Festival celebrates Black music and inclusive community


Photo provided by Gwenmarie Ewing

The Electric Root Festival’s inaugural year in Oxford, April 2022.

By Skyler Black

A celebration of Black music, radical hospitality and an inclusive community will take place at the second annual Electric Root Festival Saturday, April 29 in Uptown Park. 

The Electric Root Festival will host a variety of world-renowned Black performers, food vendors and art activities from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m.

The festival gets its name from arts business Electric Root, founded by musicians Michael Mwenso and Jono Gasparro, a Miami alumnus, to curate and produce Black music events. The two met at a music festival in Italy, and both realized they had been trained by American Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.

While this is only the second festival of its kind in Oxford, the Electric Root Festival’s origins and presence in the city trace back to peak pandemic times. Miami University, in partnership with Electric Root art business, brought Black artists from around the world to classrooms via Zoom in 2020, with the hopes of later expanding to an in-person event.

“We were trying to find different ways to engage the community with the art that we so love,” said Gwenmarie Ewing, Performing Arts Series assistant director. The Performing Arts Series and Electric Root company collaborated in creating the Black Arts Initiative.

Mwenso and Gasparro’s friendship developed as they worked together with Jazz Lincoln Center. Later, Mwenso, a singer, formed his band “Mwenso and the Shakes,” and Gasparro programmed Ginny’s Supper Club at Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster restaurant in Harlem. Both talked about creating concert programs to celebrate Black music, which came to fruition in nationally-toured “We Shall Overcome” and “Harlem 100.” 

“We’ve had a lifelong journey of loving the music and we call it Black music, but it’s really love of jazz, the blues, rhythm and blues, funk, soul music, Afro Caribbean music and Afro music,” said Gasparro, who graduated from Miami in 2008. “We just say Black music because it’s kind of encompassing all of the love.”

The Electric Root festival began as a response to George Floyd’s murder in 2020.

“When George Floyd’s murder happened, that’s when Michael called me and was like, ‘Now’s the time we could be putting out into the world what we’re actually wanting to do,’” said Gasparro. “Before that, it was hard to really express that what we wanted to do was use Black music to uplift and unite communities across the country. We started making phone calls to people we knew in the arts around the country and started creating a new way of programming and by using the arts, but to unite communities.”

One of Electric Root Festival’s pillars is radical hospitality, which means inviting people from all different backgrounds to join in the festival.

“We want to have a day where we center and celebrate Black Arts and artists and their culture,” said Ewing. “But in a festival that is for everyone that this isn’t like, ‘Oh, well, I’m not one of them. That’s not for me.’ We have created this world of radical hospitality, which is this extreme welcome for all.”

The festival will host a variety of spoken word, dance and musing, craft booths run by Miami art therapy students and food trucks.

The headline act of the festival is jazz bassist Endea Owens, a Detroit-raised composer and recording artist. Owens plays in late night talk show host Stephen Colbert’s house band and has toured with Jon Batiste and Diana Ross. She and her band The Cookout have performed for NPR’s series Tiny Desk Concert.  They will take the stage to close the event.

“She is an absolutely amazing artist and her whole band is great,” said Ewing. “The reason they are called The Cookout is because she would do these outside community concerts where she would also provide food as a way to feed her community, and give them a chance to listen to the music. We think that works really well with our ideas of what this festival is.”

Numerous food trucks will line the streets of Oxford, including Black-owned Maw Maw’s Creole Kitchen from Cincinnati. 

The afternoon will hold a variety of acts at the following times:

  • Welcome and Mayoral Proclamation, 3 p.m.
  • Movin’ and Groovin’ Family Fun, 3:30 p.m.
  • Blackberries, 4 p.m.
  • Alfred Dove and Miami University Dancers, 5 p.m.
  • Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, 5:30 p.m.
  • Miami University Gospel Singers, 6:45 p.m.
  • Harold Green III spoken word poet, 7:15 p.m.
  • Endea Owens & The Cookout, 8 p.m.

The organizers said that they hope the festival will allow people to hear new music and widen their perspectives.

“I hope people come and then they leave with this feeling of renewal in their spirit,” said Gasparro. “Because we were able to engage as an inclusive community. Everyone can recharge on the energy of that joy. I know Miami as a student and as someone who has been coming back to do this work, I know that it’s very predominantly white. There’s not a lot of diversity here. I hope that there’s another level of empathy, and understanding of others.”