The Fort Worth African American Roots Music Festival is back for its second year — and this time ticket holders can experience live music in person.
COVID-19 forced last year’s event online, but this year’s attendees can expect a day of musical performances, live podcast recordings and some dancing at the Southside Preservation Hall.
Brandi Waller-Pace is the founder and executive director of Decolonizing the Music Room, the nonprofit hosting the festival. Waller-Pace spent 10 years in Fort Worth ISD classrooms as an elementary music teacher. But even as a music educator and someone who graduated from Howard University, a historically Black institution, she felt that discussions of Black artists who shaped American music were incomplete.
“This is a gap, and it’s a gap in so many places when taught music history, even Black-specific music history,” Waller-Pace explained. “So just knowing how huge a part we played in these musical forms was really, really big to me.”
Learning about the Black heritage of the banjo was a revelation for Waller-Pace who is also a musician and plays the instrument in the clawhammer style.
“For me, it was such an empowering and affirming thing to learn this part of my history, this thing that’s considered so quintessentially American, but I was placed outside of — even though that’s not the real history,” Waller-Pace said. “I’m really hoping that is something that other Black folks will experience, too, when they come.”
Jake Blount, another musician who will be featured at the festival, also remembers learning about the banjo’s origins, which inspired him to pick up the instrument himself. Since then he has put out an album and curated resources for others who want to learn more about Black string band music.
“I’m a Black person who’s one generation removed from the Southern, rural roots of my family. My father was born on the family farm that’s like one mile down the road from the plantation where our ancestors were kept for as far back as our history goes, right?” Blount said.
He grew up in Washington, D.C., and even though he visited the South frequently, he didn’t feel as if he fit in. But music helped bridge that gap.
“A big part of what made it important was connecting with that part of my heritage and feeling like I could be grounded in the Black side of my family being rural — even though, so often, the mainstream portrayals of Black people are pretty much exclusively in urban environments. I was able to feel like we had something that I could grab onto and something that I could participate in, and that was new for me.”
Brad Leali, professor of jazz saxophone at the University of North Texas College of Music, isn’t involved in organizing this event, but does organize a “Gospel Meets Jazz” concert annually.
Leali learned about music in church and with family, but said that he didn’t have access to events like this when he was growing up.
“It would have meant everything to me,” Leali said. “I think any culture, if you look back in your culture, right, and you see things that your ancestors have done and where you come from, that makes you proud. So I think this is no different.”
Blount also noted the importance of having a space for Black artists to connect.
“Events like this are pretty critical to getting good representation for Black artists in the roots music sphere,” Blount said. “There’s a lot of work to be done in terms of creating our own spaces where we can be on our own turf, as it were, playing this music instead of feeling like maybe we’re interlopers or, you know, it’s contingent on somebody else welcoming us in. I think it’s a really important thing that Brandi is doing.”
While Waller-Pace does want this event to be “a beacon” that beckons Black, roots musicians to Fort Worth, she also thinks that this event is something that everyone, regardless of their background, can benefit from.
“I do want to make it clear that sometimes when we talk about focusing on Blackness, it is assumed that that means exclude everybody else, which isn’t the same thing,” Waller-Pace said. “Everyone can learn about Blackness in the way that all Black people have to learn about whiteness as a matter of necessity in the society.”
After all, she adds, “Black music is American music.”
Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.