Victory Boyd was discovered busking Stevie Wonder songs on the streets and in the subway stations of New York City, and that discovery led to a recording contract not only for her, but for her entire family, including her father and eight siblings. The singer-songwriter is a featured performer — with a 2 p.m. Saturday set — at the fourth annual LEAF Downtown AVL festival, held Friday and Saturday, Aug. 3 and 4.
Boyd had been part of her father’s Boys & Girls Choir of Detroit since she was 4 years old. The family eventually moved to New York City, where they continued to perform. One of the group’s regular “venues” was in the underground stations of the city’s subway system. It was there that Boyd — already a seasoned vocalist — developed her staging chops. “As a busker, you perform for a lot of people,” Boyd says. “And a lot of them don’t give you the time of day. So you have to build confidence and believe that your art form is still valuable.”
Boyd succeeded on that score. She says that her experience as a busker was beneficial. “It’s rewarding when you see that at the end of the day, maybe 20 people had a really impactful experience from your performance,” she says. “You don’t feel entitled to their applause; you’re grateful for it. And that translates a lot into this next phase of the music industry where I’m on major stages.”
Boyd started playing guitar when she was 15, quickly developing her proficiency and writing original songs. She describes her style as “two genres: folk and jazz mixed together. The storytelling component combined with acoustic guitar is folksy, but I play a lot of jazz chords and use soul phrasings,” she says.
The artist received her first big break after a music documentary featured her busking in Central Park, playing the Nina Simone version of “Feeling Good.” The filmed performance attracted the attention of a music industry figure who in turn raved about it to his friend Jay-Z. “He was impressed with the video and requested to meet me,” Boyd recalls. “So me and my dad and all of my siblings went over to Roc Nation to meet him.”
Jay-Z signed the whole family to a recording contract. “That was 10 years after we started busking in Central Park almost every day,” says Boyd. “It was a long journey, and it’s not over; this just feels like a new chapter.”
In June, Boyd released her first full-length album, The Broken Instrument. The songs are based around the musician’s voice and acoustic guitar, but rich, deeply textured string arrangements — many by Boyd herself — give the album a sophisticated sheen.
But Boyd’s busking roots are still key to her work. Speaking in late July about the title track of her new album, she admits, “I just performed it for the first time onstage at my album release party … two nights ago.”
LEAF Downtown AVL celebrates its fourth year
LEAF Downtown AVL began in 2015 as an expanded offering from LEAF Community Arts, a free event designed to build upon the success and appeal of the twice-yearly ticketed festival held at Lake Eden in Black Mountain. Launched to celebrate LEAF’s 20th anniversary as a creative hub, LEAF Downtown AVL combines the larger festival’s pancultural focus with an emphasis on local artists and traditions. Ehren Cruz, LEAF performing arts director, emphasizes the nonprofit’s 24-year legacy of “youth educational outreach, equity and diversity programming.” He says that the festival “features crossover world-, family- and urban-accessible programming while celebrating local culture.”
Festival headliners are funk/jazz/soul saxophonist Maceo Parker, best known for his work with James Brown and Parliament-Funkadelic, and pioneering rapper Grandmaster Flash, one of hip-hop’s earliest stars and the first to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Other nationally touring acts on the bill include trip-hop producer Wax Tailor and singer-songwriter Maggie Koerner.
LEAF Downtown AVL remains true to its local focus with a number of popular Asheville and Western North Carolina-based artists, including world music trio Free Planet Radio, singer-songwriter Brie Capone, folk acts Hope Griffin and Ben Phan, alternative funk band Supatight, psychedelic/experimental banjo artist Tall Tall Trees and folk-hip-hop fusion band I, Star, among others.
LEAF’s trademark international flavor will be highlighted via performances by Nuestro Centro: RAICES (dedicated to strengthening the cultural identity of children) and a youth ensemble playing steel pans from LEAF International Bequia, located in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
Workshops and exhibits remain a key component of the festival as well. Saturday’s events kick off with the LEAF Art Dash 5K at 9 a.m., with music on multiple downtown stages starting at noon and continuing until 10 p.m. Daytime highlights on Saturday include three performances under the auspices of the LEAF Schools & Streets program. Saturday’s events wrap up with an after-party at Asheville Music Hall featuring Wax Tailor.
WHAT: LEAF Downtown AVL
WHERE: Pack Square Park, 80 Court Plaza, theleaf.org/downtown
WHEN: Friday, Aug. 3, 4-10 p.m., and Saturday, Aug. 4, noon-10 p.m. Free