Since launching in 2004, the Peace Hip-Hop Festival has served as an example of how the city and the Boston scene can collaborate for a day of music and community building. This year a name change reflects a broader musical focus. The Boston Urban Music Festival, a collaboration between the mayor’s office and HUB Media, brings an array of talent to City Hall Plaza tomorrow, including Pittsburgh rapper Wiz Khalifa, former Harvard student and 2009 BET Awards nominee Ryan Leslie, Boston-bred rapper Young Riot, the Boston Phoenix’s Best Local Hip-Hop Act winner M-Dot, and local party-funk band Bad Rabbits.
“We decided this year to change it up a little to try to reach a broader audience, to include more genres of music,’’ says Julie Burns, director of arts, tourism and special events in the mayor’s office. “We used to focus on old school hip-hop, now we’re allowing up-and-coming bands in Boston to participate.’’
Apart from last year’s show, which was held at Dorchester’s Strand Theater, all the past installments of the fest have been at City Hall Plaza, and have included hip-hop greats like Das EFX, Slick Rick, and Nice & Smooth.
“The focus was always using the medium of hip-hop to encourage peace,’’ Burns says. “We require a clean show, which as you know can sometimes be a challenge.’’ Since the shows are free and open to the public, they want to make them as inviting to families as possible. “The mayor started this show back in 2004 to give people a venue for self-expression in a safe and controlled environment, and that’s been our mission all along.’’
Rising Lynn rapper Michael Januario, a.k.a. M-Dot — whose new record “Run MPC’’ will be released on Soulspazm Records in late August — performed last year as well.
“I think it’s important to have stuff like this for unity,’’ he says. “This is the real unity. I feel that [Mayor Thomas] Menino doing this for the city is always a great thing, it brings so many people, from all different places and styles of life together, and the music is what truly makes it all possible.’’
Salim Akram, guitar player for Bad Rabbits, [pictured] stresses the effect the event can have in building community.
“I think shows like this are crucial in bridging the gaps, mainly because people’s musical tastes are broader than ever and they are open to newer things. The scene that we have surrounded ourselves with has been proof of that. We have all kinds of people that come out to our shows, not just one type of person. It’s been metal kids, indie kids, college kids, hip-hop kids, and whatever else you can think of. So to be able to play and bring that vibe and atmosphere to this platform in Boston is crazy. We are mostly looking forward to being a part of something that represents a great cause and hopefully inspiring some younger kids to start playing music.’’
Akram remembers fondly one of the past Boston Peace Hip-Hop Festivals. “I was at one of the first ones ever where KRS-One was there and straight-up tore the place to the ground. It was bananas.’’
The mayor recognized the value of enlisting the music community in the city to help spread the message of peace, Burns says. “He’s had a hip-hop roundtable in the past where he looks to that community to help guide him on matters of peace, hope, employment, and self-expression, that sort of thing. It’s something that he holds dear.’’
All of the past shows have gone off without a hitch, she says, which isn’t a given, considering they can draw between 15,000 and 20,000 people. Her office also coordinates similar shows focusing on gospel and Latin music. (The Caliente: Latin Music Concert was held last weekend.)
Burns says City Hall Plaza is the perfect venue for events like this, and Januario concurs. “Because it’s just in the middle of Boston, there will be people coming from wherever, the game, the bar, the train station, not even knowing they’re gonna see a show. Then there’s the kids, fans of Wiz, R&B fans, my fans. . . . I think that’s cool for everyone to be able to interact and be together. It’s great for the city. I wanna make music for hood dudes, rich people, kids, whoever. Good music. That’s all that matters, right?’’