Last year, the Northern Touch Music Festival and Conference — a hip-hop-focused festival with a large educational component — jumped into the crowded summer-festival pool for the first time and hoped for the best.
Organizers knew there was a strong desire from local musicians and producers for a festival, but they never could have anticipated the response Northern Touch got: both the showcases and professional development events were received enthusiastically and it became clear the inaugural event would not be the last.
Initially, Northern Touch featured 35 performers on three stages over two days.
This year, the number of performers has more than doubled — 75 showcasing acts will take part, 22 of whom are from outside of Manitoba. Festival founder and director Shea Malcolmson says he hopes this lineup will help position it as an international festival.
"Last year was kind of a proof of concept coming off the heels of a conversation that was happening at Manitoba Music about diversity and inclusion and so it was kind of the moment to prove to a lot of these companies... basically, I was an ambassador for the community and what happens when you can connect the right person to the right place and have the support in place within the community," says Malcolmson, who is also a hip-hop artist and producer.
"We had planned on trying to grow at least 10 per cent, which was a very conservative estimate, and then of course we were able to blow that out of the water."
But it’s not just the music side of things that have grown; the festival became a non-profit entity and enlisted a board of directors that represent the communities they want to reach out to. The conference aspect has also expanded; the festival had to move to bigger locations to accommodate increased interest. Now, the professional development portions of the festival will take place at Rachel Browne Theatre, as well as Roblin Centre at Red River College.
Northern Touch has also joined forces with the Exchange District BIZ this year to take over the Cube stage in Old Market Square, where they’ve programmed free entertainment (both local and international) from 5 p.m. to 11:45 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights.
"We will also have other components to our festival at the Cube — a dance component as well as our street art. It’s important to us to elevate all of the elements that inspire what we do and vice versa," says Pauline Leung, one of the directors at festival.
"It is a big community, it’s much bigger than just the music and we all intertwine in what we do so we’re trying to incubate everybody. It’s important to understand that we’re a big economic driver; we’re not the only urban music-geared entity here, I think the Exchange really supports that and it’s something we need more of in the city."
"There’s also a free pop-up museum in Forth. We believe in not only educating the artists but also educating the general public about the different elements and different colours of hip hop and why they’re important, and how it all ties together," adds Malcolmson.
"There will be some paintings and some projection multimedia of the old music videos. Our president, DJ Bunny, has been archiving all this footage from CBC from the late ’80s right up until 2000, so he has all these articles and clippings and music videos, and he was part of one of the first ever music videos filmed here in 1988, so there’s some really cool stuff."
The after-parties, which run from midnight to 2 a.m. each night, are at various venues in the Exchange — including Forth, the Palomino Club and La Carnita — and are ticketed.
The speed at which Northern Touch has taken off wasn’t something Malcolmson had planned so soon, but he says he’s happy to embrace changes, additions and new opportunities as they’ve become available.
"As the person who started it, my idea was simply to create the space," says Malcolmson.
"It’s kind of interesting, Rob (Kristjansson) from the city, I became friends with just by happenstance... One of the things he had mentioned that really stuck with me is that he has a side business and he makes cheese. He said it’s a bit of a metaphor, and this really stuck with me — usually when you’re cooking, you’re in total control, you’re setting the time and temperature and are in complete control of the outcome, but with cheese you just build the environment for it, and it’s a culture, it’s alive on its own and what it becomes is separate from you, and I know it sounds crazy, but that’s sort of how I feel about the festival," he continues.
"I don’t want to put boundaries on it, I created it to have a space and if the environment is one that turns it into an international educational type thing, I’m more than willing to go on the ride with it."
The Northern Touch Music Festival and Conference begins Friday, June 29 and runs through Sunday, July 1. Headliners include Toki Wright of Minneapolis, New York-based rapper Dai Burger and L.A. rapper Murs. For more information about ticketing and schedules, visit northerntouchmusicfestival.ca.
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Erin Lebar Multimedia producer
Erin Lebar is a multimedia producer who spends most of her time writing music- and culture-related stories for the Arts & Life section. She also co-hosts the Winnipeg Free Press's weekly pop-culture podcast, Bury the Lede.