For Miamians, many things come to mind at the mention of Overtown. But what's often overlooked is the neighborhood’s rich history, a past when it was commonly referred to as the “Harlem of the South” or “Miami’s Little Broadway.” Those who were there to see that Overtown paint a picture of a flourishing African-American neighborhood that was home not only to black-owned and -operated businesses but also to a bustling entertainment scene that saw legends like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Duke Ellington, and Etta James pass through.
Fast-forward to the present day, where most of the focus is on an impoverished and criminalized version of Overtown, largely due to the economic decline resulting from the construction of interstate highways in the late 1950s that drew business away from the area.
For Michael Gardner, CEO of Headliner Market Group, this version of Overtown is one he's hoping people will look past and see what more the area has to offer, specifically the annual Overtown Music and Arts Festival.
“I would just want the people to have an open mind,” says Gardner. "Sometimes, you hear the stereotype of Overtown. Last year, we had over 5,000 people and there was absolutely no incident, and not that I have to put a disclaimer that there were no incidents, because we weren’t expecting any incidents.
“I want people to come and have an open mind that this is a free event for the community and it’s for the family.”
The music and arts festival is currently on the verge of its fifth year, though it is only the second under Headliner Market Group, Gardner’s marketing and promotions company.
“We’re expanding outside of just Miami," he says. "There will be a lot of people from the eastern regions coming down from Washington, D.C.; Philly; New York, that will also be participating in the event, so I think our reach has been the key to what we have done different than what the previous handlers have."
With live performances, entertainment, and food, the festival is really trying to be as inclusive as possible, attempting to reach more people and a larger demographic. More than that, it is attempting to get the community involved during the event’s activities in two ways.
First, while Gardner is aiming for A-list talent for the performances, when it comes to the “Arts” part of the festival, he hopes to attract more local artists. His intention is to expand Miami's art community, something he feels has been secluded to the Wynwood area for too long.
“We’re open to having the local artists come and display their work because again, it’s a free event for the community, so therefore we have open arms to those who want to be a part and support our movement and what it is we’re trying to do for the community overall,” says Gardner.
Second, Gardner is trying to develop a meet-and-greet system so the community can really get involved with the festival's musicians and artists.
“We’re trying to develop some sort of meet-and-greet where they’re not just coming to the community, performing, and leaving. The people not only want to see the artists but they want to feel like there’s a level of connection," Gardner explains.
“A couple of the artists are very excited about it because they have their own charities and nonprofit organizations giving back to the community.”
The musical lineup for the festival is still being solidified and has not been fully announced, though acts Mýa, Bobby Valentino, Raheem Devaughn, Melanie Fiona, Glenn Jones, and Deep Fried Funk Band have been confirmed.
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But as the day of the festival nears, Gardner isn't losing sight of one of the events main goals, which is to ultimately help promote the economic development of Overtown.
“My cousin has multiple businesses in the Overtown area, so it was only right that as Headliner Market Group, getting the support from the city of Miami over the last 13 to 14 years, that we give back in that area — give back to the people of Overtown."
The Overtown Music and Arts Festival. 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, July 25, in the Overtown Business District, NW Third Avenue between Eighth and 11th streets. Admission is free. All ages. Visit overtownmusicartsfestival.com.