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Spring’s return also signals the beginning of festival season, a circuit that’s become better defined by the experience than the actual music.
At Coachella, an annual romp in the California desert, for example, the sounds are rivaled by the sights—mainly celebrity appearances and fashion. It’s all about the scene; the music is merely the soundtrack for the setting.
But since its inception, Broccoli City Festival has used music to lure people toward a greater purpose. It debuted in D.C. in 2013, billed as the District’s landmark Earth Day celebration, and was created by Broccoli City, a grassroots organization focused on increasing awareness about wellness and sustainability in urban communities.
Its organizers identified music as the key to drawing a larger audience for their message, and the inaugural D.C. event brought national acts such as Mississippi rapper Big K.R.I.T. and Michigan singer JMSN to Navy Yard’s Half Street Fairgrounds along with local favorites like DJ and producer Tittsworth and band Black Alley.
The festival has since grown in both size and scope—it relocated to Congress Heights’ Gateway D.C. pavilion in 2014; charismatic Harlem rapper Cam’ron and ethereal siren Erykah Badu have headlined; and the space has been populated by an increasing number of eco-friendly vendors. Jaden and Willow Smith, the progeny of Jada Pinkett-Smith and Will Smith, even appeared last year.
The fourth edition of Broccoli City Festival, scheduled for this Saturday and already sold out, stands to be the biggest to date, primarily on the strength of this year’s lineup. Atlanta’s Future, one of the most popular rappers at the moment, is the main attraction along with singer Jhené Aiko. Joining them on the bill are The Internet, rapper/singer/songwriter extraordinaire Anderson .Paak, singer BJ the Chicago Kid, and producer Sango. Broccoli City Festival’s most impressive lineup yet will be complemented by a wellness center, several food trucks, live-art installations, a pop-up market, and a plethora of resources about how to live a healthier life. But as it becomes more successful, Broccoli City’s organizers are working to ensure that its message isn’t lost amid growing popularity.
Broccoli City’s mission has always extended beyond music. Its origins date back to 2009, when co-founder Brandon McEachern launched an organic T-shirt company under the same name. When McEachern, who resides in Los Angeles, observed the lack of healthy food options in L.A.’s low-income African-American communities, he reached out to friend and fellow Greensboro, N.C. native Marcus Allen. The two decided to build Broccoli City into something more pivotal, but they knew they needed teammates with a shared passion for their initiative. Jermon Williams, senior vice president of communications, and Darryl Perkins, director of programs and community engagement, were the missing links.
“I met Marcus back in the beginning of ’09 through a mutual friend who knew I had an interest in communications and marketing,” says Williams, a native of Upper Marlboro, Md. Williams previously worked for the NFL Players Association, speaking to athletes about unhealthy products and supplements. After starting out as a consultant, he helped Broccoli City organize events in the D.C. area, but an Earth Day affair at the flagship Atlanta store for hatmaker New Era was the moment he realized the movement’s potential.
“That was the first time I saw hip-hop culture mixed with eco-friendly messaging and products,” he says. “After that, I became fully invested in what [Broccoli City] was trying to do, and we grew from there.”
Broccoli City soon began testing the concert waters. “While I was director of programs at the Hip Hop Caucus, I was leading a campaign called Green the Block, and we were coordinating and organizing Earth Day events across the country, and the Broccoli City team was leading the flagship event in L.A.,” says Perkins, who hails from Oakland, Calif.
Broccoli City made its initial foray into live music with a 2010 Earth Day celebration in downtown Los Angeles, The Global Coolin’ Block Party, which was headlined by L.A. rappers Dom Kennedy and Pac Div, as well as a then-little-known rapper named Kendrick Lamar. “We [brought] an Earth Day component and hooked up with some people who had ties to the L.A. hip-hop community,” Williams explains.
