Catherine Morris had a Boston calling. This weekend, her festival vision becomes real.
About two years ago, sometime in the sweltering summer of 2016, Catherine Morris visited my home with a small group of Boston nonprofit friends. Among other things, during the notably un-air conditioned ad hoc retreat, we shared our short- and long-term goals with one another.
If there’s one thing I remember about that day, besides the unbearable heat, it’s that even in a roomful of tireless wide-eyed community advocates, Morris had the most visionary, extraordinary-sounding game plan of the group. Her lofty goal: to organize a major festival experience that would “connect and celebrate Afro-centric culture, heritage, and contributions to the American fabric,” and to do it in the black community in Boston!
Until getting to know Morris a little better, her plans also seemed to be unfeasible. BAMS Fest, as she explained it then—and, it turns out, what it will be in reality this weekend, in its year-one incarnation—was conceived as an “epic outdoor, multistage, fun-for-all festival.” But the more I recognized her work ethic in action, the more I realized she was trained and calibrated for the challenge.
Morris was born in Jamaica Plain, raised in Roxbury, and brought up on a steady diet of the classics. “My mom made me listen to 33s and 45s and 8-tracks,” she says. “Funk and soul music were always at the helm. Old school. Growing up with that, I always wanted to do something bigger than myself.”
An initial chance at organizing toward the spotlight surfaced early, as Morris became heavily involved with many of the talent shows that were extremely popular back then. “My first taste of this chaotic world was at the Blue Hill Boys and Girls Club on Talbot Ave,” she recalls. Along with memories of visiting First Night festivities on New Year’s Eve.
“Something that massive, with multiple genres and disciplines, was like the most magical thing that a 13-year-old can imagine,” Morris says.
Over the following decades, she remained a student of large crowds.
“I’ve seen the Macy’s Day Parade, I’ve seen the Roots Picnic,” she says. “It’s people coming together to live in the moment for the arts, and it allows people to be vulnerable.”
Morris later pursued similar interests while in college at Temple in Philly, where she “saw how people on the local arts scene can support each other.”
“When I got to Philadelphia I purposely immersed myself and lived in the city with natives,” she says. “I wanted to understand the music and the arts scene. There is a lot of history of making music part of the culture instead of just something to do, which in Boston is where I think it sits right now.”
Jumping in neck-deep, Morris took an internship as a production assistant at Welcome America, Philly’s annual blowout Fourth of July celebration, where she handled scattered duties and logistics for a half-million-person party. Morris marks the experience as one of her proudest to date, plus one during which the music diehard got to work in the company of Hall & Oates, Patti LaBelle, and John Legend, among others.
“You have to really understand how the people in a city move to understand how it will work in a particular way,” Morris says. “It’s a lot of work, but just being there and seeing young, and old, and folks with disabilities, and everybody else come out—for free—was super dope, and I wanted to come back and do something like it here.”
Morris returned to Greater Boston in 2008, and despite the economic downturn landed work in hospitality, which later led to a position managing events at MIT. Helping host everything from small student activities to a reception for the Dalai Lama, she learned how to deal with the heat that comes with such extreme career multitasking.
Still, there was a missing strand between her tasks at MIT and the more social justice-minded event planning she had done coming of age in the Hub. So while in graduate school at Simmons College, Morris started mapping out her independence.
“The seed of how BAMS Fest came about was in a business plan writing class,” she says. “All of my life I have done social justice work, youth development, and event planning. I wanted to do that and I wanted to have creative control.”
As if leaving MIT wasn’t a big enough plunge, Morris committed her personal savings to help get the festival started. The runup to this weekend’s cultural extravaganza has included 20 smaller concerts, each ambitious in their own right and all run by volunteers, some of whom work up to 40 hours every week.
“Our first artists were Obehi Janice, Latrell James, and Elideusa,” says Morris, whose initial BAMS Fest prequel was held in September 2015 at ArtsEmerson’s Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre at the Paramount Center. “They were the first who worked with me at Arts Emerson, and we sold out [150 tickets]. … I had these ideas to pursue culture and art like this [three] years ago, and I mean what I say.”
In the time since, the BAMS Fest apparatus has employed more than 100 artists from the Greater Boston area, plus built an audience of more than 3,000 fans through events. That in addition to securing partnerships and critical assists from the likes of ArtsEmerson and the Fenway Alliance.
“Being a tall, black African-American woman and being able to articulate a festival that is typically done in New York and California, people just don’t want to believe it. There are leaders in this community who tell me we are going to fail. There are people who say that I won’t be successful because of where it is. And I just have a different view—Franklin Park itself connects six neighborhoods, and Franklin Park is underutilized.
“It’s been 30 years since the concerts at White Stadium that used to have large crowds. People don’t always want to go downtown—they want to be in their backyards.”
As for how BAMS, which Morris describes as “Essence [Music Festival] meets Afropunk in Boston,” ultimately shaped up on the talent side—some notable relative numbers include two stages, 20+ musical acts, 90 percent of whom are local, and all of whom will be paid to perform in front of thousands this weekend. The list of artists who are throwing down is robust and eclectic, and features acts spanning headliners Kindred the Family Soul, to STL GLD, to the superbly poetic Hub rap up-and-comer Oompa. There’s also a graffiti installation showcasing six artists, as well as an urban dance school. All the entertainment’s free of charge, plus there’s a vendor market and a food truck zone for those who want to spend their dough with minority-owned businesses.
“A lot of time, folks who live in Cambridge may not go to Roxbury, and [the other way around], but there is a total similarity between their interests,” Morris says. “There is a perception that my kind may not walk with y’all, but when it comes to similarities in arts and culture it doesn’t matter what neighborhood you’re from …
“You have to convince the people that it’s possible. We’re going to be looked at.”
BAMS FEST. SAT 6.23. NOON-8PM. FRANKLIN PARK. MORE INFO AT BAMSFEST.ORG.
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.