People listen to music for one of two reasons, says D.C. R&B star Raheem DeVaughn: for escapist diversion or for “edutainment,” tunes that teach while entertaining and that explore the complexities of societal and personal relationships.
“I don’t want to sing just about making love,” DeVaughn says. “I also want to sing about what’s happening in the world. That’s why I’ve done songs like ‘Bulletproof’ with Ludacris or ‘America’ with Wes Felton. In records like those, you’ll hear that we’ve come so far as a people and a planet, but we still have so far to go. It’s my responsibility as an artist and public figure to put the right frequency out there.”
And it is that “edutainment” frequency that will be running through the Summer Spirit Festival this weekend at Merriweather Post Pavilion. On Saturday, the headliners are progressive soul singers Erykah Badu and Bilal and “conscious” rappers Nas, Method Man and Redman. On Sunday, the bill features DeVaughn, go-go stars the Junkyard Band, the Roots and hip-hop singer Anderson .Paak.
There’s a reason Summer Spirit skews in the direction of “edutainment.” The festival was created and is still curated by two former Washington teachers: Carol Kirkendall and Darryll Brooks. The pair founded the Summer Hut, an arts camp in Anacostia, and Human Kindness Day, a mid-’70s annual event that, with help from Stevie Wonder, launched the drive for a Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial at the Mall. Kirkendall and Brooks eventually formed CD Enterprises, which became one of Washington’s top concert promoters as well as management for acts such as Salt-N-Pepa. Out of those experiences grew the Summer Spirit Festival.
“We were teachers, and we got into this to spread knowledge. They used to tease us that we were ‘the nonprofit characters,’ ” Kirkendall says with a laugh. “We finally learned how to make money, but we’re still trying to spread knowledge.”
The Summer Spirit Festival has a track record of introducing black artists who don’t often get heard on commercial radio. Past festivals showcased Afro-futurist Janelle Monáe, retro-soul singer Sharon Jones, New Orleans brass-band hero Trombone Shorty and jazz singer Gregory Porter before they gained mainstream media traction. Similar under-the-radar artists at this year’s festival include Prince protegee Lizzo and Roots tour-openers Phony Ppl.
“The education and the awareness spread by these musicians have changed the community,” Brooks says. “They give poetry a beat; they talk about family, marriage, prejudice and spirituality. I call it the conscious part of our culture. Instead of watching the booty shake and the bling sparkle, you think about deeper issues.”
The festival also has a long-standing commitment to the D.C. music community — especially to go-go music. Go-go was born in the Washington area, DeVaughn points out, and remains as indelibly associated with the city as hip-hop is with New York, house music with Chicago and Baltimore, brass-band music with New Orleans and gangsta rap with Los Angeles.
Though primarily known as a balladeer who scored a No. 1 R&B album in 2008 with “Love Behind the Melody,” DeVaughn grew up with go-go and has been a featured vocalist on go-go recordings by Chuck Brown and Rare Essence. The soul performer reveals that he has been rehearsing a new go-go band, Raheem DeVaughn and the Crank Crusaders. The band may even make an appearance at Merriweather.
DeVaughn has also been preparing a new solo album, “Decade of a Love King,” for an October release. The first single, “Don’t Come Easy,” is a slow-burn ballad that acknowledges the challenges of adult relationships but promises to treat his partner with tenderness and respect. It’s a throwback to old-school soul music where a male singer risks some vulnerability to get honest, and as such is an anomaly amid today’s songs of macho domination.
“That idea that if a man cries, he’s a punk, that’s bulls---,” DeVaughn says. “I have a good cry once in a while; it’s such a great release. Or it could be a cry of joy — watching your child being born or your child walking across a graduation stage. We have to do a better job of putting out that message and tearing down those walls of insecurity. For a man who has those feelings, but can’t sing or put words together, that’s what these records are for. That’s what these artists at Summer Spirit are all about.”
Merriweather Post Pavilion, 10475 Little Patuxent Pkwy., Columbia, Md. 410-715-5550.
Dates: Saturday and Sunday at 1 p.m. (doors).