Rex Richardson is using music to make local government cool.
The 33-year-old became the youngest member on Long Beach’s city council in 2014 when he was elected to represent the bedroom communities of North Long Beach, and he’s since spearheaded dozens of innovative projects – from hiring local artists to paint murals over oft-tagged walls to lobbying for the naming of the new Michelle Obama Neighborhood Library – as part of what is already being touted as the Uptown Renaissance.
This weekend, his office is using a healthy communities and mobility grant to close down Artesia Boulevard for what he’s calling a “block party on steroids.” The highlight of Saturday's Activate Uptown event will be the second annual Village Fest: three stages of free Latin, jazz, blues, funk and hip-hop music with performances from Murs, The Pharcyde and — though it has not been publically announced yet — Talib Kweli.
“If we really want to serve the people we have to start speaking their language. If we truly want to engage the next generation we have to listen,” Richardson says. “How are you going to get people excited about coming out to an open streets event unless we have a block party with Talib Kweli and Murs? Come on now. How do we get the kids to come?”
This isn’t the first time that the local government has been able to draw big-name hip-hop, soul, Latin, reggae and gospel acts to play free concerts in North Long Beach. In fact, music has played a significant role in Richardson’s (and his predecessor Steve Neal’s) community programming, in part because the area is so far away from downtown Long Beach — it borders Compton, Paramount, Lakewood and Bellflower — that the benefits of more well-known free-music initiatives like Summer and Music have never quite trickled up. (The Long Beach Municipal Band doesn’t play in North Long Beach either.)
For the last five years, the Uptown Jazz Fest (formerly known as the District 9 Latin Jazz and Blues Fest) has brought legends like Poncho Sanchez and Tito Puente to play free concerts at Houghton Park alongside soon-to-be-legends like Goapele and DW3.
And last year’s Village Fest was held during the inaugural Beach Streets event, which shut down a large stretch of Atlantic Avenue, Ciclavia style. At the end of the route, again inside Houghton Park, riders were treated to free performances from The Pharcyde, Latin reggae group Los Rakas and rappers Blu & Exile.
“We invest same amount of city money into these as the Long Beach Municipal Band does for one concert,” Richardson says. “And we’ve never had so much as a fight. It turns all the reputation and stigmas people have [about North Long Beach] on its head.”
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At first, Richardson says, these events were being booked by the Department of Parks & Recreation, who cold called big acts and made an offer. But now the positive track record has led sponsors to reach out to them, and residents of District 9 itself are emerging to help out with their own connections.
This year’s Village Fest, for example, was booked without any cold calls. Instead, it came together organically, utilizing local curators to invite the truly diverse selection of Long Beach bands and well-connected music industry professionals who live in the neighborhood to bring on Talib Kweli, Murs, MC Supernatural and more. The Pharcyde’s set at last year’s Village Fest was so well received that they were asked to return. Of course they said yes.
“Music and art is at the core of any urban revival or any Renaissance,” Richardson says. “The Harlem Renaissance was about art and culture and being proud of black art and black culture in an era of Jim Crowe. Art is a form of communication and empowerment and we are using that here as a real means of transforming the community.”
Village Fest takes place during Activate Uptown on Saturday Oct. 1 from 11 a.m. - 4 p.m. along Artesia Boulevard in North Long Beach. For more information, visit the Facebook events page.