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Gettin' SUAFy with it 

Savannah Urban Arts Festival brings big names to town

Anthony David is a Grammy nominee and one of R&B's most prominent rising young stars.

Anthony David -- born Anthony David Harrington -- is a Savannahian.

Anthony David is virtually unknown in his hometown.

"That's one of the things that has bothered me a great deal," says DaVena Jordan. "How can we call ourselves this flourishing arts community and have all the high quality art that's coming into town, when we've got high quality art that's leaving town?"

Why does it have to be this way? And more importantly, what can be done about that?

As their way of promoting home-grown talent - and encouraging it to maintain ties to the community so that more and more talent can be grown here -DaVena Jordan and her husband Tony have organized the first-ever Savannah Urban Arts Festival (SUAF) happening over the next week at various venues all over town.

And yes, they're bringing Anthony David back home, for a concert Saturday night May 9.

Other big names the Jordans are bringing into town include hip-hop star Brittany Bosco, herself a former Savannah resident, who plays on the same bill Saturday night as David; Bill Strickland, MacArthur genius grant winner and community organizer; and writer Jeff Chang, author of the seminal hip-hop chronicle Can't Stop Won't Stop.

While everyone's stoked about the special guests coming to town, the Jordans stay focused on the reason they started the Urban Arts Festival in the first place.

"It's based on the experience of being a local artist, and hearing about different artists who are from here and they leave Savannah, then they make it big and leave," says Tony Jordan. " Let's not celebrate our local artists when they leave. Let's celebrate them while they're here."

Tony uses the example of India.Arie, a former SCAD student who wasted little time in Savannah before moving on to stardom and multiple Grammy awards.

"India.arie is not originally from here, but she was here! So there's the fact that she left to pursue her music. We want to show those local artists some support.

Indeed, Anthony David himself almost poignantly points this out in the bio section of his website, describing the time he met Arie, who would become his major collaborator:

"India (.Arie) was the first person I saw when I got out of the car from Savannah," says David ,"I thought she was cool and we were both doing our music and enjoying the scene that Atlanta gives an artist. There was never a time that we didn't hang out."

So to sum up: Savannah=the place you can't wait to leave. Atlanta=a place you go to.

It's a brutal equation that the Jordans and their many supporters are determined to change. They have been on that mission for three years, since the founding of their nonprofit AWOL (All Walks of Life). Primarily focusing on working with local youth through spoken word and hip-hop performances, AWOL seeks to promote character as well as a grassroots awareness of local talent.

"People say, well we have all this stuff, we have the Children's Theater and things like that," explains DaVena. "Yes, but there are all kinds of caveats. Some things  require money, and not all parents have money. Some things require a GPA - the Savannah Arts Academy, every kid can't go there. At AWOL all means all. I've got kids where some kids go to private school and their parents are just interested in the program and want their kids to go here. I've got kids that are mandated here by the court system. Nonetheless all of them are really really talented."

DaVena says some of AWOL's kids have even been accepted to SCAD. "But they can't afford it. So I tell them, well you know, we'll find ways for you to do this within the community. We'll train you and I'll put my hands on as many resources as I can to get what you need."

Tony says AWOL is "about empowering people to rise above, and be inspired by one another. Certain people's circumstances allow them to act a certain way. What we do at AWOL is tell people you don't have to act a certain way based on your circumstances."

So why another festival in an already festival-mad town? On a practical level, there was the issue of fundraising.

"We don't really have one big fundraiser, we have a number of smaller events all year," says DaVena. "Some people on the board were saying, 'you need to do a walk or a golf tournament.' But I said, that's not really representative of us. I think you should do what you're good at. We do performance, we do music, we do recording, and we need something that's representative of that. And I think the festival is going to do that for us."

And there's also an issue near and dear to AWOL's collective heart: diversity.

"Quite frankly we have a great cadre of local festivals," explains DaVena, delicately. "The Savannah Music Festival is considered one of the best festivals on the continent. That's a great compliment, but still it's a very different. kind of festival."

Saying she "hates the way Savannah's so compartmentalized right now," she continues:

"The truth of the matter is you have the Black Heritage Festival and you have the Savannah Music Festival. The Music Festival is typically patronized by Caucasians and the Black Heritage Festival is the same the other way," DaVena says.

"I'm not saying they don't have other races or genres of people there, they do, but for the most part one group goes to one festival and the other group goes to the other one. For me, success would be looking out over the Urban Arts Festival grounds this Saturday and seeing every nationality and culture you could think of.He explains how DaVena almost single-handedly arranged for the very high profile appearance of Bill Strickland, something of a living legend in community organizing/entrepreneurship circles.

Another aspect of SUAF’s commitment to diversity goes the other way: A concurrent event at the Charles H. Morris Center, "Greenfest," which will help bring in the organically–focused, somewhat more upscale crowd accustomed to shopping at the Morris Center’s weekly Market at Trustees Garden.

"When I met with DaVena she said SUAF was a festival for the people by the people," says Market Director Maria Castro. "She also said that she would love to see the ‘heavy hitters’ of Savannah next to a break dancer or a graffiti artist. It was a natural decision for me to partner with her. The Market and Greenfest have a middle to upper class following. I was inspired to partner with AWOL to help bridge that gap between our communities."

As for Tony, like any good husband he gives all the credit to his wife: "She’s a visionary," he says simply.

 

"Some people with the city went to Pittsburgh and called us to go. When she went up there and saw what Bill Strickland was doing, she was so overwhelmed. I mean, his programs are certified -- when a kid goes through his program they get college credit. How cool is that?"

Tony says DaVena was "so inspired when she got back home, and thought he would be the ideal person to bring to Savannah. Savannah wants to replicate what he's already doing."

Every local arts festival has funding challenges, and because of their grassroots mission, AWOL has felt those challenges as keenly as any.

"I would say that AWOL has been successful at making lemonades out of lemons," DaVena says. "We don't have nearly the budget the other festivals have.But we leverage that through heavy use of social media - we're on Twitter, we're on Facebook, we're on myspace every day. We leverage it by getting some grant funds to support some of the events. For example some money from the city to get Bill Strickland to come to town, I've leveraged that with
donations and corporate support."

Jeff Chang's appearance is made possible in part by a small grant from the Southern Arts Federation.

And how did SUAF manage to snag Anthony David?

DaVena's secret weapon: He's her cousin.

"I had to use family muscle to get Anthony David to come," she laughs. "I called his mom."

Savannah Urban Arts Festival

When: May 6-9

Where: Various venues, main day is Sat. May 9 at the Charles H. Morris Center

Cost: Various

For full schedule see this week's Week at a Glance or go to www.savannahurbanartsfestival.com

 

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About The Author

Jim Morekis

Jim Morekis

Bio:
A native Savannahian, Jim has been editor-in-chief of Connect Savannah for ten years. The University of Georgia graduate is also a travel writer, authoring regional guides in the Moon handbook series... more

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Connect Today 12.10.2016

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