- Photo by Malaika Kambon
- Meshell Ndegeocello brought a diverse crowd to the Freight.
The Freight & Salvage opened as a grassroots, 87-seat coffeehouse in 1968. Now, the 450-seat venue boasts a state-of-the-art sound system, hosts shows almost every day of the year, and serves as the East Bay's go-to venue for traditional bluegrass, Celtic, folk, and jazz music. The Freight & Salvage Music Festival on Saturday, Sept. 22, promises to be a massive party celebrating its 50th anniversary. The free, day-long event features dancing, storytelling, kid-friendly activities, and musicians, including the venerable soul/R&B vocalist Linda Tillery, hip-hop/funk drummer Joseph "Zigaboo" Modeliste, Cajun band BeauSoleil, Latin duo Bang Data, country singer-songwriter Miko Marks, and several others.
Rumbling underneath those eclectic sounds is the beat of a different drummer. The Freight, according to Executive Director Sharon Dolan, is shaking itself up to engage in messy, necessary growth.
"We've set goals for inclusion and diversity long-term," said Dolan. "Significant changes in the last three-and-a-half years have happened. We have a broader definition of traditional music."
The Freight hired Peter Williams as program director specifically to bring more people of color to the main stage — especially more Latinx and African American musicians. The venue has also worked to bring music that attracts younger audiences, ages 35 to 45.
But it's not just the music programming that has expanded. Every corner of the organization —staffing policies, board membership, volunteers, community outreach, partnerships — is under the microscope.
"I'm white," Dolan said. "Historically, the Freight has had more white people on the board, staff, and volunteer corps. If we're making decisions, we may have an incomplete picture. With more diversity, we have a richer set of ideas for engaging the community."
Oakland-based singer-songwriter and band leader Kofy Brown recently joined the board. "The Freight's taking an active approach," she said, referring to the Freight's efforts to diversify. "Being on the equity and inclusion committee and one of three people of color on the board, it's taken seriously. We talk about the vision of the Freight: If when you walk in, everyone is welcome — gender, ethnicity, age, ability, all of it — it's not magic, or maybe it is. It's intentional mindfulness and energy."
As one of few people of color in the room at other venues, Brown said she's sometimes stared at, as if she doesn't belong. "There's a coldness," she said.
There's evidence that younger audiences are responding to the Freight's mindset. At Meshell Ndegeocello's show in May 2018, Brown said 80 percent of the audience raised their hands when asked if they were first-time visitors. "Maybe 70 percent were people of color, 40 percent were under age 30. That all comes with intention," she said. "Looking at the broader scope while not neglecting the folk and bluegrass traditions, you're saying [we offer] all music of value to all people. The Freight is awake to that."
But waking up is tough, admitted Dolan. "Change is messy and we're going to make mistakes. I hope people call us on it if we do," she said. "That's one way to keep growing and getting better."
A $50,000 grant from a foundation Dolan cannot yet name is supporting a pilot initiative that includes in-depth assessment of the Freight's infrastructure and diversity training. "We're looking at formal and informal ways to support equity. In time, we'll have a broader diversity of opinions," Dolan said. "Changing a 50-year-old culture is a little like moving a barge. We're in it for the long game."
Grammy-nominated percussionist, composer, and educator John Santos has joined "the long game" as guest curator and has introduced more musicians who share his roots in Afro-Latin jazz music. "This move to open up, to make statements publicly and fearlessly, is the Freight getting with the times," he said. "For me, it's heartwarming and encouraging."
Outside of the Freight, he paints a grim picture. "The horrible example the Trump administration is setting affects everybody," he said. "Artists have always been on the forefront of efforts to make things just — to bring up a voice against racism, against putting up walls between us and people who are 'other than.' That's a weird thing to have to deal with, when we've made so many advances during Civil Rights. To have to go backwards because of leadership is ugly."
He argues that promoting Latin music can function as a healing alternative. "Music brings people together. It's connected to and born from the violence of colonialism. It's the voice of resistance of people who're repressed. It unites us across age and color," Santos said. "It's the art of the people. Musicians and artists reflect about what's going on. They're counted on to raise a voice."
Pleased at the initial efforts, Brown and Santos dream about further changes. "We do a good job of bringing more women and people of color into the fold, but I'd like to see more funk music and new, local indie acts paired to open with headliners," said Brown.
In Santos's view, the big dilemma for audiences isn't just diversity, it's the economy. "The economics in the Bay Area are so off-the-chart that you could bring in great music from Latin America but people won't be able to afford the tickets."
Santos mentioned that it'd be ideal for philanthropists to help underwrite programming so the Freight can remain financially stable and ticket prices can stay low — or become even more accessible. Individual donors are, in fact, stepping up as they learn of the initiatives, according to Dolan. The board is pursuing grants and other support, too.
"I never feel like, 'OK, we're done now,'" Dolan said. "The images on the wall: Are they all old white guys or is there a mix? Do we expect quiet or no kids running around? What are our cultural norms and are they comfortable? People who've been coming here for years say it's like their living room. I want it to feel for new people coming to the Freight that it's their living room, too."
Saturday, Sept. 22, 11 a.m.-6 p.m., free, 2020 Addison St., Berkeley, TheFreight.org