After months of closed music venues, cancelled concerts, and postponed tours as the coronavirus swept across the United States this spring, the sound of music once again returned to the streets of Station North in June, thanks to the musical mastermind of artist Josh Stokes.
With The Crown, Metro Gallery, and Ottobar still dark, the drummer-dynamo set up mics, amps, and turntables on the outdoor stage of the Ynot Lot on North Avenue, hoping that his Nu Love Fest would bring art back to local audiences and offer a respite for the current times of COVID-19.
“By the time June rolled around, I was feeling frustrated about not being able to have creative outlets, and at the same time, frustrated and angry because of what was happening around us with George Floyd,” says Stokes. “I had to pull myself back and know that music is my power, and I can empower other people that way. I wanted to break the whole spell we were in and bring that positive energy back to the people.”
Featuring live performances by local rappers and R&B singers from a safe social distance outside in the open air, the grassroots festival was a hit, running for nearly eight hours, with fans, fellow creatives, and passersby joining the spaced-out crowd throughout the afternoon and evening. That inaugural gathering inspired Stokesto launch a bigger, better Nu Love Fest 2 this Friday, August 21.
Starting at 4:30 p.m., and streaming on Instagram Live, the Ynot Lot will feature an extended lineup this time around, starting with a Bmore Club dance-off, followed by an artist talk hosted by award-winning photographer Devin Allen featuring musicians, DJs, and photographers including Abdu Ali, Eze Jackson, Bobbi Rush, and Shae McCoy at 5:30 p.m.
Performances begin at 8 p.m., with rising rappers Zadia and Miss Kam, beloved hip hop artists Al Rogers Jr. and Butch Dawson, R&B-soul singer-songwriter Kasaun, and jazz trumpeter Brandon Woody, as well as sets by DJs Blaqstarr, Que Pequeno, and Murzo. Attendees are encouraged to bring face masks and follow social distancing guidelines. Hand sanitizer will also be available.
“It’ll be like our own BET Awards,” says Stokes of the lineup, which will also include a tribute to local rapper Dee Dave, who was killed in January, with a poetry reading by acclaimed spoken word artist Kondwani Fidel. “We’re gathering premier artists from around the city and putting more positive energy into the atmosphere, even if just for a few hours.”
Nu Love Fest 2 comes at a time when the music industry is struggling to envision its future, and the livelihoods of working artists of every stripe have all but evaporated. Some musicians have performed outdoor pop-up concerts throughout the city, such as through the Creative Alliance’s Sidewalk Serenades series, with proceeds benefitting both artist and venue. More have pivoted into the virtual realm, performing livestream concerts across social media for digital tips, while venues have also begun to invest in livestreaming video technology, such as the Meyerhoff for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s upcoming digital concert series. Both hallowed halls and small clubs remain in limbo, with reopenings likely entailing limited capacities until a vaccine is developed. Even outdoor events such as Nu Love are currently limited under Mayor Jack Young’s most recent executive order to 25 people or less.
“The least they can give us are these outside spaces and street corners—if you keep taking these things away, we won’t have anything left,” says Stokes. “The venues meant so much—they were a place for you to develop as an artist, for you to develop relationships with the other artists, to really become a part of a community. It’s scary to see that human element being lost. But music gives us hope. It’s for the people.