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Springfield's Indie Soul Festival Is About Music — And What Happens Between Songs

Over the years, people have come to the annual Springfield Indie Soul Festival for more than just music. It's back this weekend at Riverfront Park, with room for a couple thousand music lovers alongside the musicians and vendors.

A few weeks ago, organizer Darryl Moss stood in the downtown park where the festival is taking place. The minute you walk in, he said, you’ll hear music.

“That's where we have the big stage,” Moss said, pointing south, “and we're bringing in acts from all over the country. The Delfonics ... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1WemYkwGjik" target="_blank">Surfacefor the folks who are familiar with '90s R&B. Reggae bands, jazz. We have a little bit of everything.”

There’s a splash pad for kids, food, vendors from Springfield's Black community, and an art exhibit.

“Because we talk about music, it’s hard to not include visual arts when you have music,” Moss said. “Culture is culture.” 

Moss is a longtime Springfield resident and a former community liaison for Mayor Domenic Sarno. He's a DJ, a talk show host on WTCC, and a convener around all sorts of culture.

Almost a year ago, Moss was fired by the mayor over a social media post. But he continues to connect to Springfield residents. The past year and a half, he said, the city has felt tense, fueled by the pandemic, George Floyd’s murder and a scathing federal report into Springfield’s police department.'

Festival organizer Darryl Moss stands in Riverfront Park along the Connecticut River in Springfield, Massachusetts, where the 2021 Indie Soul Festival is taking place in late August.
Credit Jill Kaufman / NEPM
Festival organizer Darryl Moss stands in Riverfront Park along the Connecticut River in Springfield, Massachusetts, where the 2021 Indie Soul Festival is taking place in late August.

Social justice and art

Events like the Indie Soul Festival, where large numbers of the city's Black population will come together, are a way for people to take a breath, said Tanisha Arena, executive director at Arise for Social Justice.

“I feel like we need the heat to go down a little bit," Arena said. "There are so many things that are on us back to back to back, like having to fight for 12 years to not have a biomass plant [in the city]." 

The list of challenges facing Springfield is long, she said.

“You know — why do I live in a community that doesn't have a full-service grocery store?” she said. “The disparities around race and health care? It’s like, can I just have a moment?”

Tanisha Arena, executive director at Arise for Social Justice, speaks in 2020 to demonstrators at the Count Every Vote rally in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Credit Hoang 'Leon' Nguyen / The Republican / masslive.com
The Republican / masslive.com
Tanisha Arena, executive director at Arise for Social Justice, speaks in 2020 to demonstrators at the Count Every Vote rally in Northampton, Massachusetts.

In addition to good music and food, the festival offers a chance for direct communication, Arena said.

“So we're all congregated in these spaces, I hope that the artists — you know, they're giving their commentary, singing their feel good songs — that they actually will talk about responsibility in the community,” she said. “Use [their] platform to tell you why it's important that you not only go and register to vote, that you take your kids with you, and that you actually show up and vote.”

The festival also creates the kind of space where Black people can feel safe being themselves, Arena said, talk about family and what's been happening in the community.

“Talk about more than just the pains that we have,” Arena said. “[The festival] also shows the resiliency that's a huge part of who we are — and to have gratitude and joy and cultivate those things is an act of political resistance.”

The Black Woodstock

About 50 years ago, a series of soul music concerts took place every Sunday in an uptown New York City park. It was the summer of 1969 and the Harlem Cultural Festival, considered the Black Woodstock, was a bright spot in a tense time.

A new documentary, “Summer of Soul,” is about the concerts and the era. Some of the biggest names in music performed on stage, including Gladys Knight and the Pips, Mavis Staples, Sly and the Family Stone, Mahalia Jackson and Stevie Wonder.

The shows were free. They provided some joy and a break from thinking about the Vietnam War, the draft, racial inequalities — and the assassinations, the year before, of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. 

Darryl Lewis was a teenager, home from college, when he and friends attended the festival.

“The goal of the festival may very well have been to keep Black folks from burning up the city in '69,” Lewis said in the documentary.

Boston 1968

When thinking about the concerts in Harlem, Moss — who was a toddler at the time — also thinks about what happened a year earlier in Boston. James Brown was scheduled to play the Boston Garden the day after King was assassinated.

“Boston was on the verge of erupting. They were going to explode after Dr. King died and [Brown] prevented an uprising in this Northeast corridor,” Moss said.

Boston Mayor Kevin White wanted to cancel the concert, to keep Black fans at home and avoid another night of unrest. City Councilor Tom Atkins pushed the mayor to think otherwise and they convinced Brown to allow WGBH and PBS to broadcast his concert live.

Inside the Garden, White introduced Brown.

“Twenty-four hours ago, Dr. King died for all of us, Black and white,” the mayor said. “Now I’m here tonight like all of you to listen to James. But I’m also here to ask for your help.”

New potential eruptions

The summer of 2021 is quieter than 1969 – and quieter than last year. But Moss and others say the racially divided Springfield has been sitting on a "powder keg." 

“If you interview 25 different people anywhere across the city from the Black community about life in Springfield or life in America, they're going to tell you the same thing,” Moss said. “People are frustrated, aggravated. We're tired of the media and how it perceives Black people. We're tired of the educational system and low expectations of Black students [and] the low expectations of Black parents.”  

The festival is like therapy, Moss said — all music is.

The logo for the 2021 Springfield Indie Soul Festival.
Credit Courtesy / Darryl Moss
Darryl Moss
The logo for the 2021 Springfield Indie Soul Festival.

“I think of Melle Mel and the Furious Five, 'Don't push me cause I'm close to the edge. I'm trying not to lose my head.' I don't think mainstream folks realize how significant that line is,” Moss said. “That's music for us. I'm always on edge. I'm a Black man who lives in America. What makes me feel better after I get pulled over — and I was racially profiled, oh my God, how many times when I worked for Dominic Sarno — the thing that calmed me down is, after the cop leaves, I turn on my music.”

De-escalate, and sing along with the songs. Music drives movements, Moss said. Figure out your soundtrack and then do something.

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."
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