Downtown Birmingham Alabama is facing the one thing in thirty years it never thought it would see — renovation. The city happens to pack the largest population of any in the state. Through hilly regions, country sprawl and more collegiate joy than a frat party in nearby Tuscaloosa, Birmingham enjoys its status as both a crest of modernism and a hastily fastened 1960s time warp.
Churches adorn many a city block, both garish in design and some medieval. The local blues station plays the kind of beer-joint-blues where cheating on your spouse is the base template for all subject matter. Even the strip clubs, perhaps the holy mecca of both hedonism and self-restraint, are next to lots where a sign that asks for your salvation and time sticks out like a sore thumb.
Given that context and backdrop, Birmingham, Alabama is an absolutely perfect destination for a music festival geared around artist discovery, and that’s exactly what last weekend’s Secret Stages offers.
Secret Stages is one of the few festivals that have stuck to the now antiquated South By Southwest model of throwing a ton of shows in a centralized location and keeping the commercialization factor down to zero. There was only one food truck placed in the middle the Loft District downtown, Secret Stages’ proverbial ground zero, and it’s only in the South that I’ll get an oyster and shrimp po boy and ask myself, “How seasoned is this?” before devouring it in less than ten bites.
Starting from the centrally-placed Doubletree and walking downtown, I made my way down to the trio of buildings housing every Secret Stage performer. Hearing Austin’s Adam Torres wail with a haunting, yet relaxing voice was a definite mood shifter, and before long, I found myself close my eyes and picturing how his music could’ve easily soundtracked Birmingham, from the daily grind of city workers attempting to maintain its look, to the various citizens who are unsure of what change and the Civil Rights movement would present.
Secret Stages carries the tagline of discovering the next big act, and one glimpse of the lineup had me waging that such a thing would occur. Friday night, I huddled past the rain and made my way upstairs to the BMR Stage inside of Pale Eddie’s, a swank brewhouse adjacent to a post-modern restaurant that served duck nachos and a fine selection of brandy. There, I watched one of Birmingham’s emerging rap artists Cutt Dogg reaffirm my belief that Southern rap is rooted in some form of the blues.
He rapped from the perspective of a man who had lost a family member and couldn’t quit rapping because it would weigh on his consciousness forever. He repeatedly told the sparse crowd forming that all of his material was free, that he just shot videos for some of his biggest songs about a week ago and that no matter what, Birmingham was going to eat as long as he was breathing. The same could be said for Richard Daniel who maintained a cool air about him and owned a singular feat as the only Birmingham rapper to perform at both days of the festival.
Moments later, Dogg passed the proverbial baton to Marcel P. Black, a large human rap typhoon trapped in the body of an NFL offensive lineman. 6’3” and 400 pounds, Black carries firebrand Baptist preacher in his blood with the knowledge of a man who has seen things occur in the streets. Digging strictly from his recently released Cry Freedom album, Black spoke of his great-great grandfather and his life as a former slave. I warned him before his performance to be wary of saying, “F–k the police!” during his set, seeing that even though Birmingham is 70 percent black, it’s still deep South.
During his performance of “Henry Clay,” Black yelled it out anyway. After his set was complete, he retreated back to his makeshift merchandise booth, selling T-shirts and keeping a watchful eye on those who enjoyed his set. “I think everybody has their own superpower,” he said. “Mine? Grabbing people’s soul.”
For the rap aspect of Secret Stages, the furthest rappers arrived from Rhode Island with some such as 20-year-old Mad Squablz ejecting from his Philadelphia home base to perform. Cuz Lightyear, the man with rap’s most interesting and humorous name trekked on from Atlanta, Georgia. Same for Lingua Franca, an Athens, Georgia resident whose large afro encouraged compliments from passerbys. To the rap artists not from Birmingham, Secret Stages represented a middle point. They travel usually to cities within a six hour radius, building fan bases and cultivating an audience that is not only willing to buy their music but spread the word as well.
Jabee, an Oklahoma City rapper, played up to crowd appeal during his turn on the festival’s main stage Saturday night. Moments after offering up prayer for Rob Kardashian, the OKC native riffed in an impromptu freestyle on Colin Kaepernick, the Oklahoma City Thunder, gummy bears and more — mad-libbing whatever topic the crowd gave him. He remarked how no one in his crew was anticipating the 10-hour trek from Birmingham to OKC but it had to be done.
Which brings me back to the centerpiece for the festival, the city of Birmingham itself. The people who ventured out to Secret Stages already knew the festival was enjoying a healthy seventh year of existence, even if many were fixated on the potential change brought on by gentrification and more.
Walk far enough and downtown morphs from a modern hub of commerce to abandoned buildings and brick housing deemed suitable only for lower income families. There are stretches of city block from parks to churches strictly outlined as a remembrance for those who died during the Civil Rights Movement. From the Civil Rights Institute that serves as as a de facto piece of history, to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, preserved after the September 1963 bombing that claimed the lives of four young black girls, the soul of Birmingham is very much alive.
Rashid Qandil agrees. One of the city’s biggest hip-hop coordinators, he was point man for a number of things during the festival from master of ceremonies to merchandiser. “A lot of the artists that come into town for Secret Stages? When they get done one of the things I heard a lot is, ‘I’ve never seen a festival which supports artists that are unknown. That I wish this would happen in my city.’ That’s always resonated with me. I haven’t figured out who else is doing that, just on a local scale.”
Rock in Birmingham is a twangy deal and Secret Stages had plenty of it, from down home country to the more traditional, heavier stuff. After the rain and thunder settled on Friday afternoon, Alabama Rose took hold of the main stage to play what one fan called, “Music to get your woman back.” Ballad-heavy Jesse Aycock of Tulsa, Oklahoma delivered one of the signature country-rock performances of the weekend, playing to one of the larger crowds seen downtown. Genres such as jazz and electronic were also well-represented, as Tyler Ambrosius brought a whole flock over to his Pale Eddie’s set to hear tightly bound together snaps of drums and keyboards.
In some ways, Secret Stages is a reminder that the underdogs of Birmingham are still around, motivated by what they can do to create a legacy of their own. Civil rights icon Fred Shuttlesworth’s voice echoes throughout the city, from the airport that bears his name to the numerous murals and statues made in his image. Birmingham still hones in on an accurate representation of the blues, both sweet and sour. But as far as a music hub for all? It is a touch perfect. Secret Stages finds a way to blend every slice of Birmingham life. And doesn’t hesitate to remind you that uplifting something new still manages to honor the past.