In the end, DJ Kool proved too hot for Bele Chere to handle.
Volunteer members of the festival’s board were receptive to bringing in the 53-year-old hip-hop performer, famous for his 1996 hit “Let Me Clear My Throat,” pictured above in an Asheville performance (photo by Tim Smith). But some city staffers, and a contractor hired by the city, considered the artist too much of a risk to play this year’s Bele Chere, emails obtained by Xpress reveal. The emails also illuminate a deeper conflict concerning hip-hop acts at the city’s top street festival.
Critics say the concerns reflect outdated prejudices. The lack of hip-hop on the schedule is a long-standing gripe, and this year, fueled by social media, an impromptu movement arose to get a hip-hop act at Bele Chere, coalescing around DJ Kool.
But city staff, not volunteers, select the acts, and the emails detail how, over the course of three months, the programming decisions played out. Sandra Travis, the program director for the city’s festivals, cited concerns about crowd control and cursing. And city events specialist Cristin Corder Lee, who works under Travis, said she thought her boss was planning to consult with the Asheville Police Department.
After requesting the emails June 20 in response to public concerns, Xpress waited a month to get them. The city delivered a single unsearchable, scanned PDF image, with the individual emails in no discernible order. At least three relevant emails were omitted, though Xpress later obtained them from other sources.
Travis says the risk she referred to was that DJ Kool’s act wouldn’t bring out a large enough crowd. In fact, she maintains, the APD was not consulted, and it was a lack of consensus among festival planners, rather than an aversion to hip-hop, that led to the choice of a different act.
On Feb. 28, Emmy Parker, the Bele Chere board’s entertainment chair, emailed city staff and others involved in planning the festival. “There’s a little movement online (Facebook and Twitter) to bring more hip-hop to Bele Chere,” she wrote. “Folks are specifically clamoring for DJ Kool.” The artist, Parker added, is affordable and “is very safe … extremely well-liked by young and old, black and white.” Parker is commercial marketing manager at Moog Music.
In her view, “Booking him would let the African-American community (as well as the 18-34 demo) in AVL know that Bele Chere is trying to include them. Because, right now, the word on the Internet is that black folks don’t feel included. We should take this opportunity to start to change that perception for the betterment of the festival and the city in general.”
At that point, a Facebook movement to bring in DJ Kool had tallied 103 “likes” and 23 comments.
But in a March 8 email, Bill Clarke, who was brought in as the festival’s production manager, chided Parker, calling DJ Kool and a number of other suggested performers “questionable acts.” He also took a dim view of Parker’s having contacted the artists, noting, “These unofficial conversations can have very negative results both financially and politically.” Clarke is the director of Western Carolina University’s Ramsey Center.
On March 23, Travis pulled DJ Kool from the proposed lineup, writing, “I think [his] performance is too big a risk.”
The same day, Parker replied: “I am going to stand firm by DJ Kool. It is a mistake not to open this festival up to hip-hop.” She argued: “Frankly, if he isn’t playing profane music, there isn’t a real ‘risk,’ only a perceived one (and it is very dangerous to continue to support perceived fears). Asheville is too progressive of a town to [subscribe] to antiquated and misplaced notions of danger.”
On March 25, Parker noted that she “had a nice convo with DJ Kool last night. It’s worth noting that this man is 53 years old, and he reminded me again last night that his No.1 song does not have curses in it. Again, he plays ’80s old school hip-hop, he doesn’t curse himself and is not into drugs or gangs.”
Parker also offered to arrange a conversation between DJ Kool and Travis.
The results of that conversation were not included in the emails the city released. But in a March 30 email to Parker that Xpress obtained from other sources, Travis wrote, “We had a really good conversation,” and the artist “understood my concerns — both from what his performance would be like AND crowd control.”
Travis continued: “Based on a piece of advice he gave me, I’ve got a few feelers out to see what’s happening in our neighborhoods,” though she didn’t specify what kind of “feelers” she meant.
In an April 12 email to Parker, however, Lee wrote, "I have had multiple conversations with Sandra about DJ Kool after she spoke with him and I believe that she is going to speak with APD about the community temperament, per DJ Kool's suggestion." The email was one of the ones the city didn’t release, and DJ Kool denies suggesting that city staff should consult with law enforcement.
“There are lots of different risks when talking about this,” Travis explained in a subsequent interview. “To us, the biggest risk is putting money from a very limited budget into an act that will not be successful: Either they’re not the right act for a street festival, or they’re not going to draw a crowd that somebody else could draw.”
All Bele Chere performers are required to sign a contract agreeing to refrain from using foul language onstage.
Travis said the concerns about cursing arose after she saw a parental-advisory label on a DJ Kool album featured on his website, though his best-known hit contains no curse words and has become a common sports-arena and party anthem.
“I expressed concerns about the content of his performance, which he understood completely,” Travis reported.
