“I ALWAYS PROMOTED EVENTS,” POET, ACTOR AND MUSICIAN SHARRIF SIMMONS SAYS.
“I’ve been an artist, but I’ve always felt the drive to bring people together. I can’t say I know exactly what that impulse is. But I like doing things for people. I like sharing. I’ve had moments of what might be perceived as success, with music and movies, but I like to create a collective consciousness.”
Simmons, a New York City native who moved to the Magic City in 2005, is now making what is surely his largest and most ambitious attempt yet to create such a consciousness—in this case, a greater awareness on the part of Birmingham residents of what he believes are the many talented musicians and other artists who live and work here.
Along with attorney Dafina Ward and a host of volunteers, Simmons will present the Birmingham Arts and Music Festival (BAAM) this weekend, August 20-22, at a dozen local clubs, including Zydeco, Bottletree, The Nick, Rogue Tavern and Old Car Heaven. The event is primarily a music festival—more than 120 acts have been booked, according to Simmons—but will feature a sampling of other entertainment, including dance and spoken word. With BAAM, Simmons, Ward and a core group of volunteers, many of whom are musicians and festival participants, hope to fill a gap opened by the demise of City Stages and the Birmingham Heritage Festival.
Simmons and his fellow organizers want to help Birmingham—a city the African-American artist has adopted since moving here with his son Omari—shed its inferiority complex. “We want the city to start celebrating what they have and start being mindful about what’s here,” he says. “This is a big statement, because there’s a lot of esteem issues in Birmingham, and it’s been a long time, but all the isms—classicism, racism—it hasn’t been wholly transcended, but this is a step in that broader direction of truly creating a collective identity. I can’t say I know why the hell I want to do that, but it just feels like the right thing to do.”
According to Simmons, BAAM is modeled on the successful South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival in Austin, Texas. The hope is that the use of existing venues can help the organizers save money, as opposed to traditional festivals that spend big bucks on such items as lights, stages and sound equipment. They also hope to generate attention for local performers and to generate new patrons for existing venues, hotels and restaurants.
Simmons got the idea for the festival while hosting a TV show called Real Arts Birmingham at Bright House cable. He discussed the concept with Ward, who had assisted him with some legal matters, including contracts. “We were both intrigued with the idea of creating new opportunities for artists in the city,” according to Ward, who refers to herself as “a recovering attorney” and now works as a consultant and project manager for non-profits, including AIDS Alabama. “I was helping him and seeing some of the challenges that artists face. We thought it would be great to have a showcase. BAAM was the word I came up with.”
SXSW served as an inspiration for Simmons because of the huge impact the event has on its host city. “Austin was transformed by that, and I wanted something that would transform Birmingham, [that] would involve as many people as possible,” he says.
SXSW also gives musicians the chance to be heard by people from the music industry, something Simmons hopes to emulate with BAAM. “That inspired me more with South by Southwest, putting musicians in front of agents, producers, club owners, and creating a genuine exchange where people can actually hear the talent that is in [Birmingham],” he says. “In this festival you’re going to see the raw talent that people don’t see,” he says. “It’s not on MTV. It’s not on the radio, even local radio. They’re playing for the love. They’re playing out of their heart.”
I asked Ward about her hopes for the first year of BAAM. “I think we could see an increase in local awareness and support for local and regional artists, and increased interest from local radio,” she says. “And we hope people will go to venues that they have not been to before. It’s not just about the artists, because the venues have made a commitment to this, as well. They are often the strongest advocates for these artists and are the only venue they have for a performance experience other than the Internet.”
One of the venue owners is Clark Lopez of Rojo Cantina, who has been very supportive of BAAM. “The first six to ten meetings were held at Rojo,” Lopez says. “I was there for support. If anybody had any doubts about what they were doing, Rojo has a good name and I wanted to lend any support to them I could.”
Lopez believes that BAAM will benefit Rojo and the other participating clubs. “The fact that we could use these venues and save money and not have to build the stages, as with City Stages, I think will benefit all the venues,” he says. “I have a vision that people will come from all over and enjoy the music and see all the venues that are out there. I haven’t been as excited about anything in this town for a long time.”
Jason Brunson, co-owner of Stillwater Pub with Daniel Stringfellow, shares this optimistic assessment. “The festival showcases these artists in their natural environment, the venues,” he says. “Most of the venues involved offer live music on a regular basis. The people can come to BAAM and get a condensed version of the whole music scene in this city.”
“This event allows all of the local venues to be involved with something ‘together’ as opposed to us doing our own thing all of the time,” according to WorkPlay talent booker Todd Coder.
“Obviously we all do what we can to support the music scene in Birmingham and to support the city as a whole.”
The venue owners we contacted agree that Birmingham has a pool of musical talent that deserves more attention. “It’s not a matter of them not having the talent,” Lopez says. “It’s a matter of them not having the opportunity. That’s what we’re here for. That’s what local business should be here for. I want people to use us. There is a lot of great talent that has not had the exposure that they deserve.”
According to Simmons, he faced skepticism that Birmingham could host a successful, large-scale festival but tried to turn that to his advantage. “I heard words of ‘too ambitious,’ of ‘it will never work’ or ‘How are you going to do this and how are you going to do that?’ And every last one of those naysayers were inspiring. They were telling me what I needed to do. All the things they were saying were impossible are absolutely the first things I addressed. I got instructions inadvertently. When you’re attentive, you can see through people’s fear, because a lot of it was driven by fear. Sometimes people are afraid of success.”
As with Ward, I asked Simmons what his goals are for the first year of BAAM. “Not to sound too premature, I feel I’ve already accomplished the goal,” he says, citing the many musicians who have agreed to play. “Of course, that’s the artist in me. There’s business concerns and all of that. I’m trying to be practical about it, and say ‘Hopefully we’ll have this much, and we’ll have this much for next year,’ but that would drive me crazy. I’ve got business partners for that. My concern is more idealistic. This is a musician’s festival, by artists for artists. I think there needs to be a business model for it to be successful. It would be good if there’s some good attendance. But I feel like what we may not achieve in monetary funds we have surpassed in cultural transcendence. We have far made up for it in creating, or celebrating, a community.”
Hopes are high for BAAM among the organizers and venue owners. “After so many years of negative events and publicity, this city really needs a positive milestone like this to remind us of the great culture and talent that this city has to offer,” Brunson says.
Of course, with BAAM, as with any event, the devil is in the details. “It boils down to the implementation leading up to and during the event and the ability to recognize the event’s flaws before the patrons do,” according to Coder, who was one of the producers of the first annual Hangout Beach, Music & Arts Festival in Gulf Shores in May. “The success of events like this one is predicated on perception—perception from the venues, the artists, the media and, most importantly, the general public.”
One possible issue is transportation for patrons between venues, which are located in several areas around the City Center, including downtown, Avondale and Five Points South. However, according to the festival web site, those holding VIP tickets will be provided with transportation, and those holding regular tickets can find information at the site regarding the location of free parking decks, as well a route map for DART buses, which will run on their usual routes and times.
Advance weekend passes for the Birmingham Arts and Music Festival are $25, and single-day tickets are $10 per day. VIP passes are $35. Those prices will go by up $5 as of August 20. To buy tickets or get more information, including a complete list of venues and details regarding parking and transportations, visit www.baamfest.com.