BAMS Fest is more than a music festival. Catherine T. Morris amplifies the soul of Black Boston

“That was my first introduction to music,” Catherine T. Morris says. “You gotta get funky with it. I resonate with that.”

The beat of her own P-Funk song is one of resistance, of joy, of love, and faith. In so many ways, as evidenced by Questlove’s new film “Summer of Soul,” music — for so many of us — can be church. And a concert is a community of freedom.

Some know Morris as director of public programs for the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, having brought everyone from Jill Scott to Phonte to local hip-hop, spoken word, and cultural conversations to the space. Next month, she steps into her new role as director of art and culture for The Boston Foundation.

Still, she carries that funky sound that calls to her spirit in all of the work she does, taking Black music with her. And the song she sings the loudest is in the key of BAMS Fest. Morris is founder and executive director of Boston Art & Music Soul (BAMS) Fest, a nonprofit aiming to dismantle racial and social hurdles to arts, music, and culture in Boston and beyond, specifically for Black and brown folk.

The vision is to not only provide creative space for the community, but to also empower artists, ensure they are paid and have access to opportunities, and to hold the city accountable for providing cultural equity. BAMS Fest holds a series of edutainment programs to uplift and raise awareness around the arts, creative entrepreneurs, and dialogues to reclaim Boston’s identity from false narratives about who actually lives and creates here. BAMS Fest is also a major summer music festival in Franklin Park.

“One of my earliest childhood memories is sitting in the living room with my parents watching ‘Sinbad’s Summer Jam’ and I love it. Seeing my parents’ favorite artists and I remember my parents talking about a different kind of Boston, all of the places and space and night clubs and concerts, I would never experience — things my generation would never experience like that.”

Her mom and dad and the music they gave her played in her spirit into adulthood. Over a decade ago, during her years at Temple University studying tourism and hospitality management, she interned with the R&B Foundation in Philadelphia and other organizations. The experience allowed her to work on a number of concerts and festivals for the Black community. She worked with artists with Philly roots, like Patti Labelle, Teddy Pendergrass, and UPenn alum John Legend.

She was forever changed.

“I said I am coming back home and I want to do a festival for Black people in my hometown. I wanted to pay homage to my parents’ Boston and to have one for my generation. They took up space unapologetically and celebrated the contribution of Black artists. Every generation has a defining moment, let this fest, BAMS Fest, be that.”

She didn’t do it right then. She would get more schooling and fund-raising fundamentals from Boston University and then she enrolled into Simmons School of Management. Six years ago, as she earned her master’s degree, she solidified a plan and founded BAMS Fest, the nonprofit.

Before COVID, BAMS Fest brought thousands to Franklin Park for a musical healing.
Before COVID, BAMS Fest brought thousands to Franklin Park for a musical healing.Maya Rafie

“Catherine loves Black people,” said Christopher Hope, founder of The Loop Lab, a nonprofit specializing in workforce development in audiovisual storytelling for disadvantaged youth. “That love comes out in her work, in whatever space she is in, be it the Isabella Gardner Museum, TBF, or BAMS Fest. She loves us and our art and despises the injustices against us and it informs her ethos. She wants to preserve the cultural arts of the diaspora.”

So she moves with intention. She takes space and makes room for everyone around her. She’s been doing it since she was a little girl being bussed through METCO.

“When people question your greatness and your magic when you know it to be true, it’s exhausting.” said the 36-year-old mom and cultural leader. “I created a space of my own in an institution that may not have always been welcoming to people of color but I have done it on my terms that I feel is necessary to change the perception that we don’t deserve better because we do deserve better.”

The first BAMS Fest community concert was held at Franklin Park in 2018, bringing together over 2,000 people. It was free. She chose June for Juneteenth, for Pride, for Father’s Day, for the culture. She honored the tradition of serving the community the way Elma Lewis did.

In 2019, it was named Best Music Festival by Boston Magazine. Over 2,000 artists applied to nab one of 19 performance slots that year.

“BAMS Fest is like a family cookout as a lot of our gatherings are,” said D. Ruff, Roxbury poet and cohost of “If You Can Feel It, You Can Speak It” open mic. “Getting us together from all scopes of life brings about a whole lot of freedom and celebration. It’s like those cousins you’ve been waiting to meet, uncles you haven’t seen, and aunties waiting to pinch your cheeks.”

Last year, COVID disrupted the festival, taking everything virtual and again this summer, too. But the party ain’t over.

“Amplify the Soul” is the digital response to not having the Franklin Park event. A series of virtual performances featuring 11 acts that can be accessed on YouTube, have launched live every Friday throughout the summer. The artists are still paid, the people who recorded the performances and helped make them happen were paid, and the audience still tunes in for free. There have been over 25,000 viewers thus far. The final performance is this Friday at 8 p.m., but other programming is planned throughout the year.

“We could have shut down but I recognize even with the world opening up what is so beautiful about this series is you can go back at any moment and see it on your own,” Morris said. “Content lives forever and lets people see what Boston has to offer in a way I haven’t seen since talent shows and I love the way this series has turned out. It allowed artists who haven’t been active in a year and some change to perform, to have the confidence. We made it work. Through hell or high water, we made it work.”

This is what Morris does. And it’s all about the story of us, Black folk in Boston. Our musical church. Our arts history and future. The story that Black life, Black art, and Black culture is not part of Boston can no longer persist.

Morris is going to make you see us. She’s gonna amplify our soul.

Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.

Angelia S. Rico

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