Last October, Pharrell Williams and his longtime manager, Ron Laffitte, met with officials from the city of Virginia Beach, Va., the Grammy-winning producer’s hometown, to pitch a new festival, Something in the Water, that they wanted to launch this summer. “Most people thought we were insane,” says Laffitte, who was told that 2020 would be more realistic. But by mid-November, the Virginia Beach City Council had approved the idea, and on March 3, Williams unveiled a three-day lineup that includes Missy Elliott, Dave Matthews Band and Travis Scott. “Something in the Water is a true celebration of the people of my hometown,” says Williams. “It’s an experience they deserve, [while] guests are going to get a peek into what we’re all about.”
Beyond the economic boost that a festival can bring to a city, Laffitte says the pair won over Virginia Beach with their simple goal: cater to, and showcase, the people of the city. “There’s nothing about where [Williams] comes from that should have given him the hope that he could have the remarkable life he has,” says Laffitte. “What he wants to illustrate by coming back to Virginia Beach is that anyone who lives here can have that too.”
Ultimately, Williams and Laffitte hope to create a Virginia Beach version of South by Southwest. The April 26-28 event, produced by Live Nation, will offer panels and activations for sports, arts, culture and health/wellness, plus a screening presented by director Ava Duvernay’s independent-film-distribution collaborative, Array. (Laffitte’s not fazed by the recent spate of festival cancellations, including San Francisco’s FYF and New York’s Panorama: “We didn’t stop to consider what the rest of the marketplace looked like.”)
Laffitte credits Williams as “the singular visionary and architect of the entire festival,” but notes that Live Nation vp touring Lesley Olenik was instrumental in making it happen within an accelerated time frame. “She listened to Pharrell’s vision and was relentless in her pursuit of helping him assemble the best roster of talent that we could in a very short period of time,” he says. “It never occurred to her that this might not be possible.”
This article originally appeared in the March 23 issue of Billboard.