The Secret Stages Music Discovery Festival happened this past weekend in Birmingham, and for the first time in the Avondale neighborhood. This was our first year covering the festival, so I can’t compare to prior years when it happened downtown, but I can say that things worked out great in Avondale. It’s not a huge neighborhood, but it what is does have is really good. This meant that you didn’t have to walk far to find great food and beer, and all five stages were within one block of each other, and they all had great sound. Also, unlike many other music festivals, hip hop was not treated as an afterthought, but was featured very prominently throughout the two days, right alongside rock and country acts, not prioritizing one over the other. Ultimately, the goal of Secret Stages is to feature lesser-known acts in the hopes of bringing in an audience that will discover some new music and give the artists involved a little push in their career. Watching people come up to the stage after sets and gushing to the artists and asking them how they can follow and support them, I have to say this festival was a success. Let’s break it down.

Friday, August 3, 2018

The first stop of the festival happened at The Hangar, which is normally private event space that is part of the 41st Street Pub. The opened it up to the public for Secret Stages, which meant that there was a feeling that you were at a wedding reception, except the musical acts kicked ass and most definitely did not do “The Chicken Dance.” Fist up at the Hangar was D. Horton, from Columbus, Mississippi. Also known as Dave the Rapper, the artist gave a really heartfelt performance of songs, mostly from his recent series of releases, The Sessions 3. As he explained over the course of his set, Columbus, Mississippi has an official motto of “The Friendly City,” but as someone who lives there, he did not find the place friendly at all. Or, in other words, “They see my rap sheet before they see my rap sheet.” He also knew that he wanted to spread a message of togetherness and speak to the children and decided that hip hop was the way that he could best do that. With songs like “Mirror 2x,” he emphasized self-reflection, and then brought the audience together with songs like “One and the Same.” With a voice that sang soulfully just as well as he rapped, he drew in everyone with his candor on the mic and made a nice really earnest connection with those in attendance. Lest you think his whole set was too serious, he did get everyone moving with songs like his closer, “Lose Control.” It was a great way to start out the festival.

D. Horton at The Hangar

Following D. Horton at The Hangar was Kadesh Flow. The Kansas City artist made an appearance at the Lobotomix 8th Anniversary show at Saturn last November as he went on tour with Mega Ran, but this time the spotlight in Birmingham was all his. Kadesh Flow dropped an EP called Room Service earlier this year, and most of his set was comprised of songs from that release, with a few other projects worked in as well. As he performed, he mixed in dexterous rhymes, soulful R&B singing, and some top-notch jazz trombone as well. Touching on a variety of topics from quitting his day job to religion to nerdy references about stuff like Dragon Ball Z, Kadesh’s set was all about not fitting into a box and finding his own identity. It was a great set with plenty of energy and a great flow. Mega Ran would be happy to know that he took his advice and gave the audience a chance to breath by putting a slower song in the middle of his set, before ramping the energy back up for the big finish.

Kadesh Flow at The Hangar

The last stop of the evening was the outdoor stage at Avondale Brewery for Atlanta emcee Sa-Roc. I’ve been to many breweries over the years, and many have put in small stages for entertainment, but I can’t think of one that has the full outdoor festival sound and space like Avondale does. It’s a big stage and sound system, but still manages to feel fairly intimate, and the beats and vocals sounded really crisp and clear. I did feel a little bit of conflict about seeing Sa-Roc, only because there are some weird optics to the timing of her signing with Rhymesayers and the public fallout the label had with their first female artist, Psalm One, but it also feels wrong to punish Sa-Roc in this situation by not supporting her music. All I can hope is that Rhymesayers will do better by her than they did with Psalm One. Once I got to the brewery, it was very easy to table those feelings and concentrate on the music, because Sa-Roc and her deejay, Sol Messiah, brought the skills and energy to rock the crowd. Having spent time on the road with Brother Ali, it was clear that she felt comfortable on the bigger stage playing to the crowd that way, moving back and forth across the stage, reaching out to the audience, and having Sol Messiah throw down some big beats. But as Sa-Roc told the crowd, “I got in this for the writing,” and true to her word, her delivery was always crystal clear, cutting through the noise to deliver her message. That message? Well, in the words of her closing song, “Forever,” “You betta shine on baby you a star, You betta be exactly who you are forever.” It was a great way to close out the first night.

