Entertainment executive Kevin Liles keeps the music industry’s hottest performers on speed dial, especially those he works with.
When the Baltimore-bred music mogul was thinking about creating something special and exciting for his hometown’s premier horse racing and music event, he reached out to a headlining “hot girl.”
“I called my girl Megan Thee Stallion and said, ‘Meg, you’re the Stallion, you have to do Preakness for me,’” said Liles, recounting how he asked the Grammy-winning rapper, who is signed to one of the labels he oversees, to join the festival.
Liles, 54, is producing the star-studded debut of Preakness Live Culinary Art & Music Festival, a concert and interactive cultural experience launching Friday, May 20, the day before the 147th Preakness Stakes and InfieldFest music event. For the lifelong Preakness fan, curating the new festival is much more than a Baltimore homecoming, it’s a divine calling.
“I think that God calls me every now and then to say, ‘Hey! I need you to share light.’ I think the light I’m shedding is not just about Preakness, it’s about us taking ownership in the way that people see and feel about our city,” said Liles, chairman and CEO of 300 Entertainment and, as of last year, Elektra Music Group.
The music executive hopes to showcase the city in a light beyond its notoriety for shows such as HBO’s “The Wire,” and the currently airing “We Own This City,” by spotlighting Baltimore’s talented residents, entrepreneurs and charms.
Liles, who now lives in New Jersey, reflected on his hometown and goals for the festival, while taking in the city’s beauty from his hotel room at the Four Seasons Hotel Baltimore, as he prepped for a Preakness Live launch event later that day.
A ‘native son’ of Baltimore
“My real title, when you cut me open, is the native son of Baltimore,” Liles said shortly after admitting to eating Gaffney’s crabs for breakfast that morning.
Whether he bleeds Old Bay seasoning or not, Liles said he is indebted to Baltimore — the city that made him who he is today.
“I didn’t know nothing existed outside of Baltimore until music saved my life,” Liles said.
The West Baltimore-groomed, Woodlawn High graduate considered the various sites that molded him into a CEO.
“Whether it was the church on one corner, or the liquor store on another corner, or my mom’s house,” Liles said Baltimore’s streets, residents and culture gifted him with lifelong lessons and values.
When the opportunity called to collaborate with 1/ST Experience, Liles delivered with a high-powered lineup that includes Megan Thee Stallion, eight-time Grammy-winner and legendary singer Ms. Lauryn Hill and Club Quarantine’s D-Nice. He’s also highlighting hometown talent with Charm City native and country artist Brittney Spencer and Baltimore-based Darin Atwater & The Soulful Symphony.
Jimmy Vargas, CEO of 1/ST Experience, the production group behind Preakness Live and Preakness 147, explained the new Friday event is inspired by the company’s initiative “Baltimore 1/ST,” with the goal of “showcasing the best of Baltimore’s culture around music, arts and culinary.” 1/ST is an affiliate of The Stronach Group, which owns Pimlico Race Course.
With this year’s Preakness, the company hopes to “modernize and reinvigorate thoroughbred horse racing,“ by highlighting Baltimore, while also revealing its charms to a more global audience, Vargas said. After the success of the staple Preakness day InfieldFest, which this year features Marshmello, The Chainsmokers, and Moneybagg Yo, 1/ST Experience called on Liles to bridge the gap between Baltimore and the larger entertainment industry for Preakness Live.
“We said, ‘Who better to curate that experience than Kevin Liles,’ being a Baltimore native son, understanding the market, but also having such global recognition across the entertainment industry,” Vargas said. ”We felt that he really set the standard for the best at the national and international level, but also has a touch and a pulse on the local representation across Baltimore culture.”
Despite the school year winding down and upcoming graduations, Liles also tapped his alma mater for entertainment.
“I went to Morgan State [University] and I said, ‘Let me get the Morgan State Marching Band,” he said.
Melvin Miles, who is retiring as Morgan State’s director of bands at the end of this semester after 49 years there, said the last time his students performed for anything involving Preakness was the late 1970s or early ’80s.
“We feel very honored to be participating in this Preakness event, and again this is something that they’ve never done before, to be at a racetrack and see that, and to be aware of that and part of it,” Miles said.
Liles also brought on national celebrity chefs as well as two of Baltimore’s own to add good eats to the Preakness Live experience.
“Whether it’s [celebrity chefs like] Tom Colicchio, or Marcus Samuelsson, or Gail Simmons, or my guys, I go to their restaurants— Saon Brice of BLK Swan and Mario Moise of Bar One — I said, ‘Yo, we’re going to call our guys and give people a taste of Baltimore,” Liles said.
‘I feel responsible’
Curating Preakness Live was a way for Liles to give back to his hometown.
“I feel as responsible for the community as the grandmother who wakes up every day to sweep the neighborhood,” he said. “I feel like the father that works two jobs to make sure his family is having an opportunity to see the gifts that God can give them as they grow.”
Liles said Preakness Live is giving Pimlico’s historic race a platform for the world to appreciate its history and cultural value.
“The Triple Crown: Kentucky Derby, there’s Belmont and there’s Preakness, and a lot of times people don’t know the significance of the Black-Eyed Susan, people don’t know the significance of the first African-American jockeys, people don’t know our contribution to the sport,” he said.
The Black-Eyed Susan, which is also the name of Maryland’s official flower, refers to the signature launch event and race that takes place Friday as well as the traditional cocktail associated with the horse race. There also were barrier-breaking Preakness-winning Black jockeys such as George “Spider” Anderson (1889) and Willie Simms (1898), who dominated horse racing before white rage and segregation made the sport exclusionary by race for decades.
Liles explained he is continuing his mission of empowering Black Americans through his work with Preakness.
“Similar to my relationship with [NASCAR driver] Bubba Wallace and creating the Netflix series ‘Race,’ around NASCAR, I think I have a responsibility to continue to push the narrative that ‘If you give [African Americans] opportunity, if you give us access, we will be great,’” Liles said.
Preakness is another step toward the CEO’s ultimate goal of true success.
“I never wanted to be the boss,” he said. “I just wanted to make a difference.”
Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott noted that Liles and Preakness Live is making a major contribution to the arts in his hometown.
“I am incredibly excited about this new collaboration being led by a true son of Baltimore,” Scott said. “I look forward to the profound impact this new focus on Baltimore art and culture will have on our city’s next generation of creative minds.”
After Preakness, Liles will continue working on projects that he hopes will leave positive, long-lasting legacies, but the Baltimore native said he carries his hometown with him in all his work and actions.
“Anything and everything I do represents this great city, represents who [Baltimoreans] are, what we are and why we are,” Liles said. “And we are excellent and we are great people.”