RAD Fest seeks to create a safe, equitable, community-oriented experience

NEW VOICES: RAD Fest was born, in part, out of asking the question, “How would we do a music festival that is something where … our friends and community, who are not all straight, not all white, not all documented … would feel welcome and safe?” says organizer Emma Hutchens. The inaugural lineup includes, clockwise from top left, Contour, Linqua Franqa, Anna Burch and Nest Egg. Photos courtesy of the musicians

This is a story that was once synonymous with Asheville’s art and event scene and now is rarely heard: “We started with no capital … so we really needed community partners that were invested in this vision we had,” says Emma Hutchens, who, with fellow Asheville FM DJ Andrew Vasco, is launching the inaugural RAD Fest. “Asheville is changing so rapidly, and there’s this desire, for folks who’ve been here a long time or are in certain niche parts of the community, to keep having weird, DIY art happenings.”

Hutchens, who has lived here for 10 years and has no plans to move on, says, “I think it’s my responsibility, as an Asheville resident, to keep doing weird, community-based projects that uplift local people and marginalized people here in Asheville — a place that’s becoming less and less hospitable for those groups.”

Despite not having financial backing — as is the case with many newer-to-Asheville businesses and events — Hutchens and Vasco persevered. The culmination of that vision, RAD Fest, will take place over two days, Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 13 and 14, in the River Arts District, from which the music and arts initiative takes its name. The Grey Eagle — RAD Fest’s first community partner — hosts bands on two stages, and showgoers can also take in the RAD’s Second Saturday Art Walk, which runs concurrently.

Additionally, muralists Ian Wilkinson and Gus Cutty will be painting at The Grey Eagle, and Indian Summer Press will be live-printing T-shirts, along with other art initiatives.

The eclectic lineup of RAD Fest gives a hint of what to expect. The roster includes Anna Burch (a self-described purveyor of “bummer pop”), dark-folk artist Common Holly, punk trio Pie Face Girls and many others, including local acts such as electro-pop musician Celia Verbeck and noise-rockers Nest Egg. The collection of artists is fringey, women-led, often queer-identifying, and less white-centric than the typical Western North Carolina music festival.

“When we set up this festival, we thought about how can we do this differently?” says Hutchens. She points out that statistics — such as Pitchfork‘s annual data about the diversity of music festivals in the U.S. — show that around 70 percent of artists booked are male. And, according to the Chicago Tribune, “More than 90 percent of female concertgoers surveyed by OurMusicMyBody experienced being harassed in music spaces between 2016 [and] 2018.”

She adds, “It’s not like we think we’re saving the world by doing a music festival. We still have to go back to our social justice work. But how would we do a music festival that is something where … our friends and community, who are not all straight, not all white, not all documented … would feel welcome and safe?” One answer was to partner with nonprofit crisis intervention and prevention agency Our VOICE.

Hutchens and Vasco also looked to organizations such as HEX, a dance party that raises funds for local causes, which posts its norms — no homophobia, no racism, etc. — inside the door of the venues where its events are held. “We really appreciate the work they’ve done around that and we wanted to try to do an equally good job,” Hutchens says.

Raising the level of awareness at a festive event doesn’t have to bring the mood down. Exhibit A: hip-hop artist Mariah Parker, aka Linqua Franqa, on the RAD Fest lineup. Parker’s powerhouse raps and sung verses touch on issues such as depression, abortion, feminism and activism. And she doesn’t just write about politics — she recently ran for and won the seat of Athens-Clarke County, Ga., commissioner (and swore her oath of office on a copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X).

“After getting tired of organizing around music, [I realized] the public policymakers are the ones who can do the most, so maybe I should be one of those,” Parker says of the inspiration to campaign. “I think democracy is really important and I wanted to throw my hat in the ring. … I thought I could push forward some progressive ideas and conversations about radical change, structurally, in our town.”

Parker is one of a number of liberal women making the jump to political office across the country. “I frequently see, in articles, people bring up my name and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortiz [who, in June, won the Democratic primary for New York’s 14th Congressional District] in the same sentence, which to me doesn’t seem fair — she’s actually amazing,” Parker says. “But it gives me goose bumps to be part of this whole thing.”

Parker says she wanted to be a rapper since she was as kid growing up around freestyle cyphers, but, “in those scenarios it felt like, being a girl, the sideline was the place I belonged.” She started to freestyle while a student at Warren Wilson College, but it wasn’t until she moved to Athens, Ga., to pursue doctoral studies in linguistics that she felt empowered to perform and record music.

Parker’s debut album received critical acclaim though, initially, she thought it was just something she needed to get out of her system. Despite some experiences of self-doubt, she ultimately found that “I have to use this responsibility to promote something positive. … It took on a new life of its own — this opportunity to really empower people about the situation they’re in.”

Hutchens, too, is excited about the opportunity to empower young musicians and those whose sound may not often find space on Asheville’s stages. For example, when she and Vasco heard the newly formed collective Temp Job at Big Ears festival in Knoxville, Tenn., “it blew my mind. We were like, ‘You have to play our festival,’” Hutchens recalls. “Very rarely do we find ourselves in the position to say, ‘Here’s an opportunity.’”

Now that she’s created exactly that scenario, Hutchens — and, by extension, RAD Fest — are ready to make the most of it.

WHAT: RAD Fest, radfestavl.com
WHERE: The Grey Eagle, 185 Clingman Ave.
WHEN: Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 13 and 14, starting at noon each day. $25 single day/$40 weekend

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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