ComFest's hip-hop solution

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

When ComFest takes over Goodale Park this weekend, attendees will hear more MCs, see more DJs and hopefully get a better understanding of how Columbus hip-hop and activism are working in unison.

In 2015, organizers acknowledged the lineup wasn't entirely reflective of the city's diverse music scene -particularly in regards to hip-hop.

"The whole committee is aware that it's a weak point for us and there should be more representation," longtime music committee member Daryl Mendelson toldAlivelast year.

This year, however, ComFest organizers made efforts to not only show the impact of hip-hop on the music scene, but to improve relationships with the hip-hop community as a whole.

One major step was reaching out to rapper Dominique Larue to help engage the hip-hop community - a move that resulted in a richer, more diverse performance roster. In addition to the multiple hip-hoppers populating the undercard (Satele, Jae Esquire and recentAlive Band to Watch artist Correy Parks), hip-hop will get some major time in the spotlight on Saturday when Larue, the 3rd Power and Nes Wordz close out the action on the fest's main stage.

"Say what you want or say nothing at all but hip-hop closing [ComFest] on a Saturday night is a big deal," Nes wrote on Twitter in early May after the lineup was announced.

"I'm really excited to see that ComFest has been more open to allowing artists from different genres to get a chance to perform [this year]," said producer Satele, who is scheduled to hit the Offramp stage on Sunday. "It's needed to expose the masses to something different [from] the 'standard.'"

More importantly, it's a chance for local rappers and DJs to gain exposure to a wider audience, opening up new artistic avenues. Larue, for one, said her 2015 ComFest set led to increased media opportunities and a noticeable bump in merchandise sales.

"The biggest win for me is the ability to present my music [in] my way in front of a crowd in my city," Nes said. "I have a chance to perform in front of thousands, and that gives me a sense of pride for my hometown."

Even so, some artists said they are still struggling to find a balance between the opportunity and pride that accompany performing at the 44-year-old festival, and the fact that some corners of the Columbus arts community still have a limited understanding of hip-hop culture.

"It's not a genre we've had on our stages a lot," said ComFest spokesperson Connie Everett, who's worked as an organizer for the event for more than 30 years. Moving forward, Everett said ComFest wants to continue to introduce more hip-hop to the festival.

"Young people at ComFest are fully aware [of the genre and its influence], but a lot of their parents aren't, so there needs to be more of a multigenerational understanding," Everett said. "With all that's going on with Black Lives Matter and other movements in the city that we are very concerned about politically and socially, we need to be listening to one another."

Stories of hip-hop artists applying year after year to be a part of ComFest and continually being denied caused a rift between the festival and a lot of progressive rap artists, said Nes Wordz.

"ComFest has definitely been visible and vocal about not putting hip-hop artists on the stage [in the past]," he said. "I remember not going to ComFest a few years because there weren't hip-hop acts on the bill. I respect artists who don't want to do ComFest. How do you not have [King] Vada or SupaNatra on a ComFest stage? They are doing bigger and better things every year and making an impact in the arts community."

Nes acknowledged the effort organizers made with outreach this year, and he's looking forward to the genre taking its place alongside the rock, reggae and jazz performers who have long been staples of the event.

"This year's hip-hop roster represents progress," he said. "ComFest is all about rock and reggae - peace vibes. But hip-hop also brings a good time. We are just telling a story in a different way.

"Hip-hop is rooted in the streets. It is good to have artists who still have roots in the streets."

Unfortunately, because of those street roots, some hip-hop performers still have to fight the stigma the music leads to violence, said Dominique Larue. She added that this stereotype causes arts organizations to miss out on an abundance of local talent.

"A lot of festivals in Columbus play it safe [with hip-hop] and they don't play it safe with other genres of music," she said. "If hip-hop artists start to get edgy, there's a lot of fear about that."

Nes also noted the fest could continue to benefit by extending its worldview beyond the neighborhoods bordering Goodale Park.

"People don't know about [Club] Shon'teiras [on the East Side] or the O Lounge [on the Northeast Side]. … Those places are doing good things for the hip-hop culture," he said. "Once people start paying attention to what's going on all over the city, they will realize the arts movement doesn't have an epicenter. The movement is happening simultaneously all over."

Another new addition to ComFest this year is the Hip-Hop and Social Change panel, helmed by Larue, Nes Wordz, J Rawls, SupaNatra and Speak Williams. During the panel, artists will discuss how hip-hop activism is used to effect change in Columbus communities.

Williams, a Columbus hip-hop advocate who has consulted with several arts organizations, said the past disconnect between ComFest and hip-hop mirrors a greater issue in Columbus.

"All across the city there's the idea of, 'Let's bring them to the table.' So when you get to the table, you're still an outsider sitting in a high chair while everyone else is on a throne," said Williams, adding that there's not much cross-pollination of ideas in the Columbus arts community. "When ComFest and the other arts initiatives begin to say, 'Let's build a table together - one we can all sit at,' then it'll change."

"Columbus, in general, is a conservative place, and arts organizations position themselves for status quo instead of innovation," he continued. "Columbus boasts it's a diverse city, but it's only diverse on paper and numbers. Everyone stays in their 'territory.'"

One artist hoping to evaporate these boundary lines this year is Satele, a ComFest rookie who will be performing hip-hop-inspired DJ sets informed by R&B, drum and bass, and house music. Satele said he hopes fest-goers will be able to connect with the authenticity of his artistry, even if they're new to hip-hop as a genre.

"The biggest misconception is that people try to categorize hip-hop as a bunch of dudes onstage rapping about nothing. Hip-hop is actually much bigger than that," he said. "I want to showcase how to blur the lines between certain genres in my set. I want to show that hip-hop is more than people have been exposed to before. We have to push the limits and break the mold."