Saturday marked the first time the D.C. Funk Parade was fully in-person on the U Street corridor since 2019, with a few hundred attendees and performers like Night Train scattered across four sites featuring live music from area artists. For those musicians, some of whom were performing at the parade for the first time, it was a stage on which to celebrate the uniqueness of D.C.’s music scene.
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The event’s theme this year was “The Magic of Music,” and it’s a magic that Eric Liley believes in. Liley, the executive director and CEO of nonprofit The MusicianShip, which put on the festival, wants young people to see in it an opportunity to grow and an alternative to violence, at a time when fears are rising in the District.
“We’re encouraging young musicians to keep playing and keep the instruments in their hands,” Liley said. “We say put down weapons of destruction like guns and pick up instruments of love, since music is what unites us all.”
Willie Mae was among the first on Saturday to arrive at the main stage, near the African-American Civil War Memorial. Mae, 73, said she has been to the Funk Parade many times in the past — and had met Brown a number of times when he performed in the city.
“I’m glad to see it come back. It gives a lot of artists a chance to showcase themselves, especially if you haven’t heard them before,” she said.
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Mae also liked, she said, how the festival supported D.C. youth programs. This year it raised money for The MusicianShip, a nonprofit and youth development organization that offers music education programs.
“Music brings everybody together,” Liley said. In D.C., “there’s so much rich history, and I think we have a huge opportunity to contribute to making a creative ecosystem in the city where artists want to stay.”
The Parade was, noticeably, missing its parade; next year, organizers are changing its name to the D.C. Funk Festival.
Tyree Paul, one of the rappers who performed Saturday, said the festival represents togetherness in the city. Paul, who’s from Prince George’s, was among those appearing for the first time.
“As a child, I’ve always had a love for rapping and did a lot of poetry when growing up,” Paul, 26, said. “I think the funk aspect gives you a good feeling, and I just get a good vibe from the funk festival.”
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The city’s go-go and funk, he said, help give the District its distinct musical identity.
“Funk and go-go are very D.C. to me, and I feel no one else is on that level. It’s the essence of D.C.,” Paul said.
Chuck Stuart, the lead guitarist for the local rock band Uncle Mary, said the District’s local musicians have a rhythm that can’t be replicated, one he calls “a heartbeat of the city.” Stuart, who was also playing the Funk Parade for the first time, has played at other local festivals, such as the Cherry Blossom Festival and H Street Festival.
Stuart said he’s been playing guitar for 15 years. He said that hours of Guitar Hero inspired him to learn how to play. He said he spent hours playing on a shoddy Best Buy guitar, but that honed his skills after hours of practice.
“I played on it and I bled on it, but I made sure that I could play it so that when I got real guitars, I already had some practice,” Stuart, 27, said.
Liley said that organizers faced the ongoing pandemic challenge of whether people would feel comfortable enough to be back outside and in large gatherings again during the pandemic. “There’s a sentiment in a lot of people to be back out in a public environment, but there are still a large number of people susceptible to catching covid,” he said.
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But Liley said he hopes attendees Saturday saw that the spirit of U Street is alive and well — and that the festival will continue to honor what makes the neighborhood special.
“We will not forget about U Street Corridor or the people in it,” he said. “For those who visit or music enthusiasts or even people who don’t know about Black Broadway, the intent is to celebrate the community and performing arts.”
That kind of celebration, Liley and the artists agreed, is better in-person.
“The livestream stuff was cool, but there’s nothing like a live feeling with people being able to cheer you on,” Stuart said. “That’s what I thrive on as a performing guitarist: being able to feed off of people and give back to the community.”