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In Diary of a Decade, Orr blames the end of FunkJazz Kafé on a sharp decline in sponsorship dollars resulting from the post-9/11 economy that shook up the entire entertainment industry. But in conversation, he paints a more vivid picture.
"You ever had sex in the same position for two hours?" he says when asked why FunkJazz Kafé seemingly drew to a close after a 10-year run. "You have to switch it up."
It's a funny metaphor, especially coming from an event producer whose pre-event ritual included seven days of salt baths and organic cleansing in order to tap into his spiritual center. For Orr, the success of the event hinged on his ability to create a holistic experience.
But as FunkJazz grew in popularity near the end, an increasingly mainstream demographic brought mainstream expectations. Despite his honorable attempt to make the overall experience the main focus, newcomers were more attracted at the possibility of seeing a Jill Scott or an Erykah Badu in concert.
"But also, there was this acceptance of this kind of leftist black culture that you started seeing in the mainstream. So you saw a lot of mainstream entities kind of seeping into the FunkJazz Kafé, and people who were just curious to know what it was," says Ahmad. "I'm not trying to diss anyone, but there were a lot of people who were coming there, almost acting like cultural vampires. They were taking and taking and taking and not giving to FunkJazz."
The final straw fell in October 2004, 10 years after the first FunkJazz. The night's surprise musical acts included longtime scene staple India.Arie and Van Hunt, then an Atlanta-based songwriter and a member of FunkJazz Kafé's second house band, who had just released his self-titled debut LP on Capitol Records.
"Jason came out on stage and the reception wasn't that good, and I just remember him kind of storming off stage and going into the hallway, like, 'I'm just kind of done,'" says Ahmad. "It was like, wow, you do all this work and people just want to see somebody famous and major on stage. They don't want to vibe, they just want to be entertained by someone that they know as opposed to being introduced to someone that they don't know — because that's what FunkJazz was about."
It was a helluva note to end on, and it took a toll on Orr. He contemplated giving FJK up for good.
"I might've thought that for a minute, and that's why I took a break in '05 and '06," he says, "because I was thinking, 'OK, how do I want to go forward with the brand?'"
Inevitably, random people would remind Orr of his impact. "That's when I would run into, 'I met my baby's father at FunkJazz!'" says Orr. Followed by the all-too-familiar refrain: When is it coming back? The resulting mix of pride and purpose motivated him to partner back up with former co-sponsor, the National Black Arts Festival, in 2007, to throw the last official FunkJazz Kafé event since. "Which to me was one of the best ones," he says, recalling performances from Vinx, N'Dambi, Bilal, Bonecrusher, Dead Prez, Angie Stone and Janelle Monáe.
The inspiration from that event gave Orr his groove back.
"It's almost like that chick you say you don't like anymore. But ooh, let's see if the fire's still there. You end up having sex or whatever and you be like, 'You know what, I like her. I do like her. She's cool. I'm over here trippin', and we get along good. Our bodies flow well together.'"
When Diary of a Decade screens during the National Black Arts Festival on July 13 at the Rialto Center for the Arts, it could be the first and last time the public gets to see the full-length version. Orr, who's betting on the film's potential to reinvigorate FunkJazz Kafé, is already in talks with BET's Centric cable network and an online distributor to push it to a larger audience.
But during a recent seven-hour meeting with a local black filmmaker whose résumé includes directing a major Hollywood studio film, Orr says he received disheartening advice: Subtract the conspiracy stuff. Add Soulja Boy and some other hot names. Dumb it down and lighten it up.
Orr's reaction: Hell to the naw.
"Why can't I truthfully chronicle what happened?" he says. "Why can't Dick Gregory say, 'It's white supremacy. You're in a white country.' What's wrong with that? Did he lie?"
Of course, the answer to that question may not be as significant as the number of people Orr could potentially expose to FunkJazz Kafé through a widespread airing. For now, he's still doing the math.
"It might face some challenges. And I might shape some of it up to have a smile for the mainstream — but that's what makes me want to show this film almost in its entirety," Orr says. "Because the only way FunkJazz got so big and didn't have to announce the talent and became a real phenom is because the music business and entertainment business was biased [against] black folk and our music."
Of course, the irony here is that Orr's sense of internal conflict about how best to serve his culture is the same dilemma all alternative artists face when given the opportunity to gain widespread exposure.
When record labels ask artists to compromise their artistic choices for the promise of mainstream success, there are plenty who jump at the opportunity, says Ahmad. But then there are those who stick to their guns.
"It may hurt them right then, but 20, 30, 40 years down the line, people look back and they applaud them because they had character. And I think Jason is that same way. Think about it, who else is going to talk about conspiracies in soul music?"
Since spending a little time in New Orleans, Orr has kind of soured on the thought of relocating there.
"New Orleans don't have no vegetarian food or restaurants. I was like, 'Oh shit, I can't live here.' That's a definite. I'll never meet a woman that wants to live well. Where are the people who want to live well?"
During a recent layover in Atlanta, he found what he'd left Atlanta to look for.
"I was like, 'They're here!' That was the inspiration I needed. Let me tell you something right now. Atlanta is plentiful on everything. And then I didn't see any black people [in New Orleans]. That's Class-A gentrification going on down there. It don't get no better than that, the way they got it going on — no vegetarian restaurants and no black people."
What he may or may not realize is that Atlanta's tastefully cultured black alternative class wouldn't be as prevalent, either, were it not for the 17 years of work he's put in.
When I talk to Orr by phone a week later, he's back in New Orleans for another short visit before returning home to Atlanta. As it turns out, he's finally found the black people there, he tells me.
"Oh yeah, where?" I ask.
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