She also said she spoke with DJ Kool about hip-hop in general and the difference between playing a club and a street festival. As for the “feelers,” “It wasn’t talking to the APD: It was more just talking to people, getting a feel for what they wanted to see. If there’s anything that might impact the festival, regardless of what it is, we need to know.”
A matter of trust
DJ Kool, however, tells a somewhat different tale. Asked about the nature of the “risks” Travis discussed with him, the artist said with a laugh, “I guess she thought rival neighborhoods would get together. I didn’t know what to say: I’m 53 years old; the type of music I play is not the type of racy stuff you hear. Because there’s children and seniors out there, I would play old-school hip-hop. None of that music has any language in it.”
City staff, he felt, had totally unjustified fears.
“If you’re that scared, why are you putting on the event?” he wondered. “What, are you going to put a sign up that says no black people between the ages of such-and-such can enter this event? If you’re that doggone scared, why throw an event that’s going to draw that many people? Just stay in your house, lock your door; stay in your closet, lock the closet door.”
The veteran performer also expressed surprise that Travis was contacting him about crowd control rather than his craft as a musician.
“I’m quite sure this is not the first time they’ve had this event; they acted like this was the first time I’ve ever done this,” he reported. “I told her if she was worried, why didn’t they know what was going on? That’s their business. I live in Washington, D.C.; I don’t even know what’s going on here.”
And based on his conversation with Travis, DJ Kool says he was surprised to find out he’d been excluded from the lineup.
“My goodness gracious, this was ridiculous. I’m probably one of the safest acts out there. I play party stuff: The only thing I’m trying to incite is getting people onto the dance floor.”
Back and forth
Meanwhile, some in the city’s Cultural Arts Division, which runs Bele Chere, didn’t think much of DJ Kool’s music.
“I think it’s lame — there’s much better old-skool rap out there,” Cultural Arts Superintendent Diane Ruggiero wrote on March 28 to Frank McGowan, the Parks Department’s superintendent of business services. In a follow-up email the next day, she added, “Isn’t anything way cooler than DJ Kool?”
But Parker wasn’t the artist’s only defender on the Bele Chere board. After Travis’ conversation with him, the hip-hop performer’s name wasn’t brought up again until April, when discussion once again turned to the lineup, with go-go band Mambo Sauce suggested to fill that spot. Parker opposed the idea, saying go-go is relatively unknown outside D.C., and the selection “in no way achieves what we are trying to do, which is let the African-American community know they are welcome at Bele Chere.”
On April 11, Lee said she would prefer DJ Kool and “then would be open to other hip-hop/urban acts, depending on the feedback from the APD.”
Travis replied that she’d prefer Mambo Sauce but “still need some input from outside depts.” The emails don’t reveal whether the APD gave input on DJ Kool or hip-hop acts in general. “If anyone talked with APD about this, it wasn’t me, and it would have been my place to do so,” Travis said later.
As for “outside departments,” Travis explained: “I just wanted to get a feel for how popular this would be. I’m not on the cutting edge of the music scene, so I talk to a lot of people inside the city and outside and ask: ‘How do you feel about this act? Ever heard of them?’”
Board Chair Steve Busey also supported choosing DJ Kool, particularly if he shared the stage with frequent partner Doug E. Fresh.
“Come on. Ya just don’t get any safer than that, do ya?” he wrote on April 26. “That is safer than De La Soul. If we go further back in hip-hop history, we’ll need to put them on Sunday as our ‘oldies’ band.”
Clarke, however, took issue with having a DJ, saying he preferred Mambo Sauce because they’re a “live band!”
Busey replied: “DJ Kool and Doug E. Fresh are live human beings with a pulse. Their musical tools are different.”
Clarke shot back, “I appreciate your 2 cents and yes [DJ Kool] is a human being with a pulse but still a dj.” Parker also objected to Clarke’s dismissing performers because they were DJs.
“Hip-hop, which may or may not feature live instrumentation, is the most popular form of music in the world and has been for the last two decades,” she wrote. “There’s no use in fighting it any longer.”
The next day, praising the recommended lineup (which included DJ Kool) and offering to respond to possible concerns of the APD, Ruggiero, Parks and Recreation Director Roderick Simmons and Mayor Terry Bellamy, Busey, the director of underwriting for WCQS, wrote: “Risk is good. It is through risk that we are rewarded. This [lineup] has been thought through deeply by the committee. I see this as a low and educated risk.”
Parker, in an email to Clarke, wrote: “I find the use of the word ‘risk’ in association with DJ Kool and Doug E. Fresh to be offensive and too thinly veiled for my sensibilities. This free and public festival should represent all of the citizens of this city, not just a select few. A diverse cross section of 18- to 34-year-old residents, and the music they listen to and the artists they are interested in, is not a ‘risk.’ They are Ashevilleans (e.g. taxpayers) and the residents that will be responsible for the future growth of this city.”
