can have access to the arts here, it’s changing the perspective.”
Co-founders Rood and Naoum say they’d like to see more support from the city government, too. Earlier this month, Mayor Muriel Bowser was in Austin, Texas for South by Southwest, the kind of event that they think the Funk Parade could become. Last year’s event included a number of tech components, like a virtual reality expo and classes through the Academy of Funk, including one about Afrofuturism philosophy.
“What about the idea that we could build a SXSW here? There’s so much talent not only in terms of music and the arts but in terms of real innovation,” Rood says. “At the end of the day, we’re in love with D.C. We want to talk about all of the things that are great about it.”