At the Levitt Foundation, our approach to building more equitable, healthy, and thriving communities is multifaceted. Beyond our core grantmaking areas that include Levitt venues, the Levitt AMP [Your City] Grant Awards, and the recently launched pilot program Levitt VIBE, we support festivals, events, and field-building initiatives that expand access to the arts and nurture an equitable arts and music ecosystem, ultimately strengthening America’s social fabric.

Enter Celebrate AMERI’KANA Music and Arts Festival: Co-presented by community youth-empowerment nonprofit Art as Mentorship and Kansas City-based, Latin GRAMMY-nominated rock ‘n’ roll act and multiple Levitt stage performer Making Movies, Celebrate AMERI’KANA is an annual event that highlights local and national Black and Brown musicians, showcases the diversity of the Kansas City, Missouri, arts community, and empowers youth performers. The Levitt Foundation has proudly supported Celebrate AMERI’KANA for the past two years, and 2023 was a particularly impactful and exciting year for the celebration because admission to this autumn’s event—which took place on September 10 at Concourse Park, a public green space located in Kansas City’s Historic Northeast end—was completely free.

The festival’s organizers have always been the type to “flip the script,” as Making Movies frontman and Arts as Mentorship Founder Enrique Chi puts it. As the festival’s name suggests, the Midwestern music and arts experience is a celebration of American roots music—and one decidedly different from a majority of music events in the Americana space, which, historically, has disproportionately presented white performers in the genre, all while underrepresenting BIPOC musicians whose ancestors had a fundamental role in creating the blues, rock ‘n’ roll, and jazz we call American music today. Celebrate AMERI’KANA, on the other hand, foregrounds a lineup of talent reflective of the Black and Brown history of Americana music (which also includes blues, zydeco, gospel, rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, and son jarocho).

“We really are trying to shift cultural awareness by observing the Black, Brown, and Indigenous roots of popular American music today,” Art as Mentorship Communications Strategist Erika Noguera explained. “It’s time we all agree to recognize where this music comes from.”

This year’s Celebrate AMERI’KANA featured a lineup of more than 70 performers, all of whom were members of Black and Brown communities.

The result of this “flip the script” move?  This year’s Celebrate AMERI’KANA roster exclusively featured Black, Latinx, and Indigenous performers, while previous years’ lineups have also featured predominately artists of color. Many of the creative and cultural vendors at Mercado, the festival’s international open-air market, were also folks of color (this year’s event respectively featured 32 and 36 percent Latino and Black vendors and community partners).

Celebrate AMERI’KANA also champions young voices—a strategy reflective of presenter Art as Mentorship’s ethos. With a vision of building an inclusive community where underrepresented artists are empowered to express themselves through music, Art as Mentorship provides Kansas City youth with social bonding and performance opportunities, including Celebrate AMERI’KANA. For Kansas City’s young dreamers, that means getting a chance to rock their own stage in front of 1,200 festival attendees. Nearly a third of the 76 artists programmed for the festival were young people—impressive for an early-career gig.

“For a kid, just seeing yourself on stage can be empowering,” Chi said. “You can go, ‘Oh, I guess I can do this—this person is no different than me…It helps them understand that they can pursue music, or whatever their creative practice is, to whatever end they desire.”

Aside from affirming the importance of BIPOC representation, Celebrate AMERI’KANA honors the city’s deep yet sometimes overlooked music roots. “We’re the heart of America,” Noguera explained. “There’s a lot of history here—jazz was born in New Orleans, but it grew up, and evolved, here in Kansas City. So our town is really growing up, and we hope the national stage realizes we have a lot to offer musically and artistically.”

Celebrate AMERI’KANA certainly evidences the city’s blossoming pride for and reconnection with its Americana roots. Youth performers (representing a variety of organizations, including Art as Mentorship’s songwriting camp Rebel Song Academy) and KC natives (including Chi’s own band, Making Movies, along with The Voice starlet Katie Cosentino and Congolese Rumba choir The Salvation Choir) brought down the house, illustrating to their diverse community all the talent, from blossoming to Billboard-charting, their hometown has to offer. Heavy-hitting national acts like Dos Santos and Latin GRAMMY winner Mireya Ramos took to the stage as well.

Beyond experiencing the joy and power of free, live music performed by award-winning BIPOC artists, Celebrate AMERI’KANA audiences had the opportunity to support Kansas City’s small business creators at the festival’s open-air market.

This year’s festival also featured a community market, Mercado, comprising small business makers and artists. Families of all generations and cultures found joy in activities like a soccer camp, drum safari experience, skate club, and painting session. Celebrate AMERI’KANA participants lent themselves to the organizers’ vision of a joyous, empowered, and inclusive community, celebrating its past, present, and one another through the power of accessible live music.

The September 2023 edition of Celebrate AMERI’KANA was more accessible and inclusive than ever, both geographically and financially. Noguera and Chi credit much of these improvements to the Levitt Foundation’s support.

“Our relationship with Levitt was a huge influence in not just moving it to Concourse Park—where our local families congregate anyway—but also making it free,” Chi reflected. “We’ve been able to reach the families that we were trying to reach, whereas, in previous years, when we would give away free tickets in the past to these same families, there was still that barrier of going to a venue that they didn’t traditionally have in their lives. It was enough to stop them, even with a free ticket.”

Moving the festival to Concourse Park, located the city’s Historic Northeast neighborhood, allowed Kansas City’s underserved, lower-income residents to experience the joy and excitement of free live music and arts experiences in their own backyard. Historic Northeast is a borough of Kansas City teeming with ethnic diversity, with a large immigrant and Mexican American population. Due in part to its history in refugee resettlement, the historical neighborhood has a sizable number of African, Vietnamese, Afghani, and European descendant populations as well.

“Historic Northeast just seemed like a perfect home to celebrate this diversity,” Chi said, smiling. “Like, the elementary schools here say things like, ‘At our school, we speak 52 languages!’ It’s pretty amazing for a Midwestern city.”

At the same time, Chi also explained that Historic Northeast community, and particularly Concourse Park, has been overlooked over the years. Case in point: A festival-type event had not been presented in the park in over 20 years.

“It’s a bit of a forgotten part of Kansas City,” Chi said. “From the park, you’re looking at the skyline of Downtown Kansas City. It’s just a few miles away, you could bike or walk there. And yet, white flight was so intense in this neighborhood that it became forgotten—and now it’s having a resurgence.”

So, what’s next for Celebrate AMERI’KANA? Well, along with being free and located at Concourse Park in the city’s Historic Northeast neighborhood, the festival will be occurring as part of a larger national creative placemaking initiative, Arts for Every Body, which is activating at 18 different sites across the country on July 27, 2024. Stay tuned for more details!

As with the last two years, Celebrate AMERI’KANA will also be stepping into 2024 with Levitt’s support. “Levitt’s validation and support of our ideas was appreciated. The feeling of producing this year’s festival was so different because we weren’t under pressure to sell tickets. In Kansas City, we sometimes have a scarcity mindset. And I feel like doing it free in the park really opened us up to this abundance mindset.”

Abundance, indeed—not just of attendees and refreshingly inclusive programming, but also of community impact. With each round of the festival, Kansas City’s multicultural community has grown increasingly interconnected across generations and backgrounds—not to mention more aware and prouder of its own history as a meritorious music hub.

“This year’s Celebrate AMERI’KANA was the first of its kind,” Chi said. “Finally, we know what our model is now—we know what to build off of.” And what a thrill it will be to witness the one-of-a-kind music and arts festival transform Kansas City by continuing to build community through free music.

Celebrate AMERI’KANA Music and Arts Festival 2024 is on July 27.