Jason "J." Carter
Photo by Anmarie & Forrest Smith
How ONE Musicfest Is Engaging Voters In 2020: "The Underlying Message Is To Get Folks To The Polls"
When Jason "J." Carter started managing and hosting live events around Atlanta in 2001, he quickly noticed that the music industry executives and performers that showed up were usually accompanied by local politicians. That loyal support morphed into a stable network that the promoter, venue owner and brand marketer would call on to further execute his vision.
That database came in handy for Carter’s creation, ONE Musicfest, in 2010. The Florida A&M grad came up with the idea for the Southeast’s multi-stage, progressive urban music festival after attending major music festivals like Lollapalooza and Coachella. He appreciated the crowd’s euphoria and range Black talent peppered throughout the diverse roster of performers but couldn’t find a live experience of that magnitude that exclusively targets Black music lovers and festival goers.
Surviving rotating venues and overcoming a few financial losses the first few years, ONE Musicfest’s 11-year run featured a wealth of GRAMMY winners like Common, Brandy, Kendrick Lamar, Miguel, Robert Glasper, Method Man, Lauryn Hill, H.E.R., George Clinton, 2 Chainz, T.I., Anderson .Paak, Raphael Saadiq, KP the Great, Usher, Pharrell, Lil’ Jon, The Roots, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, OutKast, Cee Lo Green and Damian Marley on its stages.
Now, Carter, 47, is leveraging ONE Musicfest as a vehicle for social awareness and community engagement. In 2017, the New York-born, Stone Mountain, Ga.-raised strategist and social butterfly organized the city of Atlanta’s largest mayoral forum. When the coronavirus pandemic put a pause on concerts and live productions, Carter produced ONE Musicfest as a series of virtual activities.
Carter started polling his audience to select films for virtual screenings. The entrepreneur also organized panel discussions around financial literacy and economic empowerment.
ONE Musicfest, or what Carter refers to as "an urban Woodstock" or "homecoming," is partnering with Michelle Obama’s When We All Vote, Stacey Abrams’s Fair Fight, and the fundraising startup app HBCU Change on November 1 for Pre-Party to the Polls, a voter engagement rally that will simulcast across ONE Musicfest, The Roots, Live Nation Urban and Revolt TV’s YouTube channels. The program will also include archive performances, interviews and never-before-seen footage that chronicles ONE Musicfest's full span.
"We try to come up with creative ways to engage our audience, keep them motivated, connected, and entertain as well," Carter said. "The underlying message is to get folks to the polls."
Carter hopped on the phone to chat with GRAMMY.com about his history with live music, the hard lessons he’s learned from event management, his ONE Musicfest wishlist and how his creation is weathering the new normal.
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ONE Musicfest is set to take flight Sunday, November 1st at 5pm on YouTube This is the Pre-Party to the Polls Call up your social distancing squad. Stock up the bar. Get your smart TV, laptop, iPad or phones ready. We are about to party fam!! So many incredible ONE Musicfest performances to share and so much music to enjoy; all while dozens of special guests join us with their words, stories and advice. . Spread the word and make sure your music loving, election voting squad is ready for the ONE Musicfest Pre-Party to the Polls. This jawn is about to go . Subscribe to ONE Musicfest’s YouTube channel TODAY! Hit the link in bio! ⠀ . . . . . ⠀ #whenweallvote #theroots #virtual #vote #fairfight #revolt #resist #houseparty #thepreparty #thewarmup #badhairhulu #hulu #onemusicfest #omf2020 #herradura #herraduratequila
Do you remember the first ever live show you produced?
I did stuff in college at FAMU, but that wasn’t real. The first one that was sold out was back in 2001 with Res at Opera. It was amazing because she had a niche audience, and Opera, at that time, held close to 2,000 people. I hosted the event under the guise of Sol Fusion, which was a party with live entertainment. That bad boy was sold out: packed to the brim. But we were a small team dealing with the production, stage crew, talent, the backline, the audience, ticketing and the venue. Live events require a real playbook and a team that can manage all of the different components; I did everything from pick up artists at the airport to making sure the backline was in place, contracts were cool and clear with venues, and the right hand towels were in the artist’s green room.
How did you and the ONE Musicfest team adapt to the pandemic?
One of the first things I told my team, friends and colleagues is the only people that are going to survive through this are creatives: the ones that know and understand how to pivot, utilize their platforms, skills, resources, and the people around them. Most of what I do is brand marketing anyway, so I work closely with brands that still need to reach folks and keep them engaged. They don’t want to just disappear with folks not being out or live events not happening. We created different virtual events and digital activations for our clients, and that’s going well. We also have a diehard festival audience, so considering the tone of what’s going on in society regarding politics, race and culture, we knew we had to do something.
We asked Michelle Obama’s and Stacey Abrams’s teams what they were doing, what they would like to do, and started growing from there. I made some calls to some artists; celebrity acquaintances; and friends, and everybody was on board: either to do a PSA, host a forum, or shed some light on their thoughts about the current state of affairs. Brands wanted to get involved as well surprisingly, so that’s where we are.
What are some of the virtual programs that you’ve curated so far?
We realized we had a huge creative base. Once we heard about PPP loans and grants, we created a program on Tuesdays and Thursdays for a couple of months with Atlanta City Council and special guests from banking, government and finance that had access to funds and information. We would get these folks to open up the playbook and direct people to get through this pandemic. It was very helpful to a lot of people.
