In the ten years that Samee Roberts has been making Oakland’s annual Art & Soul Festival happen, she’s seen nearly everything about Oakland’s downtown arts scene change. In 2000, she said, the area surrounding the city center was a ghost-town on weekends, and common wisdom dictated that if you wanted to see art or hear music, you were better off heading to San Francisco. What’s more, after Festival at the Lake died in 1997, the city was left with a void in its cultural life: While a number of smaller ethnic and neighborhood-centric events remained, there was no large-scale signature event to celebrate Oakland.
At the same time, the city was embarking on an ambitious plan to revitalize downtown, led by then-mayor Jerry Brown’s “10K Plan,” which aimed to draw 10,000 new residents to the area. It made sense: Downtown, empty on weekends, was ripe for a festival, and the city was eager to promote Oakland as a destination for arts — in part by founding the music and arts festival they christened Art & Soul. “This was an opportunity to showcase not only Oakland as a city, but what Oakland can do,” Roberts said.
It worked. Ten years later, parts of downtown have seen an explosion of restaurants, nightlife, and galleries. Oakland has become a bona fide cultural destination, Roberts said, drawing both locals and the bridge and tunnel crowd. “It’s a very exciting time for Oakland,” Roberts said. “We’ve changed the whole look and feel of downtown, and I really do believe that Art & Soul played a part in that.” Over the course of ten years, the festival has drawn more than half a million people to downtown on a weekend — a feat, Roberts said, that was almost unheard of when she launched the festival. “It’s been a very effective revitalization tool and economic development tool for us.”
But aside from being any local-government wonk’s dream, Art & Soul is, above all, a fantastic music and arts festival. What started as a celebration in and for Oakland has become, especially this year, a celebration of Oakland — particularly in regards to its musical pedigree. “I really envisioned it as an all-Oakland showcase, something that could really put a spotlight on the artistry that comes out of Oakland,” Roberts explained. Immediately after last year’s festival, she began reaching out to artists. She ended up organizing a lineup that’s both higher-profile and more local than before. While Roberts has strived every year to bring in largely local acts, this year, she said, all the headliners and nearly all the groups are Oakland-grown. Those that aren’t from the city proper have strong Bay Area roots. Even the wine, from Rosenblum Cellars, is local. MC Hammer, En Vogue, Sheila E., and Tony! Toni! Toné! — all from Oakland — will headline the main stage, with Sacramento-based Cake rounding out the bill. Dozens of other local artists will appear on Saturday’s Gospel Stage and Sunday’s Oakland Blues and Heritage Stage, Mark Curry will narrate what Roberts calls a “musical history of Oakland,” and a slate of artists will take care of the first half of the festival’s name by providing opportunities to buy, make, and view art in various media. Saturday and Sunday, August 21-22, in Frank Ogawa Plaza (entrances at 14th Street and Broadway, 16th Street and San Pablo Avenue, and the promenade adjacent to City Center West Garage). Noon-6 p.m. both days, $5-$15 per day. ArtandSoulOakland.com