BAMS Festival founder is promoting artists of color and filling a void in her own backyard
Catherine Morris first forayed into event planning when she was 13. It was 1998, at the Blue Hill Boys & Girls Club in Dorchester.
At the suggestion of one of her mentors, Morris arranged a full-blown talent show for her peers. She printed out fliers, selected a host, ran auditions, and baked cookies.
“I had no clue what I was doing. But I made it work,” she recalls, laughing.
Now 34, Morris has moved on to “bigger and better things,” she says. Last year, she realized a years-long dream when she successfully launched the Boston Art & Music Soul Festival, a day-long event celebrating and promoting diversity in the local arts scene. More than 2,000 people attended the inaugural event.
And now she’s back for round two. On Saturday, festivalgoers can look forward to live R&B, soul, and hip-hop acts, dancing, graffiti art, card games, food trucks, and spoken-word poetry at the second annual BAMS Festival, in Franklin Park’s Playstead Field from noon to 8 p.m., rain or shine. Grammy-nominated R&B artist Eric Roberson will headline the festival, which features 19 artists and musicians including Boston rappers Cliff Notez and Red Shaydez, neo-soul duo Optic Bloom, and jazz-rock fusion collective NwaSoul.
Morris sees the festival as one key step in reaching a long-held goal: to promote and break down social and structural barriers for artists of color in Greater Boston.
Born in Jamaica Plain and bred in Roxbury, Morris grew up with her mother’s records and eight-tracks “constantly” playing in the house, she says. As a student at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School, her passion for music spilled over into her work with the high school radio station.
Early on in her career, Morris realized “a lack of cultural programming” in her own backyard. She looked around to the many big-budget, highly commercialized summer music festivals in the region and saw frustratingly few platforms for local or young artists of color to perform.
Morris, now manager of public programs at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, knew she wanted to fill that gap — but wasn’t entirely sure how. “I spent probably eight years asking questions, talking to different generations, getting an assessment of, ‘Where were cultural festivals happening? What time, what decade would this change?’” she says.
“No one taught me how to produce a festival,” Morris says. “I just asked a lot of questions.”
Her goals crystallized in 2016. From a class project for her master’s degree at Simmons University, she founded Boston Art & Music Soul Fest, the nonprofit organization that puts on the annual festival.
Three years down the road, Morris oversees more than 200 volunteers, sponsors, and employees to bring her festival to life, she says. And the team continues to grow: this year, festival sponsor Berklee College of Music announced it would end its Beantown Jazz Festival to partner with BAMS Festival instead. Festivalgoers will also get to show off their footwork in free, 60-minute West African, Afro-Brazilian, salsa, and hip-hop dance lessons, thanks to a new partnership with Racines Black Dance Festival.
On Saturday, the festival’s musicians will play on historic ground: Duke Ellington, Odetta, and Billy Taylor all played in Franklin Park in the late 20th century, as part of famed Boston arts and civil rights advocate Elma Lewis’s “Playhouse in the Park” concert series.
“When I stumbled upon the Elma Lewis story and her legacy, then I made a decision,” Morris says. “I wanted to go to Franklin Park because I want to stand on those shoulders and add to that legacy.”
Looking ahead, Morris hopes that BAMS Festival will scale to the size of festivals like Coachella, Afropunk, or Firefly, while still maintaining its core values: “diversity, and the representation and inclusion of artists of color.”
“The work that [Lewis] set out — the seeds that she planted — live beyond her, so that future generations can benefit from it and carry on the next vision,” Morris says.
“And that’s what I’m trying to do here at the end of the day.”
Boston Art & Music Soul Festival
At Playstead Field, Franklin Park, on June 22 from noon to 8 p.m. Free. www.bamsfest.org