Behind the scenes with Melanincholy Festival

Andy Downing

Rapper Correy Parks grew up feeling distanced from a guiding principle many in the United States take for granted: You can be anything you want in this life.

“I wasn't born with the privilege of that idea. A lot of black people, we're already starting a step backwards, with weights on our ankles, because we don't know that we can do whatever we want to do,” Parks said in an early May phone interview. “My friend Hakim [Callwood] — he's a talented illustrator and artist — he said, ‘No one told me I could be an artist as a kid. No one said that was possible. In fact, they stressed that was impossible.'

“I don't think we take that into consideration enough — how important it is to see people like you doing things you didn't know you could do. Any time you see someone doing what you want to do, and they look like you, it means the world.”

Months earlier, in the middle of March, Apollo Akembe and Stephanie Ewen, two of the four organizers behind Melanincholy Festival, a three-day event set in the Milo-Grogan neighborhood and celebrating artists and performers of color, were seated in a Short North coffee shop discussing this very effect.

“There are a lot of artists in Columbus who don't have space to really show off their art,” said Akembe, who modeled the fest on the multi-city Afropunk Festival. “Because of that … I've seen a lot of people who get this thing called ‘impostor syndrome,' where even though they are legitimate artists, they don't feel as though they are because they haven't been given the space to be.”

“And the people they see who are successful tend to be people who don't look like them or move in the same communities,” Ewen said. “So it's like, ‘This is what success looks like, but it doesn't look like me.' And that can be difficult for a lot of people.”

Melanincholy is one effort to reshape this image, placing a spotlight on musicians, artists, poets and filmmakers of color, in the hopes of inspiring others to follow their own muse.

The festival debuted in October 2016 at the Milo-Grogan Community Recreation Center as a one-day affair, which Akembe described as “a zero-run,” or, “a test to see if this was something that was even possible.” Floored by the community response (nearly 150 attended), Akembe — the sole organizer of the initial event on the current leadership team — decided to develop the festival as a recurring, multi-day affair. The second iteration of the fest takes place Friday to Sunday, May 26-28, again at the Milo-Grogan Rec Center.

As with each element of Melanincholy, the location has been carefully considered. Akembe, a Milo-Grogan resident, has long felt a deep attachment to the historically black neighborhood, owing in part to his grandmother, who has owned a home in the area for more than 50 years. The selection of a recreation center is similarly thought out, offering a low overhead (it cost only $1,000 to rent the space for the weekend, which the organizers paid out of pocket) that can keep the event accessible for all who want to partake. As it was in October, admission is free for anyone who wishes to attend.

One other benefit of the rec center locale: Organizers are developing the event with the idea that the concept can travel, sprouting similarly minded festivals in cities across the US, including one in Savannah, Georgia, for which planning is already underway. As Ewen explained it, “Every place has a rec center.”

But at that point in March, the pair was more concerned with preparations for the fest's multi-day Columbus debut. Weeks earlier, a musician submission form was posted online, generating around a dozen responses. And in the coming days the organizers were set to launch a crowdfunding campaignvia GoFundMe, with a goal of raising $3,000 to pay the participating artists. Booking at that point was already well underway, with 30 of a planned 45 musical acts confirmed, most through organizer outreach (the online submissions effectively supplemented the roster, introducing acts previously unknown to fest leaders).

Though already well into the nuts-and-bolts planning stage, work on the fest started months prior with big, bold brainstorming sessions during which the organizers daydreamed of attracting a national headliner like Chicago poet and hip-hop artist Noname before deciding it best to keep things scaled back.

“It's something where, because it's not happening in Columbus already, it's really easy to get excited and be like, ‘What if we did this? And what if we did this?'” Ewen said. “Obviously we have to start small and work our way up. We know that, having organized other things.”

For future events, the leadership team hopes to employ government grants and outside sponsorship opportunities in order to continue to grow the festival organically.

A month later, gathered at the same coffee shop, Akembe and Ewen, now joined by fellow organizer Courtney Gilbert (Michaelaa Masonn rounds out the leadership group), are putting the finishing touches on the lineup, confirming headliners for each night (sibling-led rock trio Betsy Ross on Friday, rapper Correy Parks on Saturday and soul collective MojoFlo on Sunday), shuffling around the daily rosters and noting the odd shortcoming (Ewen bemoans a dearth of Latinx performers). There's also a question about the aerial performance aspect of MojoFlo's set and the feasibility of pulling it off at the rec center. The debate hovers until the week of the event, when organizers confirm MojoFlo singer Amber Knicole will be forced to remain earthbound during the group's set. (Though the band was able to provide its own insurance, structural shortcomings in the rec center prevented the routine.)

Still, despite a couple minor hiccups, the final roster offers attendees a little bit of everything, traversing hip-hop, melodic rock, funk and whatever alien frequency Jacoti Sommes opts to channel during his Saturday set.