In another email not released by the city, Clarke says he doesn’t want to endanger Travis’ position, writing, “The risk I referred to is that which comes with responsibility and having to report to others. There is more at stake than just booking bands that we think will be enjoyed by all and not create additional worries. That risk comes with keeping the big picture in mind, not just one part of a festival this size. Risk is something that will never be replaced by technology, social media or downloads: It is what people in management have to consider, regardless if it relates to a dj or beer sales.”
Although the emails also discuss other aspects of the lineup, no other artist is described as a risk or told to discuss performance-related concerns with city staff.
“No, it did not happen with other artists this year,” Travis reports, and other board members confirm this. “Because the group was divided on whether this was a good fit for the festival or not, I felt it deserved more attention, a little more research.”
In the end, the approved Bele Chere lineup featured Mambo Sauce — and no hip-hop groups.
“For a variety of reasons, I’m going with Mambo Sauce and Stephen Kellogg for the remaining two slots,” Travis wrote on April 29, following the discussions among Parker, Busey and Clarke. “I know some of you are going to be happy and some of you are going to be unhappy. Regardless of the decision I made, I knew that would be the end result. But, as the saying goes, that’s why I get the big bucks.” Travis also praised Parker, saying, “We needed to stretch our boundaries and we most certainly have.”
In July, however, Mambo Sauce pulled out, and the hip-hop group Kids These Days was chosen to replace them, playing the festival on Saturday, July 30.
Despite the board support for DJ Kool, says Travis, “It became clear that the group of people involved in this process couldn’t reach consensus. In the end, I felt Mambo Sauce would be a better fit for the festival and for the time slot.”
After Xpress broke this story online, some artists who did play the festival weighed in. On July 29, the band Floating Action dedicated the song "To Connect" to DJ Kool. The same night, Juan Holladay, frontman for The Secret B-Sides, declared, after finishing a rap, “They said there wasn't gonna be any hip-hop at Bele Chere!”
This year’s Bele Chere had a $494,000 budget. About $75,000 is allocated for musical entertainment. DJ Kool was apparently willing to play for $2,000 to $3,000 — toward the lower end of the band-fee spectrum.
“I advocated for hip-hop: We need to get that door open. It’s a genre that spans many ages and cultures,” notes Busey. “This is an important genre that could be represented and should be. It’s been around for 30 years: It’s as safe as it’s going to be.”
But city staff make the final call, Busey emphasizes, adding that the process “went how it usually does — there was a very open discussion.” Public safety, he continues, “always has to be a factor in Bele Chere, but to think it’s safer to program to an older audience is crazy. Times change.”
“There’s a lack of understanding — they don’t know their community,” charges local blogger and promoter Tim Smith, a vocal critic of Bele Chere’s lack of hip-hop. “This is the No. 1 genre of music in the United States: How can you deny that in the biggest street festival in the Southeast? I think it’s a fear of the unknown, but it’s just ignorance. Not once has there been a big riot of black people at Bele Chere; this is unwarranted. Why aren’t we ‘checking in the neighborhoods’ about the bluegrass or electronica bands that are playing?”
Those concerns prompted Smith to get involved in helping choose this year’s Bele Chere bands.
“I wanted to be a part of the process,” he explains. “I wanted to see how it is, what was offered, and to give my perspective about the music that I enjoy and thousands of others do as well.”
When the city first released this year’s Bele Chere lineup back in May, Smith said he was disappointed but “not surprised. I don’t think hip-hop has been represented at Bele Chere ever.”
Smith took his argument to the media, including a July 7 appearance on WLOS and an opinion blog for Xpress.
Simmons, the city’s Parks and Recreation director, told WLOS that the hip-hop groups that applied to Bele Chere “just didn’t make the final cut.”
But if those acts weren’t up to par, argues Smith, the city should have made an effort to recruit groups that would measure up, as it did with other genres. “I just want the lineup to be more diverse,” he notes. “I want the close-minded people to get their eyes opened.”
Indeed, after designating DJ Kool a risk, Travis’ March 23 email asked for a “good mix [of genres] for each day,” specifying the need for country and blues performers “to think about as we fill any open slots.”
Still, Travis says she was disappointed by the criticism over the lack of hip-hop.
“We worked really, really hard this year to broaden the variety, and I’m really proud of our musical lineup. We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback: It’s really difficult to include everything in the time period we have with the budget we have.”
Busey, however, feels Bele Chere must change if it’s to survive.
“We have to start programming the festival toward a youth audience,” he maintains. “Otherwise it becomes old, unless you’re bringing another generation into this.” But Busey also concedes that this year’s lineup was an improvement, observing, “I view it as little victories.”
Parker, too, sees some progress.
“Asheville is a very progressive and open-minded city that supports all manner of arts and music,” she wrote in an email to Xpress. “I pushed as hard as I could for real change to the lineup, so more Ashevilleans would find interest in Bele Chere and so Bele Chere would better reflect the diversity of our town. We were successful at pushing through stronger, more relevant headliners and getting more local bands in significant spots on the lineup. Though we weren’t successful with everything, this is a small step in the right direction, and hopefully one day soon we’ll see actual change.”
— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.