BRIC Arts, the Brooklyn-based leading arts and media institution, defied all the odds and enveloped everyone in the loving embrace of soul, community, and melanated melodies.

EBONY was graciously on-hand for the 43rd annual BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival, as it marked its official return to live, in-person performances. Opening night has always been one to mark on the calendar, especially after last year’s COVID-19-ending experience turned BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn into a virtual two-day event—but this season found us all happy and blessed with multiple reasons to commemorate the moment.

With a healthy audience in attendance, donations flowing into BRIC’s coffers to supports those within the arts, and a lineup featuring Nesta, KAMAUU, Adeline, and Dreamville’s “first lady of R&B,” Ari Lennox—the moments leading up to the performances were history-making as well. Kicking off the day was Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, announcing the official renaming of the Prospect Park Bandshell to the “Lena Horne Bandshell."

The Brooklyn-born Lena Horne, who was also a social justice and civil rights activist and advocate, was honored by the community for her legacy in the arts and for her contributions to championing diverse culture-shifters from around the world and “around the block."

Nesta at BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival. Image: Walik Goshorn, Antoine DeBrill, and Valerie Magan

Queens-based reggae artist Nesta, known as “the Bob Marley of the trap-infused R&B genre,” opened up the soundclash with his brand of sunkissed dancehall vibes. “Brooklyn is like a second home to me due to it being such a cultural melting pot,” Nesta told EBONY. “I spend a lot of time there and it is an amazing homebase for amazing creators, both past and present.” With an incredible backing band and support from the Brooklyn crowd, Nesta set things off in a big way, performing songs such as “Str8 From The Heart,” “Brag,” “Why Not Love,” and “Already There,” which made even the staunchest person with a screwface get up and dance.

Next, the community-minded rapper, poet, and Brooklynite KAMAUU had his fans on their feet, swaying from left to right, and singing word for word during his meditative and evocative set. “I spent 12 years here and started my career here, so BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! will always have a special place in my heart,” KAMAUU relayed about his time before hitting the stage. “This moment is very significant to me because it is also my first big live performance since the pandemic began. It’ll be great to be around my people, my community, and to serve them with this good music.”

KAMAUU (right) and Adeline (left) at BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival. Image: Primrose Thompson

After performing his own collection of rare grooves including “Bamboo,” “Switch Up,” “Jambo,” and a special unreleased record for the fans, KAMAUU went into his covers bag, reinventing songs such as “Hey Ya” with crowd-pleasing results. For “Mango,” his classic offering about love and relationships, he was joined on stage by French-Caribbean singer and bassist Adeline, who collectively held the crowd in the palms of their hands. “I’ve never experienced BRIC before becoming a professional artist, but I’ve definitely felt magic here on stage,” Adeline shared.

“Getting to see artists sing in créole, my native language, brought me home for a minute. That is the magic of Brooklyn, with all these cultures being intertwined, and it is humbling to me that ‘Mango’ has impacted the people in some way.” As the crowd beautifully sang the words aloud, you could hear stories about how “Mango” helped them to get through a breakup or helped them to communicate their wants and needs more effectively.

All in all, the feeling of being around one another and hearing live music was not lost on the crowd or the artists. 

So when headliner Ari Lennox hit the stage, the masses swarmed to get closer and all the shea-butter-downed lovelies were glowing amidst the stage lights. It was a welcomed sight to see Dreamville’s first lady, as the past few months have hinted at some frustrating moments for the talented R&B singer-songwriter. After making a splash in the industry with Shea Butter Baby, Lennox warned listeners that she might be done releasing new music, which shocked her fans earlier in July.

“I’m content with my discography,” she tweeted. “Whether top 40 or not. Don’t care. My heart and soul is in every single joint that’s out. Even my SoundCloud joints. So until it feels right there simply won’t be no date on another project. So living my life is what I’ll continue doing.”

And in living her life, Ari Lennox was embraced by the Brooklyn crowd, who sung along or completely took over renditions of big tunes such as “Whipped Cream,” “New Apartment," “Up Late,” and went into overdrive when Lennox belted out old favorites, “Backseat” and “Night Drive.” 

J. Cole (left) and Ari Lennox (right) at BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival. Image: Walik Goshorn, Antoine DeBrill, and Valerie Magan

The penultimate moment came in the form of a surprise guest appearance from J. Cole, who rapped his verse alongside Ari Lennox for the title track, “Shea Butter Baby.” The excitement and cheers from the crowd for Cole and Lennox made the 2021 BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival a success. 

As the night ended with Ari singing “BMO,” the energy of the park never waned and proved that Brooklyn is resilient, beautiful, and powered by Blackness. And for those who missed the opening night, the glorious festivities will continue through September 18, with upcoming performances by The Roots, Wizkid, D-Nice, Skip Marley, Mr. Eazi, Junglepussy, Trombone Shorty, and more.

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Kevin L. Clark is an editor and screenwriter who covers the intersection of music, pop culture and social justice. Follow him @KevitoClark.