August 19-20 marks the fourth anniversary of the Jackson Rhythm and Blues Festival, featuring 30 performances on five stages including headliners Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds and T-Pain.
The event brings together musicians from around the country, many of them native Mississippians, and features a variety of genres including R&B, blues, soul, funk and hip hop. Previously held at the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum, this year the festival moves downtown to the Convention Complex. The move points to an ongoing downtown renaissance in Jackson, as well as the city’s efforts to spotlight an impressive musical legacy that continues to resonate around the world today.
“It’s gonna be a great time, and I’m excited about the move downtown,” says Bobby Rush, a yearly performer at the festival, Grammy nominee, and Louisiana-born musician who now calls Jackson home. “We’ve got some air conditioning and seating for the folks that need it, and the rain won’t bother anybody.” Rush’s music incorporates several genres including Cajun, reggae, funk and blues, producing a distinct sound that’s given him staying power throughout several decades. He acknowledges borrowing from many cultures to create his songs, but emphasizes that the blues came from only one place.
“When you talk about the blues you’re talking about Mississippi. We’re the birthplace of the blues. Great blues musicians came from other cities, but they almost all had close ties to Mississippi. From B.B., to Muddy Waters, to me, we all share that story. So it’s time for us to bring people back home, and this festival does that,” he says.
Yolanda Clay Moore, public relations manager for the Rhythm and Blues Festival, echoes Rush’s comments. “One of the reason’s we started this festival was we didn’t feel like we adequately celebrated the impact that Mississippi, and specifically Jackson, had on this country’s music industry,” she says. “A lot of people don’t think of Jackson when they think of the blues. They think of Memphis or the Delta, but many musicians in those areas got their start in Jackson. We have more Mississippi Blues Trail markers in the city than any other place in the state.”
Prior to desegregation, visiting musicians came to Farish Street, the bustling downtown Jackson area home to black-owned hotels and clubs, as well as many other nearby clubs and juke joints like the Queen of Hearts, to play for crowds not present in their own rural communities. The city also boasts its own record label – Malaco – which began recording blues music in the late 1960s and continues to produce blues musicians as well as R&B and gospel artists today.
Rush recorded with Malaco in the 1980s, part of a distinctive blues sound coming out of Jackson with funk and other genre elements that distinguished it from Delta and Hill Country sounds. This year, Rhythm and Blues Festival organizers emulate the tradition of genre-bending in the city with their lineup, expanding from a focus on predominately blues artists to include other contemporary acts.
“This year we wanted to incorporate more soul, neo-soul and hip hop,” says Clay Moore. “We wanted to make sure we emphasized all aspects of R&B and not just the blues.” The festival also spotlights the contributions of Mississippi musicians, including Jackson native Tawanna Shaunte.
“I live in Jackson and this is my second year performing, and I love telling my fans about this festival as I perform around the country,” says Shaunte. “Mississippi has been a game changer in American music; it’s a powerful force, and we need a festival here to tell that story.”
Shaunte’s music focuses on storytelling, borrowing from different forms to produce what she calls the “moving integration of sound.” Critics describe her music as neo-soul or neo-jazz, but Shaunte prefers a simpler description: “heartfelt music.” She addresses social and political causes prescient to the African American community, but like traditional blues music her themes strike a chord with people across axes of difference.
“Sometimes my songs might make people uncomfortable, but it’s coming from a place of love and caring. I think of artists like Nina Simone, writing songs for women, and songs for African Americans. At that time people were probably thinking, ‘What are you talking about?’ I write songs with that kind of edge. I want to speak about incarceration rates, and about domestic violence, because one line in a song could change someone’s life. It could inspire them to make a change. So, that’s what I mean when I say my music also comes from love, because my songs are meant to inspire.”
Shaunte acknowledges the darker side of Mississippi (and the nation’s) history in her music, but also emphasizes the depth of cultural creativity and artistry present within the state. “Look at the exceptional writers we have had in Jackson – Eudora Welty and Richard Wright – and look at our musicians. I look at the place I come from and I know it’s what allows me to perform the way I do,” she says.
Also performing at the festival is Mississippian Lady L Dixon, a Canton native and internationally known musician who recently scored a Top 10 hit on the UK Soul Chart with her track “Love’s Master Plan.” Lady L, who grew up playing piano at five churches across her home county and singing in church alongside her mother, says her gospel upbringing combined with the blues music ever-present during youth gave her the sound she has today.
“After college I ended up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and I started singing with five old timers, all men. After a while they started letting me sing the men’s songs. It’s sort of what I became known for, my voice being so powerful. They said I could sing like that because I was from the South, and that’s sort of what I always thought it was, too, just growing up in church and hearing nothing but that and the blues.”
Lady L’s greatest asset other than her vocal chops - stage presence. “I go to concerts like Stevie Wonder, Sade, Smokey Robinson, and I just watch them on stage to learn from the greats. Of course my husband (G.C. Cameron - former lead singer for the Temptations) helps me, too.”
Other performers at this year’s festival include Lalah Hathaway, Jagged Edge, Morris Day and the Time, Tamia, Goapele, Jeff Floyd, Bone Thugs N Harmony, and Demetria McKinney, among many other talented and varied acts. “In the future we want to have the door open to different possibilities, and that’s what adding different genres and moving downtown is all about,” says Clay Moore. “We have room to grow, and give more people an opportunity to experience music in Jackson.”
Want to go?
Visit jacksonrhythmandbluesfestival.com for tickets and information.
Artists and Lineup
FRIDAY – August 19th
Morris Day & The Time
BJ The Chicago Kid
DJ Scrap Dirty
Tiger Rogers & The League of Jassmen
SATURDAY – August 20th
Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds
Kindred The Family Soul
DJ Scrap Dirty
High Frequency Band
Larry Johnson & The Beasty Tunes