When Jim Crow laws were still in effect in South Florida, the greatest black performers of the era came to perform on South Beach. But they weren't welcome to spend their nights at the ritzy hotels where they entertained. Instead, musicians like Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Josephine Baker, Cab Calloway, James Brown, and Billie Holiday all found a place to lay their heads in the historically black community of Overtown. While there, they provided unforgettable shows for locals, making the neighborhood a hot spot for music and culture. Sax player and James Brown’s musical director, Pee Wee Ellis, described those days to the Miami Herald: ''Miami was a hotbed, a flourishing mecca of music... It was live and vital. It was vigorous."
When I-95 was built in the '60s, the project destroyed a thriving Black community, and Overtown became one of the poorest areas in the country. In recent years, many have worked to nourish the community's roots and rebuild it as a cultural, historic center.
Michael Gardner, CEO of Headliner Market Group, is one of those visionaries. His company is producing the Overtown Music and Arts Festival. The event is bringing more music and culture back to the city by honoring its heritage. “[Overtown] was a music hub for entertainment and live performances. It’s about getting back to that historical moment for Overtown with live entertainment.”
One of the headliners of the festival, British singer Estelle, is back for a second time. Though best known for her hit song “American Boy" featuring Kanye West, she already had a successful career in the UK before making it in America. She's also worked with other big names in the business like Gucci Mane and David Guetta, and even spent three years working with John Legend on Shine, which was released on his label Homeschool.
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“All [my parents] played in the house was African and West Indian music of all genres," she said, "so it’s second nature to me. All my records, you’ll notice, have a strong baseline and/or drum presence. That comes from listening to that as a root for great music as a child.”
Estelle says to expect some of that vibe on her upcoming release, too. "The album will be a reflection of my roots and the music I grew up on. Making this album was second nature to me. I think fans of Shine’s 'Come Over' have been waiting on this type of record from me for a while. I’m happy to deliver."
A religious upbringing also plays a role in her music. “It made me want to always have a tone of empowerment or optimism in every song or story. I’m not good at singing depressing or wholly negative records. Even though this feeling exists, there has to be a way out. I think that’s what gospel does for people in general. Gives hope.”
And the Overtown Music and Arts Festival is all about hope. Gardner says the lineup was chosen by accessing musicians willing to support the community, like Estelle, “and to support our efforts to give back to the community," he explains. They are also, he says, "artists who give the crowd a good show, who can sing, and who the crowd knows.”
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Estelle won't be the only musician with religious roots. Gardner says there will be two gospel singers representing the community. Other festival performers include Ginuwine, Tito Puente Jr., Jon B., Vivian Green, Musiq Soulchild, and Michael Stirling. The Youth Zone, for toddlers to teens, will be run by nonprofit Teens Exercising Extraordinary Success (T.E.E.S.), with live musical performances by Ayo and Teo and the
Gardner says an interactive art wall by University of Miami art student Danielle Meyers will celebrate the different shades and skin tones of the city. He says this installation represents one of the tenets of the fest. “What we’re also trying to do is make sure everyone is welcome," he explains. "We’re trying to make this is a diverse festival. It’s for the community. With the development of Overtown, you want to see different cultures; that’s what this festival is about.” He says it's also about promoting economic development, community enrichment, and bringing excitement to Overtown.
For Gardner, it's personal. The area's commissioner, Keon Hardemon, and the City of Miami support his projects, so he wants to give back. “This is what I look forward to every year, not just because it’s a good event, but to see the looks on the faces of people who can’t see these entertainers anywhere else, to see them in their community, the looks of joy on their faces."
Overtown Music and Arts Festival. 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, July 14, at Historic Overtown, NW Second and NW Third Avenues between NW Eighth and NW 10th Streets, overtownmusicartsfestival.com. Admission is free.