The warm response to this combination of live music, live art, and vegan and vegetarian food vendors was evidence that Broccoli City was onto something. But in order to truly emphasize the importance of being healthy and living in a sustainable way, the group felt something more substantial was needed. Arriving at the correct answer took time.
“Fast forward to the first Broccoli City Festival in 2013, and myself, Darryl, Marcus, and Brandon decided, through a phone conversation, to do a festival,” Williams says. “We were [considering] different names, and decided ‘Why not call it Broccoli City Festival?’”
“Broccoli City” is a nickname that McEachern created for his hometown, but D.C. was a strategic choice as the festival’s location. In 2013, McEachern told City Paper that D.C. best aligned with their mission. “We really wanted to begin this festival in a city that is already making great strides in the communities we are trying to impact,” he said. Allen added that D.C. was selected in part because some of its residents aren’t informed about sustainability.
“There are large areas, specifically in parts of Southeast and Northeast D.C., that still lack local, affordable, and healthy food options or access to them,” he said.
D.C.’s wage gap underlines the divide between rich and poor—high-income whites and low-income minorities—and economic health in certain sections dictates the availability of those healthy alternatives.
Launching a festival is both an onerous task and tremendous risk. The financial, planning, and promotional strains are intimidating, but actually executing the show is the biggest challenge. One error can sink the entire production. The Broccoli City principals brought no event management experience to the table (the first three years were “very raw,” according to Williams), but the reaction to the festival was immediately positive.
2013 saw Big K.R.I.T. flex his dual allure. In 2014, Cam’ron’s cache of hits atoned for his lateness, namely the unmistakeable churn of “Dipset Anthem.” And last year, festival-goers braved the rain and resulting mud to see Badu as “DJ Lo Down Loretta Brown.” Naturally, each headlining act has gotten bigger as Broccoli City Festival itself has (there were two Broccoli City Festivals in 2014; one in D.C. and one in L.A.), and that trend continues with Future at the top of this year’s bill.
Future is a master at creating and controlling moods, but his best recent music reflects a soul lost to vice: 2015’s Dirty Sprite 2 is named after a potentially hazardous blend of codeine, promethazine, and soda. For all of Future’s popularity, there’s a purple elephant in the room: His frequent, unabashed drug talk is incongruous with the festival’s healthy living aim. While the organizers acknowledge the obvious conflict, they insist that it won’t dilute the message.
“We’ve always been willing to meet people where they are, so Future is a vessel given the fact that he is popular and that he can reach a lot of people,” Williams says.
“Our goal is not to preach to the choir,” McEachern adds. “The goal is to touch people who are not familiar with these healthy options. Some artists can get us those people.”
But it’s a real possibility that the people who stand to benefit the most from Broccoli City’s doctrine will lose its message in the music.
“That was a big fear going into year two, but what we now understand is that not everyone is going to become a tree-hugger overnight, and some people will never become tree-huggers,” Williams says. “Some people won’t care about clean energy and things of that nature, but they may think twice about throwing a piece of paper on the ground and walking away. They may hear something that [speaks to them] like, ‘You can save money on your electric bill if you follow these steps.’”
To keep the message at the forefront, Broccoli City organized events leading up to the festival; this includes the Power of One campaign, which rewarded participants in a series of community-building events (preparing meals, raising community gardens, and cleaning up the Anacostia River, to name a few) with tickets to the festival. Perkins says the festival doubles as a celebration of a year’s worth of work, like a 5K run and a fitness event at Anacostia Park.
Ideally, Williams says, they’d like to make Broccoli City Festival free (the cheapest tickets were $59 this year). He adds that Broccoli City wants to involve business communities and governments to take the festival beyond D.C.
L.A., Chicago, and Atlanta have been discussed as possible locations, but McEachern has a more ambitious goal.
“[We want] to bring Broccoli City festivals to communities all around the world and to keep empowering young people [to realize] that they can be the change that they want to see.”
Music is simply the conduit for that change, not the be-all and end-all.
Photo by LaVan Anderson