Saturday marked the first time the DC Funk Parade was entirely in person in the U Street hallway since 2019, with a few hundred attendees and artists like Night Train scattered across four venues featuring live music from artists of the region. For these musicians, some of whom were performing at the parade for the first time, it was a stage on which to celebrate the uniqueness of DC’s music scene.
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The theme for this year’s event was “The Magic of Music”, and it’s magic that Eric Liley believes in. Liley, executive director and CEO of the non-profit organization The MusicianShip, which organized the festival, wants young people to see it as an opportunity to grow and an alternative to violence, at a time when fears are rising in the world. District.
“We encourage young musicians to keep playing and keep the instruments in their hands,” Liley said. “We say lay down weapons of destruction like guns and pick up instruments of love, because music is what unites us all.”
Willie Mae was among the first Saturdays to arrive on the main stage, near the African-American Civil War Memorial. Mae, 73, said she’s been to the Funk Parade a number of times in the past – and met Brown a number of times when he performed in town.
“I’m happy to see him back. It gives a lot of artists a chance to shine, especially if you’ve never heard them before,” she said.
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Mae also liked, she said, how the festival supported DC’s youth programs. This year he raised money for The MusicianShip, a nonprofit and youth development organization that offers music education programs.
“Music brings everyone together,” Liley said. In DC, “there’s so much rich history, and I think we have a huge opportunity to help create a creative ecosystem in the city where artists want to stay.”
The parade was visibly missing its parade; next year, organizers are changing its name to DC Funk Festival.
Tyree Paul, one of the rappers performing on Saturday, said the festival represents unity in the city. Paul, who is from Prince George’s, was among those appearing for the first time.
“As a kid, I always loved rap and did a lot of poetry growing up,” said Paul, 26. “I think the funk aspect gives you a good feeling, and I just get a good vibe from the funk festival.”
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The city’s go-go and funk, he said, helps give the district its distinct character musical identity.
“Funk and go-go is very DC to me, and I feel like no one else is on that level. It’s the essence of DC,” Paul said.
Chuck Stuart, lead guitarist for local rock band Uncle Mary, said local musicians in the district have a beat that can’t be replicated, one he calls “a heartbeat of the city.” Stuart, who was also playing Funk Parade for the first time, performed at other local festivals, such as the Cherry Blossom Festival and the H Street Festival.
Stuart said he has been playing guitar for 15 years. He said hours of Guitar Hero inspired him to learn to play. He said he spent hours playing a shoddy Best Buy guitar, but it honed his skills after hours of practice.
“I played on it and bled on it, but I made sure I could play it so that when I got real guitars I had already practiced,” said Stuart, 27.
Liley said organizers faced the ongoing pandemic challenge of whether people would feel comfortable enough to be back outside and in large gatherings during the pandemic. “There’s a feeling for a lot of people to be back in a public environment, but there’s still a large number of people at risk of catching covid,” he said.
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But Liley said he hoped attendees on Saturday would have seen that the spirit of U Street was alive and well – and that the festival would continue to honor what makes the neighborhood special.
“We won’t forget U Street Corridor or the people in it,” he said. “For those visiting or music aficionados or even people unfamiliar with Black Broadway, the intention is to celebrate community and the performing arts.”
This kind of celebration, Liley and the artists agreed, is better in person.
“The live stuff was cool, but there’s nothing like a live feeling with people being able to cheer you on,” Stuart said. “That’s what I thrive on as a live guitarist: being able to nurture myself from people and give back to the community.”