This past Tuesday, as the sun set over Military Park, a diverse tableau of families, groups of friends large and small, area professionals, and music lovers massed on the park’s north lawn to take in the final installment of the Guard d’Avant music festival.
Beneath a banner emblazoned with the series’ mission, to “protect and serve the stellar and progressive” cultures in Newark, a succession of eclectic artists took the stage, including Seattle-based alternative hip-hop group Shabazz Palaces; experimental Atlanta-based rapper Rome Fortune; and R&B singer/songwriter and Newark native Peter Winstead, Jr.
Every Tuesday for the past five weeks, Winstead, Jr., who in addition to being a featured act also created and produced the festival under the banner of his branding and marketing company, The Honors Program, treated festival goers to an eclectic lineup of performers from the area and beyond. They included MoRuf, Dam Funk, Oshun, Rush Midnight, and an assortment of other acclaimed musicians and DJs.
This Tuesday concluded the second year of the festival’s summertime run. The community’s overwhelming response to the festival is a sure sign that Winstead, Jr. is among the entrepreneurs and creatives who are successfully tapping an existing market for well-produced lifestyle events right here in town.
“Peter’s vision to get people to enjoy not only this park, but also to introduce them to a new level of conscious music, is critically important, because Newark has a diverse amount of talent, and creating this sort of space is necessary for the growth of our city,” said Alturrick Kenney, who in addition to being a festival mainstay, is also manager of port operations for Newark Works. Kenney’s wife and one-year-old daughter also attended several festival dates.
Festival goers said there were several layers to the series’ appeal. Some were fans of the featured musicians and genres; others were taken in by its eclectic vibe; and still more reveled at the opportunity to enjoy and participate in Newark’s burgeoning contemporary arts scene. Parents and their children made the festival a family affair; and artists and entrepreneurs from the area turned out in significant numbers, gathering to exchange ideas and enjoy each other’s company.
“A couple years ago, events like this weren’t happening [in Newark]. We would go to New York, Jersey City, Montclair and places like that. So this is good. It’s great to have something for Newark,” said real estate agent Melvin Sykes, who has represented numerous commercial tenants downtown. Sykes brought a picnic basket full of fried fish, wheat bread, and assorted shaken-on-the-spot mixed cocktails for friends and nearby audience members to enjoy.
A glance around the park made it clear that many other attendees were letting their hair down and making the event their own. “A lot of Newark residents have never been to NJPAC, they’ve never been to Prudential, but here, it’s completely free and it brings a different atmosphere,” said Amani Abdul-Majeed, a production assistant at Newark’s All Stars Project. “It offers residents and outsiders [alike] a genuine taste of Newark,” she continued.
Military Park Partnership vice president Ben Donsky concurred. “Guard D’ Avant has built its success from last year and draws more people each week. This program is our most successful at bringing in a mix of Newark residents, downtown workers, and visitors from elsewhere in New Jersey and New York,” he said. “It brings hundreds of people each week to the park, and it’s the park’s most popular summer program.”
Although the event drew an estimated 350 attendees on its final date, success for Winstead, Jr. wasn’t just about attracting a crowd. He also set out to achieve something more elusive: creating an authentic cultural space.
“Guard D’ Avant is another place where progressives can come and just have a home and be safe. We [already] have Afropunk, which is doing amazing work, so we just want to have some other avenue and platform for like-minded people to come and express themselves and have a good time,” he said.
By finding ways to create sustainable spaces for contemporary art and music to flourish in the city, Winstead, Jr. is hoping to change what he sees as an outdated narrative of Newark into a more nuanced one that depicts it as a home for creative and commercial growth.
“It’s so important for us to have a space where we can do things like this, and where we can just create. It makes the city more desirable, as well. Newark is a beautiful place as-is, but we’re trying to fight the [negative] narrative that’s out there.” For Winstead, Jr., that change isn’t merely about marketing, but also entails creating the space and context for the culture to blossom organically.
Judging by the smiling faces dotting Military Park at Guard d’Avant’s curtain call, it seems Winstead, Jr. is onto something.
Featured image: Abstract