LEAF performing arts director Ehren Cruz and the organizers of the third LEAF Downtown AVL seek to ensure every neighborhood, race, ethnicity and culture has a voice and gathering space at Pack Square Park on Friday, Aug. 4, and Saturday, Aug. 5. Booking musical acts with similar values is crucial to that mission.
Adeline Michèle, frontwoman of the Brooklyn disco band Escort, says she and her colleagues are elated to return to Asheville after a memorable Moogfest 2014 stint and an opening slot for CeeLo Green at The Orange Peel last year. The prospect of playing an outdoor festival — more specifically, Pack Stage on Aug. 4 at 6:45 p.m. — also holds great appeal.
“We’ll play wherever we’re asked to. We’re just happy to play music, but when it also helps a good cause, it’s even better. It makes our job make even more sense,” she says. “It’s definitely icing on the cake.”
True to LEAF’s core values, Escort’s embrace of oft-maligned disco as its primary descriptor is itself a form of unity and activism. Michèle notes that what she calls “the mother of dance music” had a mainstream resurgence with Daft Punk’s 2013 album Random Access Memories. She adds that the style’s popularity may come in waves, but it’s never really gone away, and that being mindful of its history is of utmost importance as Escort does its part to carry the genre forward.
“The negative stigma attached to disco is more of a homophobic and racist one from the ’80s when disco was the kind of music that would attract all kinds of people — party people, which meant at the time the gay community, the black community, the trans community as well as all communities. Donna Summer and Diana Ross were still some of the biggest stars ever, and were disco queens,” Michèle says. “The stigma is good to fight against because it actually helps fighting against a lot of injustice in general, so we’re definitely proudly saying ‘disco’ just for those reasons.”
When Dan Balis and Eugene Cho formed Escort in the late 2000s, its live version sometimes included up to 17 people onstage at a time. With the addition of Michèle — a native Parisian who came to New York City as an 18-year-old to pursue a music career — the evolution toward the band’s 2015 album, Animal Nature, involved a move away from incorporating horns and strings and a new focus on electronic instruments. Depending on the size of the stage and the band’s financial capabilities at a given time, anywhere from four to seven musicians currently perform together. While Michèle says, “The Escort sound is just as good with only four people,” as well as easier on communication and logistical levels, she also enjoys having the expanded cast’s pair of backup singers.
The presence of a group such as Escort at the festival alongside other diverse offerings — and to have it all downtown and free — is, in Nex Millen’s words, “the ultimate.” The Asheville DJ, producer and educator sees the occasion as a “true partnership” between LEAF and the community. It brings the Lake Eden event — which he notes is hard for some people to get to and often sells out — and the organization’s championing of all cultures directly to the city’s people.
“There’s a boombox feeling to it,” Millen says. “It’s about family fun and playing music that’s all over just funky, so for them to have an eclectic lineup like that, it sits well with me and where I come from, because we would have the boombox out playing everything — Spanish music, funk and disco. We’d play some oldies — put the Motown on, you know what I mean? We would take it everywhere across the margin. Not just rap music. You’ve got to remember, rap music had just come out, so there weren’t that many rap records, so we played other things.”
Millen moved from Philadelphia to Asheville in 2014. The partnership between his hip-hop education company, Organic Synergy, and LEAF amplifies his quest to preserve the culture by passing on its core principles to the next generation. Each Tuesday at LEAF’s Burton Street ONEmic Studio, Millen’s students are taught love, peace, unity, respect and knowledge while learning about such topics as graffiti, beatboxing, beat making, fashion and history. In turn, they come to understand that rap music is only one element within the culture and that deciphering that single popular component requires a comprehension of the culture as a whole. “Sometimes we’ll watch documentary on Marcus Garvey,” he says. “You don’t get that from just a song.”
Along with sharing his multifaceted DJ skills at the U-Leaf Stage on Aug. 4, at 7:15 p.m., Millen will be at the Easel Rider Village on Aug. 5 at 3 p.m. for a turntable jam with recently graduated mentorees from Asheville High School and West Henderson High School. The former students will also perform, and Millen will discuss the program.
WHAT: LEAF Downtown AVL
WHERE: Pack Square Park
WHEN: Friday and Saturday, Aug. 4 and 5. Free. Full details at theleaf.org/downtown