More than 300 years ago, French explorers traveling up the Mississippi River spotted a 30-foot tall red pole that marked the border between the hunting grounds of two native tribes. The area around it became known as Baton Rouge (“red stick” in French) and developed into a city of more than 225,000 people that’s today the capital of Louisiana and the second largest city in the state after New Orleans. Like New Orleans, Baton Rouge has a bustling port, an abundance of Cajun and Creole cuisine, and a deeply ingrained musical culture.
Starting this summer, Baton Rouge is launching the first Levitt AMP Music Series in Scotlandville, a predominantly Black community in north Baton Rouge. It’s thought that the pole that gave Baton Rouge its name was on a bluff located in Scotlandville on what is now the campus of Southern University and A&M College, a historically Black university.
“After slavery ended and industrialization started, Scotlandville became a major hub, so lots of African-American families from river parishes flooded into that area for jobs, and at one point it was the largest African-American village in Louisiana,” says Janel Washington, Executive Director of Scotland Saturdays, a nonprofit that has spearheaded efforts to revitalize Scotlandville and is presenting the Levitt AMP Music Series in conjunction with local musician and festival producer Dexter Jackson.
Soon after Scotlandville was annexed to Baton Rouge in the late 1970s, the construction of Interstate 110 changed the face and fortunes of the community in 1984.
“The interstate cut straight through the community and homes and businesses came down,” says Washington. “What’s so unique about Scotlandville is at one point money was being invested, so the infrastructure is there but it has not been maintained. Because of the interstate it became an invisible area, and a lot of neglect has happened.”
Washington says poor Wi-Fi plagues the neighborhood and there is no longer a grocery store in the area, despite the expansive community having more than 10,000 residents, many of them elderly. Due to a lack of housing, many Southern University students commute from other parts of the city.
In 2018, Janel’s husband, Byron Washington, launched Scotland Saturdays as a monthly farmer’s market intended to bring fresh food options to the area and give local businesses a forum for selling their wares. Gradually, local musicians and spoken-word artists began to perform at the markets.
Over the past few years, Scotland Saturdays has held various holiday festivals in the neighborhood, including a popular Mardi Gras parade and festival that draws thousands of attendees. Repeated requests from locals to make the farmer’s market a more regular event inspired the Washingtons to apply for a Levitt AMP grant so they could bring consistent, free music programming to the neighborhood.
They partnered with Dexter Jackson, who last year staged a successful music festival at a Baton Rouge brewery, to curate the artist lineup. Levitt AMP is taking place at Scotlandville Plaza, which was once the bustling center of the community and is slowly reclaiming its vitality. Janel Washington says new restaurants are opening around the plaza and a museum about Scotlandville is in the works. Developers are planning to build housing for young professionals nearby.
Washington hopes the free music series draws residents from all over Baton Rouge — some who may not have been to Scotlandville in years. Though the Levitt AMP concerts will feature a gumbo of musical genres, Washington says it’s zydeco, blues, jazz, folk, and country that will likely bring out the crowds. “Any color, any creed, anybody from our area, that’s the kind of music that brings us all to the dance floor.”
Scotlandville’s musical heritage has been enriched by the marching band of Southern University, nicknamed the “Human Jukebox,” that performs in parades and competitions worldwide. “Ask anyone in this area — they are the best band in the land, the pride and joy of our area,” says Washington. “The band is known for putting out all these amazing musicians and that’s shaped the community. So many times you can be sitting outside and someone’s practicing on their instrument, whether they’re going to Southern University or one of the neighborhood high schools.” Washington points out Baton Rouge’s other major college, Louisiana State University, is just ten miles away and also has a famous band. “There’s a pride in being a musician that resonates not just in Scotlandville but in Baton Rouge as a whole.”
Washington predicts a huge turnout for The Michael Foster Project, a brass band of musicians who came out of Southern University and will be playing July 8th at the Levitt AMP concert. Washington also thinks rapper and emcee Marcel P. Black will appeal to her community’s deep interest in social justice and unity.
Scotland Saturdays has numerous partnerships with local organizations that will help inform, empower, and elevate the Scotlandville community at the concerts. Baton Roots will bring in fresh, farm-grown produce. BREC (the city’s parks and recreation department) will be talking to folks about what they want to see in local under-utilized green spaces. Local politicians will also make appearances, and cooking demonstrations, health clinics, and kids’ activities will be available at various shows.
“My hope is that eventually we see a full community campaign connected to Levitt AMP, so businesses have all these different activities connected to it on different days,” says Washington. “I don’t want people to just come to a concert. I want them to go to the coffee shop up the street, the pizza spot, the clothing store, and spend their money there. That’s where the numbers come from that encourage real growth in our community and make it so that our invisibility is no longer possible.”
Washington looks forward to a day when Scotlandville senior citizens don’t need to drive across town to find quality food, adequate medical care, or a pleasant park. “I’d love to see this become a walkable, self-sustaining area,” she says. “I want there to be spaces that in particular draw young, growing families and to be able to live, work and play in my own community.” Levitt AMP is part of the vision to help make this dream a reality, and the momentum is already underway with concerts having launched in May! Learn more about the 2023 Levitt AMP Baton Rouge Music Series at www.ssaturdays.com