Blackout Music & Film Festival Unites Artists and Activists for Social Change


A carefree little girl in a pink sundress dances next to the stage as artists, actors, and industry executives mingle. We’re on a rooftop for The Second Annual Blackout Music and Film Festival at The Grammy Museum (Aug 29) in downtown Los Angeles, above the hustle and bustle of the MTV VMA weekend madness. Despite a number of events going on for the prime press weekend, the Blackout Festival nearly sold out. The atmosphere at this event is tangibly different. No one came to turn up; we all came to learn, enlighten ourselves, and create change for the next generation- for the little boys and girls like the one dancing side-stage without a worry.

The Art

Art curator Ashley Coffey found the perfect balance between photography, textiles, paintings, and digital works. Each piece selected for display was created with the past or current climate of social justice in mind, and lent a tangible perspective to the discussion, priming the attendees for the panel discussions and hard-hitting spoken word performances.

The Taking Aim Series by Bayete Ross Smith is a digital display featuring pictures of men of minorities as shooting targets. The display immediately conjures thoughts of the North Miami Police Department, which was caught using mug shots of African American men as targets earlier this year.

Self-taught oil painter Mariella Angela, contributed three pieces to the event. Known for her unique portraits of Hip Hop artists, Mariella chose three pieces for display: Tupac, Kendrick Lamar, and Mike Brown, a collection which she calls Three Kings. The Mike Brown piece was done specifically for the festival – she wanted to contribute something new and hopes to get it into the hands of the Brown family.  

Having absorbed what I thought was all of the art; I walk out on the balcony where Keenan Chapman live paints Say Their Names, a black and white collage of victims of police brutality. I find a place to sit and look behind me. Large silhouettes of hands stand erect as if to yell, “Hands up, Don’t shoot!” and are subtly placed in a few of the bushes. The iron hands are the work of Damon Davis & Basil Kincaid, who call them Hands Up.

The Panels

The music panel, moderated by Mir Harris, features Datwon Thomas, Jimi Dright (Chopmaster J), Angela Jollivette, Damani Nkosi, Paul Stewart, and Focus.

Mir opens by sharing a Nina Simone quote, then asks each of the panelists what it means to them,

“You can't help it. An artist's duty is to reflect the past and current times.”

One of the first to speak is Datwon Thomas, the EIC of VIBE Magazine. He sites Kendrick Lamar and J.Cole as two artists who are fulfilling the duty that Nina speaks of, "It's very important because the music is the soundtrack to these movements," he says.
Lalah Hathaway speaks on the difficulty of sharing these stories, adding, “The path to tell these stories exists, it's just very narrow.”

Mir Harris’ next question is aimed at Focus. She asks, “You were just part of Compton: A Soundtrack. In terms of what NWA did for Hip Hop, how important was it to infuse [current social justice issues] into the soundtrack?

"I think that instead of us focusing on what we wanted to bring to the project we had to understand what the project was... Dr. Dre was the orchestrator, and we followed his lead,” Focus explains.

Jimi Dright, better known as Chopmaster J from Digital Underground adds, "Making music and being an activist goes hand in hand…Youngsters always tell me they want to be like Pac. I tell them [to] read a book. That's being like Pac."

Next, Mir asks, “How would you say the climate has changed in terms of delivering the music?”

To which Paul Stewart replies, “There's so much more opportunity in a lot of ways. When we first started, Hip Hop was the bastard child. Now we have corporations embracing it. For better or worse. I believe that the cream rises to the top. I'm excited about the opportunities right now that these artists have without having to suck the corporate nipple.”

Datwon expresses agreement with Paul’s statement and adds, “One of the challenges, no matter what position I’ve been in, is…It's hard to show young men and women in a positive light, when things aren’t always so positive… No matter what, I try to make it balanced and show it in a fair light.”
He adds, “We can't be quick to write off the newer generation- our parents caught flack for what they listened to…When it's new it catches flack. Sometimes we have to wait for the artist to mature. Like with Tupac.... He had to mature.”

As the panel ends, the attendees migrate to the second floor, which is dedicated to Taylor Swift; ironic because of recent outrage regarding the obvious cultural appropriation within her music videos, which Amandla Stenberg later addresses.   

The Music

As the small theatre fills up, a young woman named PJ stands before the audience and begins to fill the room with her infectious smile and melodic voice, rousing a few members of the audience to their feet. Halfway through the song she breaks into rap and sheds her shy demeanor, bouncing around with audience members as they clap along. As she heads into a more soulful track, she lets her dreads down and the audience cheers.

Next, Lalah Hathaway graces the stage; the audience snaps along as she sings “Angel”, a tribute to Anita Baker. Her soulful voice penetrates the small theatre and, as the audience begins to sing along, she asks that the music be turned down so she can hear the room sing along with her.

I missed V. Bozeman’s performance because I tracked down PJ to tell her how much I dug her set. The theatre empties and back to the rooftop we go.

The Spoken Word

It’s cooled off and the breeze carries Andre 3000’s voice, played by DJ Merc 80, across the balcony. Attendees gather at the open bar and put their orders in. I opt for a glass of ice water. The sun has set and amber-colored string lights illuminate the scene.

Donté Clark adjusts his long dreadlocks under his hat as he walks to the stage. He begins his performance of Let Me Breathe, first letting the beat of the poem flow into a sing-songy rendition, then opting for a more serious tone. I’m lost in his delivery, hypnotized as he drifts from singing, to speaking the words with authority.

Next up is Leo Breckenridge, a spoken word artist and actor. His poem is a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. called A Dream’s Reality and begins “Man, Y’all, I’m so excited. I’m here with some of Hollywood’s blackest, best, and brightest. And I’m standing on the shoulders of giants, so pardon me if I seem tall while I recite this.”

Lastly, the headlining poet, Amandla Stenberg appears onstage and calmly unfolds a piece of paper she’s been clutching in her hand. The wrinkled piece of paper contains the words to her infamous video, Don’t Cash Crop My CornrowsStenberg balances historical facts with examples of cultural appropriation in modern society, challenging society's ideas of beauty and the double standard that exists within a racial context. She’s stating facts and it’s resonating.

As the event comes to a close, I look around the rooftop and notice that the festival was so finely curated that almost all of the panelists and artists stayed after to catch the rest of the performances and to speak with other like-minded individuals.

This event was different than any I’d ever attended. I don’t go out often, and when I do I usually find myself wishing I were home due to the lack of substance. I’m not into turning up; I’m in to tuning in to what’s actually going on. The Blackout Festival provided me with reassurance that there is still art, music, and poetry with substance; and there are record executives, editors in chief, and A&R’s that still believe that art has value as a political statement, one that can start the conversation and incite change.

Photography by Kayla Reefer

Written by Emily Berkey.  Follow Emily on Twitter at @Emily_Berkey


Emily Berkey Emily is a Contributing Writer at SUSPEND Magazine.