After blanketing New York City for a month last May, the Red Bull Music Academy returns to Gotham tonight with the opening of the Red Bull Music Academy Festival, another month-long blowout featuring the program’s signature mix of eclectic parties, performances and lectures by artists like Hudson Mohawke, D’Angelo, David Byrne, Panda Bear, Gunplay and many more.
The festival, which will return to New York on annual basis, is a first for RBMA, which rotates its flagship academy to a different international city each year (this year’s Academy takes place in Tokyo this fall).
We caught up with Academy co-founder Many Ameri to find out what drew him back to New York, how the program achieves authenticity and what five events this month are absolute must-sees.
Billboard: The official academy moves from city to city each year, but you guys decided to set up a perennial presence in New York. What made you take that leap?
Many Amari: Doing it in New York last year, we saw that this was a city that actually really got what we were programming and where there really was a real community and fan base for all these very different niches and music topics that we touch on. And, to be honest, there’s probably no other city in the world that has so many graduates from the academy and so many lecturers from the academy. So we felt that it was the right city to bring this back to. It felt like coming home.
Am I daunted? Sure. But we have a really strong local team in New York of about 20 people who have worked with us in the past. So we don’t always have to be in two places at once.
Tell me a little bit about conceptualizing and curating these events. Who is the brain trust?
We have an international team that works on programming for all of our events globally and then we always have a local counterpart that we discuss ideas with. One of us will say “Hey, we have an idea for this kind of event in New York, do you think it will work?” We need a good, strong sparring partner. In New York we work with Adam Shore, who I think you guys have profiled before, and a whole team of event production, design and communications people who help us make sure everything is grounded in a local aesthetic or idea.
There are a lot of companies who would love to have their brand on an event as deeply integrated with music culture and artists as RBMA. How are you able to maintain a feeling of authenticity?
I think it goes back to our history. We started this workshop 16 years ago with the idea of bringing people with different musical and cultural backgrounds together. And then we started having alumni from the academy coming to us and saying “Hey, I’ve been through this workshop and it was a really impactful experience for me, I wanna go back to Japan and do something for my local community. How can I do that?” So we come from a different place. Our whole orientation isn’t about being edgy or even standing apart— it’s always been about creating a showcase for interesting music and interesting artists and giving people something that they didn’t know they wanted.
Give me some insider tips. There's a full month of events, which ones are not to be missed?
That’s hard, but there’s a few. This Bounce Ballroom event we’re doing is going to somehow try and showcase four different club music styles and dancing styles in one night. It’s presenting entire cultures to an audience that will be exposed to all of it at once.
I’m also really excited that we’re doing A Night of Improvised Round Robin Duets. We did it last year and we’re bringing it back. It’s a typical academy concept where we’re bringing 20 artists who will take turns improvising together on stage. You’re going to see amazing collaborations happening and amazing musicianship. Witnessing something like that that is very much in-the-moment is always special.
Another concept we’re bringing back is Hardcore Activity in Progress. We did Drone Activity in Progress last year. I think this whole thing of doing a night that explores the most interesting, mind-bending, purist people that are pushing the boundaries of their own music styles is quite an interesting concept. And there are going to be a lot of art installations from the guys at Nuit Blanche, as well. So it will be a very strong show musically, but it’s also about the experience that’s being created with the art.
And of course I’m super happy that we’re having a performance from Hudson Mohawke, who is a former student of the academy from the Toronto year in 2007. He’s now coming back to present his live show, which we’re excited to have helped develop. That’s happening at Webster hall and he’s going to be bringing some other performing artists as special guests.
The last show of the month is called A Class of its Own, and we’re going to be presenting a lineup of 15 alumni of the academy. People look at the academy as a program that has brought out the Hudson Mohawkes, the Flying Lotuses, the Aloe Blaccs, the Dorian Concepts, the Nina Kravizes and all of that, so it’s interesting for us to present a program of people that might not ring a bell at first. People are going to be experiencing something that other people will be referencing next year when they’re talking about the artists who are pushing the boundaries.