One MusicFest goes big

Homegrown urban music gathering saddles Nas, Kendrick Lamar, and more

Jason Carter grew up in Harlem, listening to Duran Duran but also watching the crowd during the birth of hip-hop. He walked past freestyle battles at a nearby park. He saw performances on project rooftops by Doug E. Fresh, the first-ever human beatbox, and Biz Markie, hip-hop's premier clown prince. "The energy, the people, the faces of people witnessing something new and so electric — it was powerful, especially for a kid 12 or 13 years old," Carter says.

He has since spent his career trying to recreate that feeling. His biggest attempt yet, ONE Musicfest, celebrates its fifth year on Sept. 13. For the first time, it will be held at Aaron's Amphitheatre in Lakewood, a venue advertised as being built with "live popular music in mind." HOT 107.9 held its annual Birthday Bash at Lakewood, 1998-2005, though unlike concerts hosted by radio stations, the larger point of attending ONE Musicfest isn't to gauge mainstream hip-hop and R&B trends, but to celebrate acts who have bucked them. Some of the festival's featured acts, past and present, have either won or been nominated for a Grammy in the now-defunct category of best urban/alternative performance. And often, ONE Musicfest's headliners had childhoods similar to Carter's: They saw those freestyles and caught those rooftop parties but also drew sounds from across genres, from jazz to soul to rock.

Carter, now an Atlanta resident of 25 years, plans ONE Musicfest with his team year-round. On a back wall in his Old Fourth Ward office, he has framed and hung up records by Nina Simone, Diana Ross, the Temptations, and Marvin Gaye. He speaks calmly and carefully, unless he's talking about what the festival isn't trying to do. "If there was an urban festival, it would be New Edition, Guy, and fuckin' Frankie Beverly," he says, smiling but also raising his voice. "It would be Gucci Mane, Waka Flocka Flame, and Rich Homie Quan. Nothing's wrong with that, but what about your progressive scene?"

Prior to ONE Musicfest Carter launched Sol Fusion, a monthly night that featured hip-hop, reggaeton, and house DJs on every floor at downtown nightclub Karma. Sol Fusion went on to host Gil Scott-Heron, revolutionary spoken-word artist, and Sugarhill Gang, the first rap act with a Top 40 hit.

In 2010, nearly 2,500 people attended the first-ever ONE Musicfest at King Plow Arts Center. Attendees spilled out of the center's renovated factory buildings and into its parking lots. During his headlining set, Common asked his audience for a word, any word. Then, like an improv player, he launched into a six-minute freestyle inspired by the crowd's suggestion. The word was "destiny."

"It wasn't just soul music or neo-soul music," says D.R.E.S. tha BEATnik, who has emceed at the festival since its first year. "It was hip-hop. It was a party. It was a celebration. It was a community getting involved to bring some light to artists and styles that don't necessarily get the same from the masses."

For its second year, ONE Musicfest drew 3,000 people to Park Tavern. In 2012, it brought 4,000 people to Masquerade Music Park. In 2013, the festival's crowd of 8,000 occupied both Masquerade Music Park and the neighboring Historic Fourth Ward Park. Carter says that soon thereafter, he saw a video probably shot by someone living at a nearby apartment complex. It scanned the crowd waiting to see Goodie Mob's reunion set, to show that people were already standing as far away as the parks' walkway entrances.

With ONE Musicfest's move to Aaron's Amphitheatre, five miles south of downtown Atlanta, Carter hopes to draw a crowd of 15,000. The festival boasts the line-up to make that happen: One headliner, Nas, has spent this year performing from his celebrated 1994 debut Illmatic. Another, Kendrick Lamar, just inspired a composition class that compares his 2012 debut, good kid, m.A.A.d. city, with works by James Joyce. Other featured acts are either known as edge-walking artists (Amel Larrieux, Bilal, Cody ChesnuTT) or appear poised to become exactly that (Jhene Aiko, Isaiah Rashad, Daley).

ONE Musicfest boasts three stages this year. Some artists will perform at the amphitheater. Others will be at a second stage on the venue's main parking lot, and six DJs will perform at their own stage across from that — a move somewhat inspired by Vans Warped Tour's Atlanta stop, which featured more than 100 acts performing at Aaron's this year, but still with ONE Musicfest's first-ever crowd in mind. "I was listening to patrons and getting their emails, calls, and text messages," Carter says. "The number one thing that folks were saying was, 'It feels like I'm a part of something.' That feeling I had when I was 12 years old, listening to Doug E. Fresh and Biz Markie — I didn't know what the fuck I was doing, but I felt like I was part of something."