The return of Soul Fest


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In the mid-1960s, during a time of turbulence in the United States, many African Americans sought to regain connection with their ancestry and re-establish the black culture in America. They began to use the word “soul,” giving birth to many distinguishing characteristics of the culture such as “soul brother,” “soul food,” and “soul music.”

Today, phrases such as these have become widely known and accepted around the country, with people from all backgrounds rejoicing in African-American culture — including Iowa City. On Friday and Saturday on the Pentacrest, the Summer of the Arts will host the Iowa Soul Festival.

The festival débuted last year, and executive director of Summer of the Arts Lisa Barnes promised that this year’s festival will be even bigger and better. The celebration will feature various musical performances, classic soul food, art, and a gospel brunch following the festival on Sunday at the Sheraton Hotel. Admission for the festival is free and open to the public, while tickets for the Sunday gospel brunch are $30 per ticket.

It is an opportunity to show that Iowa City and the Corridor are great places for people to live and work, no matter what your background, Barnes said.

The festival is a collaboration between sponsors Summer of the Arts and Diversity Focus a corporation based in Cedar Rapids that promotes diversity, cultural awareness, and inclusion in the Iowa City/Cedar Rapids Corridor.

Executive director of Diversity Focus Chad Simmons generated the idea for the Iowa Soul Festival.

“I personally was the one who designed it with a student around three years ago,” Simmons said. “The whole concept was we wanted to create a positive image of African-American culture, around music, around art and culture, around dance, and around food. So we partnered with the Summer of the Arts to start the Iowa Soul Festival.”

Simmons said the public’s knowledge about African-American heritage can, unfortunately, be somewhat lacking. 

“We do know that many people don’t realize that there are African Americans who are here in Iowa,” he said. “We also realize that there are many people who, because the numbers have traditionally been small but are growing, who haven’t had a lot of exposure to the culture. So our hope is that we can help educate people, and we know the festival is a key way in doing things of that nature.”

Though the festival provides ample opportunities to learn about African-American culture and history, there will also be many chances to let loose with music, food, and fun.

“The Soul Fest is well-known for music … We try to hit R&B, hip-hop, jazz, gospel — the genres that were influenced or created by African-Americans,” Simmons said. “We have a beverage garden and a food court in which you get a chance to get the best of African-American cuisine … There will be a marketplace in which there will be artists displaying some of their art, and there will also be a Kids’ Zone.”

On Saturday afternoon, the regionally known FunkDaddies will make its début at the festival. Drummer and vocalist Ken Duncan said the FunkDaddies welcome the opportunity to exhibit its high-energy, funky soul on the Iowa Soul Festival stage.

“We always look forward to performing for our ‘home town’ audiences,” he said. “The support we’ve received from our Iowa City- and Cedar Rapids-area friends and fans has been a great inspiration. We’re honored to be a part of this fantastic event.”

The festival will not only host locally and regionally known artists. Grammy-Award-winning talents Al Jarreau and Lalah Hathaway will grace the stage on Friday and Saturday night, respectively. UI alumnus Jarreau’s performance will be sponsored by Hancher Auditorium. Director of marketing and communication Rob Cline said he is thrilled to have Jarreau on campus for this special event.

“Jarreau is a brilliant artist, and his concerts are joyous and upbeat,” Cline said. “He’s one of the greatest singers of the last several decades and a perfect fit for the Iowa Soul Festival.”

Jarreau has performed almost all his life, and he says he cannot remember a time when he wasn’t singing. He is the recipient of seven Grammy Awards, has completed numerous tours, and appeared on Broadway. And though Jarreau is a critically acclaimed artist, called by Time as the greatest jazz singer alive, he said he still sings simply for the pleasure of bringing joy to hims and the lives of others.

“The music itself inspires me,” he said. “The melody set in chord changes that have an impact on your emotions as you listen. The story told in the lyric. That’s what inspires me, that’s what takes me away, that’s what keeps me there as I try to do these things in the music that I write and prepare for listeners to listen to and maybe be touched by and moved by. What inspires me is the opportunity to say something that lifts people up in this world. There’s so much funky bad news, I want to say something to people that makes them feel better for a while.”

Jarreau’s talents stretch far beyond music. He excelled academically and even played basketball in college. Jarreau then attended UI to receive a master’s degree in music rehabilitation.

“I enjoyed it immensely at Iowa,” he said. “For me, it was like being in a great metropolis, with people from all over the world … It was wonderfully complex, wonderfully urban, wonderfully international, and a bit scary. It was kind of a step out into the world for me … Going to Iowa City was an amazing thing for me.”

He said he very much looks forward to returning to Iowa City to perform for the Soul Festival, and he encouraged people to take advantage of the educational opportunity.

“Learn about African-American culture. Learn about every kind of culture and get along,” he said, “Find out that the same kind of blood flows in the veins of that guy over there with an Afro, or that woman over there with a babushka, or that guy over there eating spaghetti. The same kind of blood, the same kind of hopes and dreams. We happen to be in one country and are able to reach out and touch each other. That aspect of living brought us together and was the basis for so much beautiful stuff we have done as a nation and will continue to do.”

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