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Only a few years had passed since the release of Billboard music critic Nelson George's seminal book, The Death of Rhythm and Blues, which laid out the destructive factors at work in the music industry's systematic plan to assimilate or "cross over" soul music to a mainstream audience. In the book, George cites 1972's infamous Harvard Report ("A Study of the Soul Music Environment Prepared for Columbia Records Group"), conducted by the Harvard University Business School, as the source of the industry's switch from indifference to predatory mode where black music was concerned. In the decade that followed, major labels found inventive ways to challenge or co-opt the kung-fu grip black-owned labels Motown, Stax and Philadelphia International held on the market. By 1980, CBS's roster of black artists had jumped from two to 125, according to George. But the strategy also led to a watered-down sound throughout the '80s as the industry pushed for soul's integration into pop.
Without a poppy, radio-friendly single, Bernard and his band Original Man were out of the loop. So Orr decided "to put an idea around it" by creating an event with appeal that would extend beyond the headlining act in order to organically build Bernard's fan base.
When the idea for the FunkJazz Kafé logo hit him at 4 one morning, he "sat up like Frankenstein, grabbed a pen and drew" the image that would become synonymous with his quarterly festival: a grand piano with FunkJazz Kafé handwritten in a groovy font.
In August 1994, the first FunkJazz Kafé took place, fittingly enough, at Auburn Avenue's post-Chitlin Circuit palace, the Royal Peacock. Vinnie Bernard and Original Man performed, along with recent Grammy-winning group Arrested Development. But none of the acts was featured on the flier designed by Orr, an approach that would only add to the festival's intrigue over time.
FunkJazz's rise in the mid-'90s coincided with a new creative energy in Atlanta. The scene also centered around Midtown music venue Yin Yang Café, where FunkJazz Kafé's house band, the Chronicle, led by drummer Little John Roberts, played on Thursday nights. An improv-based band with Arrested Development's DJ Kemit on the turntables, the Chronicle was "the first band that many people saw really combining jazz and hip-hop," says Ahmad.
"FunkJazz was there at the right time, when this whole kind of urban alternative, for lack of a better term, started coming up," Ahmad says. "But you also had kind of a festival vibe. You would walk in and see people on stilts and fire-eaters and African dancers, and then you would be introduced to vegetarian cuisine. It was really a lifestyle event, and it attacked every single sense that you possess as a human being."
It was like "walking into our 'People Everyday' video," Arrested Development leader Speech recalls. "It was a counterculture movement that I believe got a lot of its strength because people were looking for a way to express themselves other than what was sort of being forced down our throats by mainstream media. I think that's why it was such a celebration and such a fantastic outlet for people."
Some of the FunkJazz footage featured in Diary of a Decade was filmed as far back as 1995. Though there was no film in the works at the time, Orr realized he was on to something big. "I looked at all my footage and we started editing stuff and we were like, 'Man this is a film.' But people weren't thinking film back then. Don't forget, reality television was still 'Cops.' It wasn't loose yet."
And no one could have predicted the soul revolution that was about to occur. The main thing that Orr and the 40-plus independent and major-label artists who serve as talking heads in the film have gained over time is perspective. As radical as Diary of a Decade's premise may sound to those outside the culture, it's a viewpoint shared by many within it.
Speech became something of a mainstream anomaly when Arrested Development's 1992 debut, 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life Of, received an "alternative hip-hop" tag from critics while earning Chrysalis Records $5 million in worldwide sales. But in the decades since, neither Arrested Development nor Speech's solo releases have received the same kind of domestic commercial embrace.
Whether or not it's "a literal conspiracy," says Speech, he agrees that left-of-center black artists are often stifled within the industry because of the executive decisions made by culturally detached label heads.
"Some things fit into their worldview and other things don't," he says. "So I have a feeling that when Afrocentric themes or themes of natural hair, themes of pride in African culture, maybe even themes of African religion to some extent — when these things start popping up in music, I do think that executives are programmed to not feel comfortable."
Similar thoughts are echoed throughout Diary by the likes of public intellectual Dr. Cornel West, activist Dick Gregory, and musicians ranging from legendary funkateer George Clinton to Atlantan Cee Lo Green. But the documentary is also a celebration of the alternative spirit that rose up organically as a result of the mainstream void.
"There was this big push for the ignorant side of hip-hop, the very materialistic side, and that's where the soul singers came in," says Ahmad. "They said, 'You know what, we need to go back to a purer time. And not just a purer time, but when things were real.'"
One of the secrets to FJK's success was showcasing unconventional artists as if they were already bona fide. "Fuck the stars. Fuck 'em," says Orr. "I'm telling them Janelle Monáe's gonna be a star in the future. Cee Lo's gonna be a star in the future. India.Arie's gonna be a star in the future."
Meanwhile, Orr's own star was rising.
By 1995, FunkJazz Kafé was making enough noise in the city for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to take notice. When Orr came to work one Tuesday morning to discover a copy of the article on his desk, along with a reprimand from his boss for taking too many Fridays and Mondays as preapproved time off, he turned in his resignation.
As the late '90s approached, Orr's quarterly carnivals garnered a following big enough to outgrow multiple venues in Atlanta, including a Krog Street warehouse, King Plow Arts Center, the World Bar, and the old Nike Pavilion on Marietta Street. By the time Orr began leasing downtown's 3,000-capacity Tabernacle in 1998, he estimates 25 percent of FunkJazz Kafé's audience consisted of out-of-towners.
Word was traveling. So Orr decided to travel, too. But a seven-city tour in 1999 got chopped down to five when one-third of his sponsorship budget was cut. Perhaps it was an omen of things to come.
"When we did a show in Detroit, the [tour] bus threw a rod and I had to buy 23 plane tickets last minute," Orr recalls. But he was still racking up more wins than losses. So much so that corporate copycats, some of whom had been FunkJazz Kafé sponsors, began taking his blueprint and creating their own cross-country urban alternative events to cater to the untapped demographic he'd hipped them to.
Heineken Red Star Soul, Tanqueray Soul Suite, Levi's Self-Engineered Tour — all were direct descendants of the house that Orr built.
"I know it's a direct bite because people at the organization say, 'Yeah, we used your shit to figure out the model,'" he says. "That's flattering. But at the same time, you're not giving me the money. This is the wheel that's already invented. Why reinvent it?"
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This is such a cool idea and the performance is great (I've been twice) but…