A handful of the weekend's performers even contain these musical multitudes in a single body, be it Sharon Udoh of Counterfeit Madison, who's just as comfortable bashing her keys alongside fuzzed-out guitar as she is exploring the jazzier outer edges, or the shape-shifting Jae Esquire, who's as liable to turn up playing piano and fronting an eight-piece band as she is to rock the mic with the backing of nothing more than a DJ, which, it turns out, is her plan for the Friday Melanincholy set.

“I'm a chameleon when it comes to music,” said Esquire, who was born on a US military base in Germany, logged time in North Carolina and moved to Columbus with her family in 1997. “It really depends on the event. If it's a mixed crowd — old and young — I'm not going to do a lot of fast rap with cussing because the old people are going to be like, ‘I don't know what you're doing.' I try to do music that fits to the audience. If there's a younger black person and an older white person, I want each of them to take something away. I want there to be at least one part of a set where they're like, ‘I really like that.'”

While other artists and organizers spoke of the importance of Melanincholy in terms of eliminating some of those barriers to entry — “Instead of waiting for [venues] to open their doors, it's like, ‘Why don't we create our own?'” Parks said — Esquire believes the city is as borderless as her music.

“I can go anywhere. I have a residency at Bossy Grrl's PinUp Joint, which is probably the last place you'd think to see me,” she said. “But I'm the networking type. I really believe if you want to be a good artist, you need to touch everybody. So go touch everybody.”

At the same time, the singer/rapper/pianist recognizes the value of the festival in terms of bringing groups of people together who might not cross paths otherwise.

“Out here, every scene is spread. … If you're not out in every single circle, you don't know who's doing what,” said Esquire, who started playing piano at age 10 on a budget Casio keyboard purchased as a gift by her grandmother. “For instance, G Finesse & Black Eagle mainly stays on the North Side of the city, but there are people near Zanzibar [Brews in King-Lincoln] who might appreciate [the music] and don't know about it. It's the weirdest shit I've seen. I don't know why people only travel in one circle.”

Other elements of the fest also started to take greater shape during the April meeting. Courtney Gilbert, who is heading up the film portion of the weekend, amassed a movie roster every bit as diverse as the musical lineup, including “Audre's Revenge,” a 20-minute horror short by Monika Estrella Negra; “All the Way Down,” an LQBTQ suspense drama from local filmmakers Timothy Singratsomboune and Rashida Davison; and Cameron Granger's “Blue Boy,” among others. The group also discussed possible contributions from poets Scott Woods, Madison Gibbs and Zara Resisting, as well as plans for an artists' alley, where locals could display their work.

The group also went over plans for additional volunteer training shifts, designed to increase the comfort level for the team of volunteers helping staff the event. Plans are to schedule volunteers in shifts, with at least three on-site at all times.

In the run up to the festival, the organizers held two volunteer training sessions. The first, which took place mid-afternoon on a Friday in late March at the Columbus Metropolitan Library Downtown, was a bust, with no one showing up. A second, scheduled for an evening at Kafe Kerouac, proved more successful, drawing 10-plus volunteers who turned up to learn about “safer spaces” (“a supportive, non-threatening environment that encourages open-mindedness, respect, a willingness to learn from others, as well as physical and mental safety,” according to a training document provided by organizers), in addition to more mundane tasks, such as room setup and cleanup.

“With the first one [in October], the biggest challenge we ran into was the volunteering [because] it was more of an open-door policy,” said Akembe, noting this meant there were times when four or five volunteers might be on duty and other times overseen by one stressed individual. “This year, we're [posting] a volunteer schedule … and giving them more education on how to moderate space.”

“It's a festival focused on marginalized groups, so we need to make sure if people come in and start causing trouble we have volunteers who know how to deal with [the situation] and de-escalate it and move people from the premises and make sure things don't go awry in a big way,” Ewen said. “That's not something unique to our festival, but it's something we need to be more aware of considering what we're doing and why, as well as the obvious political climate right now, which is totally a factor.”

Working on a shoestring budget, organizers have also been forced to think creatively when it comes to promotion. Ewen launched a weekly #MelanincholyMonday hashtag on social media as a means of spreading word about the fest, while contributors volunteered their artistic skills, designing posters, creatingpromotional videos and launching a stirring photo campaign designed to highlight some of the deeper motivations behind the fest. In the latter, contributors photographed themselves holding signs explaining the importance of Melanincholy. Responses ranged from “it's the only way to get the story right #BelieveBlackTransWomen” to “because representation inspires future generations,” which harkens to Parks' earlier points about the need for the event.

Beyond the mainstage acts, organizers are also excited about a Sunday open mic, where anyone can turn up and add their name to a list to hop onstage for a song or two — a portion of the festival that speaks to its anyone-can-do-this ethos as fully as anything else taking place over the three-day run.

“With accessibility, not only am I talking about being at an event or paying for an event, but feeling like you can be on that stage,” Akembe said.

“It also helps to get in people who are just starting out or who don't think they are at a level they can be performing at a festival,” Ewen said. “It underscores the idea that if you have a voice we want to hear it.”

Melanincholy Festival

Milo-Grogan Community Recreation Center

862 E. Second Ave., Milo-Grogan

Friday-Sunday, May 26-28