Virginia isn’t the first place that comes to mind when you think of a musical hotbed. Those are places like NYC, LA, Nashville, Atlanta, and Miami. But Virginia native Pharrell Williams has been trying to change that perception for years, outrightly so with his Something In The Water Festival. Back in 2019, Pharrell described his vision for it, noting that it wasn’t just to bring artists together, but for corporations, the NCAA, and the world to understand that Virginia is here, “open for business,” and deserving its flowers for its outsized yet lesser-known impact on popular music.
To fully grasp that outsized impact, one maybe does need to quickly look back at history. Virginia, with its colonial blend of English, Scots-Irish, and African influences, was a launching pad for old-time music — the foundation for blues, bluegrass, country music, and more. Many of America’s most iconic performers, from Patsy Cline to Ella Fitzgerald, hailed from the state and drew influence from that unique sonic landscape. Popular music today, from jazz to blues to hip-hop, is a reflection of a poly-cultural makeup — and Virginia was one of the first places where those diverse perspectives and styles began to manifest into tangible works of art.
Fast-forward to more recent history, and the state’s impact on the music world is undeniable, yet still seems to fly under the radar. All one needs to do is have a look at Pharrell and his production partner, Chad Hugo, who formed The Neptunes in 1990 from their hometown of Virginia Beach, VA. The iconic duo gave the world hits like “Milkshake” by Kelis, “Beautiful” by Snoop Dogg, and “Hollaback Girl” by Gwen Stefani, with the two eventually being named the second most influential production duo of the 21st Century, only behind pop savant Max Martin. Of course, that’s not the last the world has seen of Pharrell. The multi-hyphenate musician gave us the now divisive, yet still monstrously successful “Happy” (which he himself seems to be sick of), and has contributed to recent work from Kendrick Lamar, Jack Harlow, Kehlani, ROSALÍA, Omar Apollo, Ashnikko, and Snoh Aalegra — just to name a few. He also just dropped this jam with 21 Savage and Tyler The Creator.
He’s not alone though. Surrounding Pharrell is a vortex of other successful artists and producers who also call Virginia Beach and the surrounding Hampton Roads area home, from Pharrell’s cousin Timbaland and his long-time collaborator Missy Elliott to Pusha T and his brother No Malice, otherwise known as Clipse. Each act came up together at the same time in the exact same town — a puzzling revelation that sparks a lot of intrigue. This is where the diverse cultural makeup of Virginia meets with a somewhat surprising facilitator for its melting pot feel — the US Navy. Newport News, where Missy, Pharrell, and those other VA players come from, is home to a large number of naval bases that over the years have brought families from all over the country to the region. That raises the question: could it be that all those disparate influences and regional styles made the area an easy-bake oven for totally fresh yet immediately recognizable and universally resonant music?
Other Virginian artists, from Dave Grohl and D’Angelo to Kali Uchis and Dave Matthews, may not come from Newport News specifically but their varied musical styles embody the state’s broad sensibilities. Their music showcases distinct regional flair and speaks to hotspots just outside the state’s borders, from the country twang of Tennessee to the punk rock and urban flair of Washington D.C. D.C., for instance, is where Grohl cut his teeth in the punk scene, loading him up with influences that he’d take to Seattle in the late ’80s before joining Nirvana with their mix of fast-slow-fast melodic heaviness. The end result was a mix that has made the Foo Fighters an all-time band around the world.
DC’s influence on Virginia’s music shouldn’t be understated with the Nation’s Capital housing so many different artists, from the aforementioned Kali Uchis to rapper Wale, plus a multitude of venues in such a concentrated area. Catering to all sentiments — the heart of the establishment, the spirit of rebellion — Virginia’s neighbor to the north reflects the same diverse cultural personality and output, something that could again easily be attributed to the area’s military and government outposts. As that city welcomes a refreshed version of Pharrell’s Something In The Water Festival this week, music lovers will be given a chance to re-embrace Virginia and its surrounding area’s lasting impact on culture while rejoicing in the art coming out of every under-the-radar city, state, and country across the world.
Some of the artists here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.