The Cherry Hill Arts & Music Waterfront Festival is all about homegrown talent, co-founder Fanon Hill will tell you.
Years ago, the other co-founder, community organizer Shirley Foulks, was working in the Cherry Hill Homes when a middle schooler named Marquis Gasque approached her and told her about his passion for making hip-hop beats.
Wanting to support him, Foulks raised money to purchase a laptop and beat-making software for the student. Mighty Mark, as many know him now, went on to become a famous DJ and producer, as well as a pioneer of Baltimore club music.
On Monday, Mighty Mark will take the stage at Middle Branch Park to celebrate the first in-person version of the waterfront festival in three years.
“It really speaks to the power of community arts, in terms of investing in our children and providing them with opportunities,” Hill said.
The sixth annual Cherry Hill Arts & Music Waterfront Festival, taking place from 1 p.m. to 10 p.m. July 4, is designed to honor the legacy of Harriet Tubman 200 years after her birth in Maryland.
The challenges people continue to face during the pandemic — and their responses to those challenges — reminded organizers of the self-determination and resourcefulness of Cherry Hill residents, Hill said. As they worked to return the festival to being in-person this year, they connected those themes with the life and legacy of Tubman.
One of the artists performing this year was chosen specifically to celebrate that legacy.
Baltimore club music queen TT the Artist, aka Tedra Wilson, was able to shine a light on the Black arts and culture scene in Baltimore with her 2021 documentary “Dark City Beneath the Beat,” Hill said.
“We once again wanted to celebrate her this year as a result of her determination, her fierceness and what she has been able to do,” Hill said.
For Wilson, performing at this year’s festival feels like a homecoming.
Even though she’s had a few shows in Baltimore in the past year, Wilson said coming back to Cherry Hill feels different because of how community-centric the festival is.
Hill credits all the success of the festival to participation by Cherry Hill residents. The Youth Resiliency Institute, which Hill leads, organizes workshops for Cherry Hill youth to learn more about different careers involved in festival-planning.
In addition to employing 50 people from the area at their 2019 festival, the organizers entrusted young residents in Cherry Hill with designing the fireworks show in partnership with Image Engineering, an event production company in Curtis Bay.
“We try to make sure that it’s understood that arts and culture provides an economic generator,” Hill said.
Wilson performed at the first version of the festival in 2017, and she remembers how different she and the festival both were back then.
“To be able to see something continue to grow, I love that. I know that this festival is built around supporting local artists, supporting community, and so I had a great, great time,” she said.
“Performing at the first one was a easy yes, and performing at this one was a easy yes.”
Since 2017, the Cherry Hill Arts & Music Waterfront Festival has been about telling a different story from the one traditionally associated with the area.
Cherry Hill was the nation’s first planned Black suburb, originally developed in 1945 as a federal housing project for Black veterans and their families after white Baltimoreans opposed every other potential site, according to a 2015 Morgan State study.
In addition to highlighting Cherry Hill and its people, the festival puts a spotlight on Middle Branch Park, a site overlooking the Patapsco River that’s expected to be restored from a historical dumping ground to an attractive and usable shoreline in the years to come.
“We know nationally that as a result of environmental racism, segregation, park systems weren’t always welcoming to Black folks, people of color,” Hill said.
“This festival serves as a reminder that our parks in Baltimore City, our jewels and gems, they play a major role within community life.”
In addition to musical performances throughout the day, festivalgoers can expect photo exhibitions, food trucks, historical reenactments of scenes from Tubman’s life, fashion shows and fireworks to cap off the night.
As a nod to the neighborhood’s history, organizers plan to honor veterans by having an active member of the U.S. Army Reserve present awards to Arthur Lee Hayes and Leon Bailey, two older veterans living in Cherry Hill.
For Hill, the most meaningful moment of the festival will come when he can take a moment to sit back and watch everyone else enjoying the festival.
“When the first performer steps on stage, to see the expression on the faces of children and youth and elders, always just thrills me,” he said.
“It lets me know that the work we are engaged in must continue.”