The year 2018 was one of the best in recent memory for Charleston hip-hop. From the storytelling tunes, like Jah Jr.’s Back 2 Da Dub, to Benny Starr’s monumental live recording of A Water Album, Lowcountry hip-hop forced the community to pay attention to unprecedented local creativity.
“People are coming here to see the youth African-American culture, from a musical and artist’s standpoint in Charleston, South Carolina,” rapper Matt Monday states. “We’ve never been at this height of quality, either. We’ve never had this many quality artists in this city at the same time.”
Never one to stay content, Monday took the energy of the scene and ran with it, surprising the city with a festival dedicated to rap and R&B called Cultura.
There are only three words that the rapper wants associated with Cultura: young, black, and culture. “I want this to be based in the culture of the youth, the culture of Charleston that’s not being displayed on the front page or in the airport when you walk through,” he says about the event.
Held in the Royal American’s parking lot on Sat. April 20, Cultura will give the region a glimpse into young black culture, bringing an impressive lineup of artists to celebrate.
Unbeknownst to himself, Monday studied for Cultura by frequenting large music gatherings over the years. Attending South by Southwest, Austin City Limits, Bonnaroo, Electric Forest, Art Basel, and Governors Ball prepared the rapper for the opportunity to craft a festival of his own, and his time studying stagecraft at Charleston County School of the Arts didn’t hurt either.
“Just seeing how they put it together is very similar to things we do in theater,” Monday says. “I would see the production of it and I was like, ‘I can do this, I know that, I know stage management, lighting, sound.’ The key thing is just the lineup.”
Pulling ideas from all over, including stoner festivals and indie music gatherings, Cultura will feature food trucks, vendors, live music on an outdoor stage, DJs on a second stage inside the Royal American, and a projector playing a loop of cult-classic musical The Wiz above the venue. “I want the event to be a full-on experience,” Monday says.
In the rapper’s view, there is no Charleston festival that caters to young black men and women. Of course, MOJA Arts Festival continues its mission of representing African-American and Caribbean arts, but Cultura has Millennials and Generation Z in mind. “There’s nothing that’s celebrating the youth culture,” Monday observes. “There is no place for the youth to go and have an experience like this.”
Keeping things affordable is a top priority for festival organizers, in the interest of inclusivity. “I think a lot of these kids don’t experience music festivals,” says Monday. “Everyone should, because it’s like a cultural and very dope social gathering. They bring so many people together that may never be in the same setting and they can start bouncing off and learning from each other.”
Even with a detailed vision and a tenacious passion, a festival doesn’t materialize overnight. IllVibeTheTribe, publicist Tawana Tolbert, the Royal American owner John Kenney, and Murias Entertainment founder (and Charleston Music Hall director) Charles Carmody were all integral to the process of sewing Cultura’s fabric together.
Tolbert acted as an administrator for the festival and was a main point of communication for all parties involved. She sees Cultura as a prime example of the collaborative spirit in the music community.
“I’m not going to say that there has been a lack of hip-hop events because that’s not true anymore,” Tolbert says. “I think a lot of creators are working collectively to put hip-hop on the forefront, but also it gives a touch of R&B. We get the chance to hear some indie rhythm and blues singers, so that’s good. It just shows that we can all work together and be one big collective of Charleston creatives.”
Kenney was aware of Cultura before it had a name. In its early stages, the venue owner was quick to offer up the Royal American for the festival. “Our parking lot has become fairly popular to do these kind of [things],” he observes. “We of course did Summer Shindig, a Shovels & Rope show, and a SUSTO show.”
The Royal American regularly features hip-hop and R&B on its stage, and Kenney believes that the venue’s patrons have been able to experience music they may not have known about otherwise. He hopes Cultura can push inclusivity further. “If it goes well, which I do think it will, I think that this is something that we could do every year,” he says. “I think this is something that could become extremely important for the community — not just the hip-hop community, but the community as a whole.”
“I’m grateful and super excited about working with them,” says Monday. “We’ve kind of been learning each other and figuring each other out, and that itself has been really dope. We’ve been having really good conversations and straightforward, honest conversations that kind of led us to this point. And we all want what’s best for the event.”
Pass the Mic
With the groundswell of unique rap and R&B artists in Charleston, a local festival dedicated to the genres always had big potential and a lot to live up to — and, damn, did they hit the mark on the lineup. Monday, Anfernee, Benny Starr, Jah Jr., Shaniqua McCants, Abstract That Rapper, Slim Soul, Niecy Blues, Nory, Contour, and DJ Scrib are all on the bill. What more could a hip-hop and R&B fan want?
In a break from festival norms, Monday states that there are no headliners for Cultura, to give equal attention to every performer. “Everyone’s the same. We’re just in order on the flyer. That’s it. It’s the kind of show that there’s a level playing field, as far as performance value,” Monday adds.
If reading the lineup sparked anticipation, know that the feeling’s mutual for the artists.
One of the area’s latest and greatest soul singers, Shaniqua McCants, says that she felt a new sense of recognition when Monday asked her to perform. “It felt really good being that Matt is a rap artist and that genre in Charleston is predominantly guys,” she says. “It’s not too many females, so it just felt kind of like acceptance, like I’m their little sister.”
Trap tune generator Jah Jr. says that he, too, feels honored to be a performer at the event. “To be considered a part of this culture, being that I’m from Dublin, Georgia, moving here from Savannah, Georgia, just trying to find traction and trying to find a circle of genuine people — and I found that amongst these guys,” he says. “I’m just thankful to be a part of it.”