Saturday, August 4th, 2018

The second night of Secret Stages began at 41st Street Pub for G.I. Magus. Looking dapper in his hat and suit and repping the local Birmingham scene, he set out to start the night out with bang. Acknowledging the last second canceling of local artist Shaun Judah’s set at the festival, he got the audience to throw some J’s up in the air for Judah, as he and his drummer cranked the energy up and got the party going. While he certainly has plenty of charisma and knows how to rock a crowd, Magus also brought in some really tender and earnest moments, such as his performance of “Simone Grace,” a song he wrote for his two nieces, whom he saw struggling with beauty ideals as young Black girls, and wanted to give them a song to tell them they were perfect the way that they are. He also took us to church with “New Day,” which had the audience singing along in call and response. It was a really well-rounded performance and great start to night two.

G.I. Magus at 41st Street Pub

From there it was upstairs at Avondale Brewery, where Mobile’s newest group, Basshead Jazz, was set to perform. The trio of See’J Foster, Ottie James, and Baby are less than a year old, but they delivered their set like a group that had been performing together for years. Once upon a time, people performed hip hop in groups and really interacted with each other, not just taking turns delivering verses, but really collaborating and trading lines and singing harmonies and everything. That’s what you get with Basshead Jazz. Baby and Ottie both have incredible singing voices, and all three perform as emcees with different styles and flows that interact and weave together to create some really thought-provoking hip hop, with a style that lands somewhere between Digable Planets and Outkast. The group preached community to their audience and challenged everyone in the crowd to turn to someone they didn’t know and tell them “I see you, and I care about you.” Foster brought the house to near silence performing an a capella song about how Black men in America are often reduced to struggling just to stay alive, dedicating it to a dear friend who didn’t make it to see 30. On the other side of things, they were also able to whip up the crowd into a frenzy with their song, “Fuck ‘Em Up,” leaving everyone just a little sweaty and exhausted and happy.

Across the street was The Saturn, one of the finest music venues in the whole country, where I has happy to spend the rest of the evening. Scheduling overlap meant that I missed most of Atlanta’s The Difference Machine, but what I was able to catch of the five-piece group was pretty damn interesting. With bass, drums, vocals, and various drums and electronics, the group performed a noisy psychedelic style of politically charged hip hop, with projected art behind them and little to no light on stage. It was just enough of a taste to have me searching for more.

After that was Sammus, who last performed in Birmingham just about a year ago at the Syndicate Lounge (RIP) to a small crowd on a Wednesday night. This time, Sammus got to play to a crowd over several hundred, and she did not disappoint. The Philly producer and emcee opened with “Time Crisis,” and didn’t let up for the rest of the set. She did take a few moments to mention how much she was feeling herself, at one point remarking, “Sometimes I hear my own words, and I’m like…damn!” The only disappointment is that she flew in specifically for this show, taking a quick break from her other life as a PhD student and teacher, and that meant there was no arm cannon, since it couldn’t get through a TSA check. That’s the only bad thing I could say about the show, though, as Sammus went all in on songs like “Qualified” and “Spell It Out,” rocking the crowd and claiming her own self-worth along the way. Perhaps the most fun of her entire set was living vicariously through those who hadn’t had the pleasure of seeing her perform before, now coming up at the end of her set and gushing at the front of the stage about how much her music had moved them.

Oshun at Saturn

Closing out the festival was OSHUN. The duo of Thandiwe and Niambi Sala, originally from DC and now based in New York, released their first project earlier this year, Bittersweet Vol. 1. Describing themselves as Floetry meets Lauryn Hill meets Chief Keef, OSHUN took the audience through a set of sci-fi-inspired R&B and hip hop. They scattered just enough choreographed dances throughout their set to have fun with the audience without becoming a straight-ahead dance act, and they did a great job of directly engaging with the audience. There was room for R&B about feeling nervous about opening yourself up to intimacy and vulnerability, but these two queens also came to kick ass and take names, and they absolutely did. It was a tight set full of energy and focus, and the perfect way to draw the festival to a close.

It’s too soon to talk about next year, but these two days in the Avondale neighborhood of Birmingham gave people a fantastic setting to take in a ton of music that they may or may not have known before. My first experience with Secret Stages couldn’t have gone better.