Local music and community thrive at BAMS Fest

Friends rush across the fields to embrace each other, strangers engage in skillful dance competitions, and children beat tambourines to the beat of the music.

“We go to family gatherings, picnics and concerts,” BAMS Festival host Courtney Boston told the crowd of eager music fans, ranging from babies to grandparents.

She’s absolutely right. The sixth annual Boston Arts & Music Soul Festival feels like a homecoming—old friends and family come together to celebrate their community.

The R&B, funk, soul, hip-hop and house music festival takes place on Saturday, June 29 and Sunday, June 30 at the Franklin Park Playground, showcasing the work of local and national Black and brown artists. Described as “a festival of work by Greater Boston’s Black and Brown artists, cultural makers, and creative entrepreneurs who are at the forefront of racial equity, spatial justice, and economic empowerment.”

Rock band Beware of Denise perform on the Kidchella stage at BAMS Festival 2024.  (Photo by Olivia Moon for WBUR)
Rock band Beware of Denise perform on the Kidchella stage at BAMS Festival 2024. (Photo by Olivia Moon for WBUR)

I attended the festival on Saturday. It was an overcast day with a slight breeze, but that didn’t stop festival organizers and talent from bringing in the sunshine.

I saw rock band Beware of Denise perform at Kidchella, a small stage set up for the first time this year to showcase talented young artists. The orchestra is part of Zumix, an East Boston-based nonprofit that provides music and creative technology programming to young people.

Next door is the Beat Feet tent, a kid-friendly space with stroller parking, board games, hula hoops and balloon animals. Chanel Thompson, also known as Ms. 5678, held a dance workshop there, leading dancers of all skill levels in carnival, salsa, merengue, hip-hop and Afrobeat moves. She instructs participants to pick up a scarf and dance. In her relaxed, follow-the-leader style classes, young children and adults sway to the music, wave colorful fabrics and twerk.

BAMS Fest attendees in the Beat Feet tent.  (Photo by Olivia Moon for WBUR)
BAMS Fest attendees in the Beat Feet tent. (Photo by Olivia Moon for WBUR)

Across the green is a vendor village curated by Black Owned Bos., a business services and consulting organization dedicated to showcasing Black-owned businesses. The clothing brand DLachae designed by designer Dennelle Mattier caught my attention. The five-time BAMS Fest attendee uses different patterns and textures of fabric, such as denim sewn onto tops and sweatshirts, to create the silhouette of black women’s faces. “I wanted to celebrate black culture, so I started with artwork and realized I could actually make wearable art,” she told me.

For lunch I went to Soul Food Row and it was a bit disappointing. I expected a long list of food trucks, but there were only six vendors – Nan Xiang Fast Food, Trolley Dogs & Craft Lemonade, Gourmet Kreyòl, Exodus Bagels, Richie’s Italian Ice and Tipping Cow Ice Cream. The Haitian food truck Gourmet Kreyòl had the longest line, so I knew it was going to be delicious. I ordered the Port-au-Prince Halal Braised Chicken Bowl, which was filled with tender pulled chicken, fresh onions and bell peppers, beans, rice, fried plantains and tomato sauce. It definitely lives up to its reputation as soul food; a very comforting meal to enjoy on a cloudy day.

Back on the main stage, Latin and R&B singer-songwriter Bia Javier gave a stellar performance. “I’m honored to be here, so I want you to rock out with us,” the Lawrence-based artist said. This is her first time on stage at BAMS Fest, and she kicked things off with her fiery 2020 album Mine . Wearing a sleek ponytail, gold hoops and a black office siren dress, Javier commanded the microphone and sang about self-redemption. Her powerful belt wowed the crowd.

Stop Edwards with his mural
Except for Edwards’ mural “Urban Legend.” The murals at the festival were used as photo backdrops and were sold to cover future BAMS festival events. (Photo by Olivia Moon for WBUR)

San Antonio-based R&B artist Xavier Omär brings warm, ethereal harmonies and impressively clean falsetto. Looking effortlessly cool in a black tank top and shorts, he poured emotion into his 2017 song “Afraid.” Festival organizer Boston conducted a brief interview with him after the show, and he emphasized the importance of music festivals like BAMS Fest. “Some cities aren’t doing it, there’s not enough support, so I wanted to be a part of it,” he said.

Brooklyn-based DJ Mell Starr had the audience on their feet and dancing in front of the stage. Grammy-nominated rapper Rapsody ended the night with a clever lyric about not seeing himself in the music industry and struggling to take the place he deserves. “I tell everyone, this is one of my favorite places to perform because you guys always show me love,” the North Carolina native said of Boston.

Dani Shelton watched the performance on a picnic blanket with her daughter, Amani Shelton, and two granddaughters. Shelton said this was her granddaughter’s first time attending a music festival. “Another aspect I like about it being family-friendly. It’s like a family gathering,” she said.

DJ 411 on stage at BAMS Festival 2024.  (Photo by Olivia Moon for WBUR)
DJ 411 on stage at BAMS Festival 2024. (Photo by Olivia Moon for WBUR)

I appreciate the laid-back, non-judgmental vibe of the festival. Audience members of all ages lounged on the grass, sat in chairs chatting with friends, and danced in front of the stage. There was no jostling or being squeezed into a small area, which was a welcome change from other festivals I’ve experienced.

During a break in Saturday’s show, Boston Nightlife Economics Director Corean Reynolds read a proclamation from Mayor Michelle Wu declaring September 30 officially the city’s BAMS Festival. Reynolds confirmed by phone that the date was originally supposed to be June 30, but there was a spelling error in the announcement that read September 30.

BAMS Fest founder Catherine T. Morris addressed the crowd and thanked everyone who participated. “Six years have passed, six long years, COVID-19, and you know what you’ve done? You’ve all come,” Morris said, looking back on the festival’s history. “Come back every year because it just gets bigger.”

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