Jah adds that he’s excited to perform alongside his friends because everyone in the festival, always push him to the next level. “All of these people make me a better artist,” he says. “I improved tremendously upon moving to Charleston and meeting these people.”
Starr says that he’s proud to be a part of Cultura because of the leadership behind the stage, in addition to the music in front of the curtain.
“I want to make sure that when I see young, black faces out in front and performing or entertaining or creating or expressing, I also see that being paired with the respect of their ability to lead behind the scenes, their ability to curate behind the scenes,” Starr explains. “I’m seeing people who are not only simply comfortable being out front and being entertainers and artists, but I’m also seeing them flexing their ability to organize, their ability to actually be leaders behind the scenes.”
Starr will reunite with the FOUR20s, who performed with the artist on the recording of his live LP, A Water Album, and a few other musicians for his set. “I don’t even like to say stuff like this, but it’s going to be some legendary stuff,” he says. “It’s going to be a band experience. It’s going to be hip-hop as hell.”
The racial makeup of the lineup is an important factor to what makes Cultura important, but Monday is quick to clarify that the event is promoting these musicians and their culture more than any one ethnicity. “If their music is racially charged, then so be it,” Monday offers. “That’s what they’re presenting, but I don’t want it to come in and be like this super deluxe blackness. And although I love that shit, I feel like we’ll hone in on that and sometimes not even hear the music.”
When put in a historical context, Cultura looks like a momentous episode in Lowcountry rap’s story. Just three years prior, it was a rarity to see a rap or R&B artist in downtown Charleston. Complaints from songwriters in the two genres fell on deaf ears, until a 2016 panel called Southern Discomfort gave black artists the opportunity to voice their venue access problems to the community.
“Most of the issues that are affecting us in the art community include the lack of ability to be included in spaces and events so that we can be seen by everybody,” Monday said at the 2016 discussion. “I feel like art inspires art and art influences art, no matter who created the art. And I think cutting off people because of race or any other differences kind of takes us backwards.”
While Southern Discomfort’s impetus is debatable, its long-term returns have been noticeable. A presence in rap shows did increase on the peninsula between 2017 and 2018. Separate, but occurring concurrently, curated R&B and hip-hop events like IllVibeTheTribe’s Art Binge and Langston Hughes III’s Merlot Moments began to spring up more often, and Starr recorded A Water Album (out this summer on Juneteenth) to a packed house at the Charleston Music Hall.
Cultura is the logical continuation of the representation African-American artists had to fight for. And, according to Monday, the festival is a statement that the local hip-hop community is independent and knows it, and is ready to show it. “We can’t combat differences by having ‘Southern Discomfort’ every three years,” Monday says. “This is it. If you accept it and you’re with it: cool. If you’re not, there’s still going to be kids that are going to come because they know.”
Starr believes that Cultura is set apart by the transparent attempt to depict young African-American artists. “So much of black culture is down to very specific things,” he says. “It’s the artists, it’s what’s expressed in their music, it’s their experience that they’re bringing to the music, and then it’s aesthetics. It’s what you see, it’s how it’s phrased, it’s how it’s worded, it’s what we wear, it’s how we move, it’s all of that stuff, and I see it all the time in Charleston. But, it’s rare that that is allowed to happen from a festival standpoint, like a large gathering of something that is specifically black culture.”
While Monday is somewhat reluctant to show enthusiasm for where the scene is now, explaining that representation should have been at this point 10 years ago, he does see Cultura as a new opportunity for the younger talent appearing all the time.
“I think this can open up for smaller things potentially happening for the same artists, and I think that there aren’t enough platforms being provided where we can put on a full show,” says Monday. “I think we can keep pushing the boundaries of how we present it, whether it be a live recording, a music festival. I hope it sparks bigger things to come.”
A New Day
From its inception, Cultura required ambition. And the aspirations that willed the festival into existence will hopefully carry on into the future for the event.
“This is the first, but it’s definitely not the last,” says Tolbert. “I think we’ve created a movement. People want to be a part of it, and Cultura will be something really big going forward.”
“Ultimately, I expect lots of people from lots of different races, ethnicities, cultures — I expect them to not only be there and enjoy themselves, I think this is going to be one of those events that goes on and continues to go on,” Starr says.
And, while Monday says that he has a list of ideas for the future, he references the size of Cultura with the most excitement.
“I know we’re going to outgrow Royal’s lot at some point,” Monday predicts. “I’m already projecting two or three years out. High Water does 10,000 people. There’s no reason Cultura couldn’t do that.”
The amount of people the new festival can pull is only the beginning for the larger desires Monday has. “I think if I can get it big enough, enough people will come from other places. That’s where I really want to go,” he says. “Think about how many people are going to Coachella that are not from California. It’s international. People from all over the world are coming and experiencing it, going back to wherever they’re from and telling people about their experience. If we could do that here, you’re going to see a bloom of artists go out of here.”
The future’s never predictable. Will Cultura turn into a national platform? Or is it only the latest checkpoint in a local legend’s rap career? And, most importantly, why does it matter?
Whether Cultura burns brightly for one year or 50, sells a thousand tickets or a million, it will always remain a monumental leap for local music of all genres. If one group of individuals is able to push their music from obscurity to creating a festival to celebrate their work in only a few years, it begs one last question. What will artists in this city do next?