Annual music festival aims to shine positive light on Oakland

Festivalgoers dance in Frank Ogawa Plaza during Art & Soul 2009. Photo by Z'ma Wyatt/shadesMagazine.

By Tuseda A. Graggs, shades Magazine

As the Art & Soul Festival celebrates its 10th year, it is also celebrating its expansion in becoming one of the summer’s premier concerts. It now spans two days and brings thousands from across the country into Oakland’s Civic Center. But this wasn’t always the case.

Oakland’s huge annual celebration of music and arts actually began in the living room of the city of Oakland’s Cultural Arts and Marketing Division Manager Samee Roberts as just a desire to showcase Oakland talent and provide a positive face to a much-maligned city.

“This was just a vision. I thought up this festival in my living room,” Roberts said. “I talked to a friend who worked for (now defunct)

Art & Soul 2010 performer Sheila E.

Albertsons and they were our first sponsor. That was for one stage on one day.”

In 2000, organizers started the festival with just one $15,000 sponsor. It was a single day event with one stage in front of City Hall. Within a few short years, the festival grew to 50,000 attendees, 60 bands on multiple stages and more than 200 artisans and vendors.

The 2010 Art & Soul Festival will produce about $650,000 and has become a self-supporting entity – not using any city funding. Over the past 10 years, Roberts estimates that about a half-million total attendees have come through the festival gates.

Those thousands of people can generate substantial foot traffic on weekends – a time when the city’s downtown is not always bustling. Merchants around the event also can reap the benefits of the festival at a time when some are suffering as a result of the spate of violence following protests in July after former BART police officer Johannes Mehserle was convicted on manslaughter charges for shooting an unarmed Oscar Grant on a train platform in Oakland Jan. 1, 2009.

During the protest a number of stores were vandalized and looted. But Roberts’ wants people to see past those incidents. Her goal with the festival and other marketing events is to “to polish up the city and present its investors” as a counter to the negative publicity the city receives.

“Oakland has the opportunity to rally the entire Bay Area around the creative juices in the area,” Roberts said. “Food and music are universal and we’ll have lots of both.”

Not only did Roberts become founder of the festival she cemented her role as manager of Oakland’s Cultural Arts and Marketing Division, which was non-existent before she began. She started working with the city in 1986 as a special events coordinator for the city’s Parks and Recreation department.

And through her rise and work with the festival, one of Roberts’ goals has been firm: to produce a festival that is financially sound.

“The beauty of this is that it stands on its own … it’s self-sufficient,” Roberts said. “We want the event to be gravy, not a drain on the city.”

Dancers entertain the crowds during Art & Soul 2009. Photo by Z'ma Wyatt/shades Magazine.

The 10th anniversary takes place on Aug. 21 and 22 at Frank Ogawa Plaza and the streets surrounding Oakland’s City Center. The festival – which runs from noon to 6 p.m. both days – encompasses 10 city blocks. Tickets and additional information are available at

The above article is part of a three part series that highlights the 2010 Art & Soul Oakland Festival. Read Part I here. shades Magazine is a proud media sponsor for this year’s event.

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