To give people some kind of connection with folks, we also hosted Netflix parties for a few months with several hundred people every Tuesday or Wednesday. Everyone voted on the movie they wanted to watch, brought their drinks and snacks, chilled, and had chats going on with people. That was fun. We started At the Crib Fest; we did that two times sponsored by Toyota and had Ari Lennox, Ro James, and Lion Babe all perform. The first was on IG Live; the other was on YouTube. We have some other ideas and things planned for the top of next year and this year. Going forward, live music and events will have a virtual component, so we’re steadily building out our digital landscape as we speak.
What’s your connection to politics?
It’s hard to move without dealing with politics period: mostly when we’ve had to apply and get permits or licenses. When we did ONE Musicfest at Fourth Ward Park, we had to deal directly with the city. The crazy thing is when I was doing these events in the early 2000s, a lot of people that became politicians were at my events. That’s how I met Kwanza Hall. Just so happens that Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms went to FAMU, and we have a lot of the same friends. Music executives would often show up, and sometimes they would come with politicians in tow. My rolodex and address book kept growing; I didn’t purposefully get into politics, but there’s so much to learn about local politics. When I was younger, I voted for the big election and didn’t pay attention to local elections until I started networking and having conversations with these local politicians. I realized how important it is to be involved.
In 2017, ONE Musicfest held the city of Atlanta’s largest mayoral forum when Keisha Lance Bottoms was running against Caesar Mitchell, Mary Norwood, John Eaves and Kwanza Hall. Everybody all showed up, and it was standing room only. I realized that our audience and base is ‘bout that life. For us to have a forum bigger than Atlanta Journal-Constitution or V-103 with 700-some odd music lovers in a room to hear what politicians have to say and to voice their concerns and opinions was powerful.
Why was it important for ONE Musicfest to partner this year with the new HBCU fundraising app, HBCU Change?
It’s so necessary. I started having conversations with different presidents at various HBCUs, and I had no idea that they were in dire straits the way they are. Some of them are just hanging on, and some of them are getting more money than others. A couple of million dollar gifts won’t keep any college afloat. Then, people are doing these pyramid schemes, so we wanted to pool our money for higher education targeting young Black minds. If we allow our colleges to go bankrupt or lose their accreditation, then that would be detrimental to the African-American community. We want to make sure that people leave from watching the program on November 1 with information on how powerful this app is.
How diverse is the community of live music festival organizers?
There was nobody in the festival production space that looked like me. When I had the initial idea for ONE Musicfest in 2008, I was searching for mentors, and I just really couldn’t find anybody that was down to do multi-staged. over-the-head, multi-genre, multicultural, multi-generational festival. The people I went to that did have a playbook didn’t think it would work; they also weren’t Black. They just didn’t think Black people would cater or pay for that kind of experience. I beg to differ. The quest initially was tough. I was just thrown into the fire, and I had to learn by experience. I 1,000% see what I have done and how it inspires other people, so when I see these other, younger Black festival producers, I know they saw what I was doing in Atlanta. They took a piece of that, was inspired, and did their own thing. We’ve mentored some of these folks organizing festivals, or they’ve interned with us. That’s a good feeling as well to see the risks that I took actually planted seeds, which then turned into a small harvest. I don’t know what’s going to happen to a lot of these folks based on this pandemic. It’s a lot of unknowns for how 2020 and 2021 will look, but I do love to see festivals grind, develop and grow.
When did ONE Musicfest experience its official breakthrough moment?
It was partnering with Live Nation in 2014. Live Nation opened my eyes to a lot of the business of it. That was a worthy partner based off of the access I had to information, and that was slightly by design. My business partner when I owned Sugar Hill in Underground Atlanta, Freddy Luster, knew some of the guys over at Live Nation, and he made the connection. Once I met with them, I came to find out they were watching me for the last two or three years. Sometimes you have to step into these rooms like you know exactly what’s going on, but be humble enough to sit and learn.
How does it feel having a multitude of GRAMMY alumni bless the ONE Musicfest stage year after year?
It’s an absolute honor. I’m a fan first of music and artists. The biggest challenge is always deciding who to get the following year. They don’t build legends the way they used to, but there’s amazing upcoming talent that I admire. Chika is gonna be on the program, and we’re excited to have her and what her future looks like.
Who would you like to see perform at ONE Musicfest?
Lenny Kravitz, J. Cole, Mary J. Blige, and one of my favorite singers of all time, Sade, but that’s a wish in the wind. Cardi B would be dope. Before Bruno Mars blew up, I was in pursuit to get him; that was the year he opened for Janelle Monae, and he was bubbling. I tried to convince his manager; they wouldn’t do it.
What do you miss most about live experiences?
Honestly, I’m not mad at us taking a break this year. The whole entire industry needed a reset, take a step back, and look at the entire playing field. Prices started to get a little crazy, and things started to get sloppy and convoluted out here. Sometimes, you have to destroy to build, and certain things in the industry need calibration.
What do you hope will emerge out of this reset?
I hope it strengthens ties and relationships between all of those that play an active role in music and live productions. I’m involved in several conversations, but I hope those are being had when I’m not there. The intersection between culture and technology is about to explode, so artists are going to have to pivot and embrace it to figure out how to continue to reach and expand their fanbase. It may be awhile before anyone can stage dive again. All of this should spark dialogue between artists, managers, and agents. Let’s see where this creativity and pandemic leads us, but it will be different for a long time.