"We Value What We've Built" The Legacy of One Music Fest
By Stereo Williams
Hailed as the Southeast’s largest annual urban progressive music festival, One Music Fest has become a staple of festival season and one of the most unique musical experiences of the year.
This year's OMF takes place at Centennial Olympic Park, with headliners Big Boi, Currensy and Big KRIT taking the Rock The Bells Stage and other megastars like H.E.R. and Lil Wayne slated to perform. Founder Jason "J" Carter has watched OMF turn into a cultural force since it's inception in the 2000s.
"I think the 'why?' is what really sets it apart," Carter explains. "It was built to really see what happens when you start pushing together all areas of our culture and community. Where you can go from a Jill Scott to the Migos, and build something that speaks to both of their fanbases and be able to celebrate that overlap. You don't see that often."
One Music Fest has found its groove by not putting Black audiences into a singular box. Carter and his team have realized that musical diversity is not the enemy.
"The Rolling Loud Festival typically caters to a younger audience," he observes. "Essence Fest caters to an older, Gen X audience. What happens when you take Black and brown people alike, that may be 21 or 45 years old, under the guise of music and culture and expression, and put them in one space? At first, we didn't know what was going to happen. But it turned into a melting pot of kindred spirits; a real kind of kumbaya, Woodstock kind of feel. And in all my travels, I have not seen anything quite like it."
Coordinator Oronike Odeleye realized early that getting sponsorship to fully "get" the scope and variety of One Music Fest was a trial in and of itself.
"It's an ever-changing landscape," she shares. "One of the things we've learned and we continue to learn as it pertains to procuring sponsorship to make it run; is to not undervalue your audience and what it is you've built. Sponsors, a lot of times, have these big general market budgets--and general market tends to mean 'white--but when it comes to Black events, they think of us as a monolith. They don't value what we've built and what we have. You can fall into the trap of doing the same, because you want to work with these brands, you want to build a relationship."
"And with any business, money was a bigass hurdle!" says Carter.
"Not really understanding the full landscape of the festival business, [we] couldn't really find mentors that looked like us. So we almost had to figure it out on our own. Taking a raw piece of canvas and building from the ground up--it's expensive as hell. There are line items that you don't even think about. So it was really [about] understanding the infrastructure of the festival business. That was probably the biggest hurdle--along with getting folks to adopt this new way of experiencing music."
One Music Fest's audience is engaged and interactive. And for Odeleye, that's something the team appreciates now more than ever.
"It's wonderful to look out there and see all of the people partying or whatever, but the buying power that's in the house, the influence that our audience has, has a really high dollar value on it. We've had to learn to value what we've built and to impress that value on everybody that ew work with; from the artists to the sponsors."
Carter wanted to be able to bring the diversity of your favorite playlist to an open-air festival environment, and OMF succeeds at that.
"We're going to give you a little bit of trap," he says. "But you're going to take the soul, too, you're going to take this R&B, too, you're going to take the new age rap, too. One great thing about the iPod era was the element of discovery. And I think that's one of the good things about festivals, just the discovery of different music and people and culture.
"It took the audience a second to get it, but for those that got it early, they became early adopters."
"We've got to let everybody know: we're presenting a high quality experience, we've got wonderful talent on these stages," Odeleye says. "We're doing something that not many, especially Black-owned, festivals are doing at this level. So it's something that needs to be valued by everybody that's involved."
Being a Black-owned festival is important to everyone involved. For Carter, that was the catalyst for wanting to launch OMF. From the very beginning, he was adamant about having a stake in the cultural and commercial viability of Atlanta.
"That's really where the energy and idea came from," he says. "It was [from seeing] misrepresentation in the festival space. Going to these festivals by artists that look like me and enjoying music that I like; but the audience didn't look like me. I used to own a live music venue, and when I was dealign with agents, the agents didn't look like me. Road managers did, but the agents who were calling the shots and collecting the money--they didn't look like me."
After witnessing how narratives can emerge from outside forces when you relinquish control, Carter made certain that this festival would be of the people.
"It's important for you to tell your story, for people that look like you to tell your story. We ran into a situation with a large media company, and they did a story on Atlanta. I thought it was very lopsided--it really was offensive. I moved to Atlanta in the late 1980s. The story that they depicted was strippers and gold teeth and drug dealers. That was the story that they wanted to tell about Atlanta. They wanted access to shoot One Music Fest and do a story on it. We were like 'Nah.'"
One Music Fest is a uniquely curated experience that embraces the broadness of Black music. This year's show boasts everyone from legends like the Isley Brothers to newcomers like East ATL native and Shady Records signee, Grip. It's a testament to the vision of OMF that that sort of broadness can be gathered under one banner. That's the spirit of One Music Fest.
"If you don't control the narrative, they will continue to pillage the culture and do what they choose with it," says Carter. "Instead of complaining about it, we decided let's build something. For us and by us."