Cover Story: Separate But Equal?
Music Midtown, the Vibe Musicfest and Atlanta's troubled color line
When Vibe magazine announced that the Vibe Musicfest would be in Atlanta the weekend of June 10-12, the initial reaction was one of mild surprise - not that the urban music glossy would choose Atlanta as the setting for the event, but that it would choose to do it the same weekend as the city's already well-established festival, Music Midtown.
But Vibe's choice of dates is instructive: It speaks to Music Midtown's failure to make significant inroads into Atlanta's black community since the festival's inception in 1994. How can an institution purport to represent Atlanta - it's tagline the last few years was "Music Midtown: An Atlanta Festival" - while failing to represent one of the city's most vibrant creative sectors?
Just how faint is Music Midtown's footprint in the black community? Vibe's president, Kenard Gibbs, admitted that when he chose the dates for his festival, he wasn't even aware of the existence of Music Midtown. Peter Conlon, president of Peter Conlon Presents, the company that puts on Music Midtown, challenges that admission. He contends that Vibe knew full well about the conflicting dates, but felt that Music Midtown wasn't "an urban festival" and wouldn't negatively impact the magazine's festival. Whichever version is true, the thrust is the same: Since its inception, Music Midtown has been a major event for white Atlanta and merely a blip on the radar for the city's black community.
A look at the lineups for the festival's first five years helps explain why. Amid the hordes of aging classic rockers, scruffy alt-rock outfits, and goofy nostalgia acts, the only black faces belonged to guys like James Brown, Al Green and Kool & the Gang, all of whom, needless to say, played to audiences that were much paler than they are. There was no hip-hop or contemporary R&B to speak of.
"But this was 12 years ago, there wasn't a lot of hip-hop anywhere," says Conlon. "You didn't have hip-hop played commercially in those days. Hip-hop is a fairly recent genre."
His point is debatable. In fact, the mid-'90s is seen by many as a golden age for hip-hop with the creative and commercial flowering of artists like Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Nas, Tupac, Notorious B.I.G. and the Wu-Tang Clan. Not to mention that Atlanta's own OutKast, Goodie Mob and Usher all released their debut albums in 1994 and 1995.
But it would be 1999 before Music Midtown caught a faint whiff of what had been brewing for more than a decade. That year, OutKast and Goodie Mob appeared at the festival, as did then-burgeoning R&B outfit Destiny's Child. In the following years, the festival has done a better, but still spotty job of attracting first-rate hip-hop and R&B acts. In 2001, performers like En Vogue, Run-DMC and the Sugar Hill Gang were anywhere from a few years to a few decades past their sell-by date. This year, Conlon handed the reins for the urban stage to local rap impresario Jermaine Dupri, who pulled together a more than respectable bill. But regardless of the improved lineups in recent years, the crowds have remained largely white.
For his part, Conlon is satisfied with the festival's reach into the urban community, but suggests any disparity is more a reflection of the concert business as a whole. "Hip-hop is an extremely important medium and sells a tremendous amount of records but it does not sell tickets," he says. "A lot of artists make so much money recording that I don't think live performance is a priority."
Wayne Briggs, who has been doing grassroots/street team marketing in Atlanta for more than a decade, including some work for Music Midtown between 1999 and 2001, sees another angle.
"Generally speaking, outdoor festivals, walking around and being caught up in crowds like that - I don't think that's really the urban community's cup of tea," he says.
But there's a stickier possibility that nobody wants to talk about - that, in fact, the existence of two separate music festivals, one white, one black, is actually disturbingly representative of the segregation that plagues Atlanta as a whole. Obviously, the divide between blacks and whites in the South goes back centuries, but it's hardly ancient history. Look at the way whites fled the Buckhead bar scene (or worked to close bars earlier) as it became a popular hangout for young blacks over the past few years. Listen to the uproar every time someone suggests running a MARTA line out to Cobb County. And remember how white Atlantans used to cower in their homes each year the black spring break, Freaknik, descended upon the city?
The white-black divide in "the City Too Busy to Hate" is real, although, admittedly, not particularly unique. Nearly every American metropolitan area experiences a similar de facto segregation between races. In places like Detroit, Philadelphia or Chicago, though, the divide is as much an economic issue as a social one. But Atlanta is home to a thriving, relatively wealthy black community and a host of respected black colleges. Yet segregation - much of it self-enforced by both blacks and whites - continues to be the norm. There's Morehouse and there's Emory. There's Stone Mountain and there's Alpharetta. And now there's Vibe Musicfest and Music Midtown. The sad fact is there's a rash of fear and ignorance separating blacks and whites in Atlanta. Vibe Musicfest and Music Midtown may just be the most recent incarnation. Of course, there's more to Atlanta than simply the black and white communities: The city is also home to vibrant Hispanic, Asian and many other populations whose music and culture are mostly ignored by nonethnic festivals.
It's perhaps a little much to expect a music festival to serve as a unifying social force, but really, why the hell not? Sure, it sounds a little hippie, but isn't music supposed to build bridges between communities, foster understanding, and sketch out common ground? I don't believe Music Midtown's organizers are racist or hateful or even particularly closed-minded. I'm not even sure that by representing Atlanta they have some greater responsibility to forward integration. It's just disappointing to see the opportunity lost. And it seems that with the Vibe Musicfest emergence this year, that's what has happened.
Vibe Musicfest's organizers insist there's room for both festivals to co-exist and thrive, which is certainly possible, particularly if the audience divides itself along racial lines in the way that seems likely. Either way, Vibe's success is far from a sure thing. It takes a lot more to run a successful music festival than the mere existence of an audience for it. But regardless of whether the Vibe Musicfest flies or flops, the further segmenting of Atlanta's already fractious fault lines is a big loss for the whole city.