Amber “ACE” Cleveland never planned to start her own hip-hop festival, until one day inspiration struck her while walking around St. Paul’s Lowertown neighborhood with hip-hop/spoken word artist Desdamona. “It’d be so cool to see a show down here,” Desdamona remarked, and Cleveland ran with the idea. “My brain turned that into: I should throw a festival,” Cleveland told me. “I always joked that I blamed her; she just said one very innocent remark, and I turned it into what it is now.”
Since 2014, Cleveland has hosted For the Love, an annual hip-hop festival in St. Paul. This Saturday, July 6, For the Love will celebrate its fifth anniversary in Mears Park with performances from Heiruspecs, Haphduzn, Lady Midnight, and Dwynell Roland, plus emcees, deejays, dancers, and visual artists. For the Love is also transitioning from a once-a-year music festival to a non-profit organization that will connect local hip-hop artists with Twin Cities elementary schools.
A writer, dancer, educator, and hip-hop artist, Cleveland was experienced in organizing and curating shows in the Twin Cities long before launching For the Love. After dreaming up the idea for her own music festival, Cleveland applied to the Cultural STAR Program, which awards grants to various organizations in St. Paul. Cleveland won the grant, and held the first year of For the Love, a Community Celebration at the now-closed Bedlam Theatre in July 2014.
The festival’s first headliner in 2014 was the reunited Rhymesayers duo the Micranots, a collaboration between I Self Devine and DJ Kool Akiem. Other past performers include Ashley DuBose, Kanser, Maria Isa, Greg Grease, and Sarah White.
When For the Love first started, it was named a “Community Celebration,” and over the past five years, the festival has shone a light on Minnesota’s flourishing hip-hop scene. Cleveland cites Rhymesayers as an inspiration for the event, and this year the record label is one of For the Love’s sponsors. For the Love is open to all sorts of hip-hop artists including deejays, emcees, singers, and producers — but they all have to be based in Minnesota.
By focusing the lineup on local artists, Cleveland says she can book artists who might go overlooked by larger festivals. “The idea was that this lineup would never allow anyone who was not a Minnesota artist to perform on it — just to give people an opportunity,” Cleveland said. “Maybe you don’t have an opportunity to play on a big stage; this is your opportunity to make that happen.”
“It’s almost like a secret — this big, well-kept secret that we have some of the best hip-hop scenes, specifically in the United States,” Cleveland continued. “It’s mind-blowing to me how much talent exists here — which is why I can get away with saying there will never be anyone besides Minnesota artists on this lineup — because I could build this lineup for years with the talent that just exists right here.”
Another factor that drove Cleveland to launch her own festival was creating an event that was accessible to everyone, regardless of income. Every year, For the Love is free and open to the public. The festival’s first three years took place at Bedlam Theatre, and after its closing in 2016, the event is now held in St. Paul’s Mears Park. For the Love also works with Metro Transit to provide free rides to/from the festival.
Cleveland says that making the event free helps attract a diverse crowd, including families and neighbors who might not attend otherwise. “There are very [few] places where you can go and experience hip-hop with your entire family,” said Cleveland. “Essentially, if you don’t want to spend a dollar that day, you don’t have to, and you can be entertained for 10 hours. That doesn’t exist for most families anywhere.”
One of the festival’s loyal attendees is Cleveland’s 70-year old mother, who comes every year. “I see every kind of person come to this event, from babies through the elderly,” Cleveland said. “Or people who just live in the area that discover it. There are these Lowertown neighbors that I’ve gotten to know over the years, because they come to every show.”
As a hip-hop festival, For the Love highlights more than just music. Each year, the event represents all four pillars of hip-hop: emcees, deejays, dance, and visual art. Graffiti artists create large works of art in Mears Park, and dance groups join the stage. This year, two dance groups will participate in For the Love: Twin Cities dance group New Black City, and Mvskoke Creek/Seneca brothers Lumhe and Samsoche Sampson, who perform as the Sampson Brothers.
Cleveland is excited to have the Sampson Brothers participate in this year’s festival, and to have Indigenous artists represented in the lineup. “I want to always have Native culture represented, especially in dance,” she said. “Especially because we’re in Minnesota. I don’t think people realize how important Native culture is in the community of hip-hop.” One of For the Love’s sponsors this year is Indigenous Roots, a St. Paul organization that supports its city’s Indigenous communities through arts and culture.
After organizing the festival for the past five years, Cleveland is creating the non-profit For the Love Project, to bridge the festival’s commitment to hip-hop-based community engaging with Cleveland’s background in arts education. After working with an after-school performing arts program in Woodbury, Cleveland pursued a master’s degree in Liberal Studies from the University of Minnesota, and is currently finishing her Doctorate of Education at Hamline University with a dissertation on “hip-hop as a shared cultural language and education.”
As a non-profit organization, For the Love Project will bring artists of color into Twin Cities schools to teach after-school programs throughout the year. At the end of the year, participating schools will compete for a spot on the festival’s lineup.
For more information about this year’s event, you can visit For the Love Project’s website.
Colleen Cowie runs the blog Pass The Mic.