Igniting a Change: Local nonprofit Unity Through Community hosts inaugural festival

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Matthew James believes first impressions are everything.

That’s why the artist and co-founder of local nonprofit Unity Through Community and his team are going all out for the creative collective’s first festival, which will take place on September 22 and 23 at Shady Park in Tempe.

Over the course of two days, the Unity Kickoff Festival will raise funds and awareness for the organization in an inclusive, art-driven atmosphere.

James, along with co-founders Scott Price, Travis Ryder and Colin Contrell, hope the festival

will serve as a microcosm of the flourishing community and creativity that pulses through Tempe.

Two stages will host 22 diverse musical acts throughout the weekend, including future funk DJ Marvel Years and local bands such as Sunset Voodoo, Japhy’s Descent and Banana Gun. Burlesque performers and live painters will also showcase the talent, innovation and passion of Tempe’s creative faction. James describes it as a “live museum.”

“It’s a playground for artists and anybody interested in art,” Ryder, who also sings and plays guitar in Japhy’s Descent, adds. “Everyone’s got talents to do and share and the idea is to foster and inspire.”

The all-ages event will be volunteer-run and sponsored by independent radio station KWSS, Salvation Army, Nexus and The Umbrella Project. It aims to provide a platform and pave the way for self-expression and individuality one paint stroke, guitar riff and compassionate conversation at a time.

“Festivals are great awareness kick-starters,” James says. “Hopefully everyone walks away happy. By just buying a ticket, you’re doing something good.”

James says the concept for Unity Through community came to him when he noticed there was an explosion of artistic talent in Tempe, but no cultural hub to house it.

“When you want change to happen, you do something big,” he says. “You need something to shock people into seeing what they’ve been missing and what’s going on. By doing this and presenting something real and genuine, from a 2-year-old to an 80-year old, you can tell it’s real.”

Rob “Fun Bobby” Birmingham, the festival’s talent coordinator, says he hopes the event will put Tempe on the map as a haven for creatives.

“In my mind, I would like this to set a new standard for how festivals go and how the arts should be in Tempe,” James adds.

Sunset Voodoo frontman Joey Gutos, who has also helped organize the event, says it will be more far-reaching than local festivals that have been put on in the past.

“No matter what your age or the art discipline you focus in, it will be more inclusive than festivals have been run in Tempe,” he says. “Later at night, people come to party and dance. Earlier on, we have more rock, groove kind of stuff, when people are just starting to feel the weekend. And all the while, we’re going to have these different stations where people can satisfy their curiosity… by seeing something cool that they wouldn’t normally see in downtown Tempe.”

According to James, it’s more than just a festival; it’s a movement. The name alone is the organization’s mission statement.

“Right now, the most important thing for us is getting the name and the message and the feeling behind it (out there) because when it comes down to it, Unity Through Community is based on the arts but it’s really about the people,” he says. “Once you get the momentum going, it’s contagious. It’s like, people are in one spot and you’re feeling it and you’re feeding off each other’s energy.”

That energy will be amplified because ASU will also be hosting Oregon at Wells Fargo Arena that weekend. According to Birmingham, it will draw nearly 25,000 visitors to experience the vibrant Tempe culture.

“We strategically picked this weekend because whenever the Ducks fans come to town, they want to party,” he says. “We want to give them a place to party.”

James agrees the timing couldn’t be better.

“School’s back in session, it’s just starting to get not super, super hot, the energy’s going to be high from our biggest football game of the year,” James says. “It all works out to this beautiful little moment.”

Though James says the evolution of Unity Through Community has been fairly organic and seamless, it hasn’t come without hiccups.

“I guess the overwhelming response that we got is a challenge too because I have to figure out what I want to do with everything, but I don’t even look at that as a challenge,” he says. “Honestly, all we had to do was talk about it and the community’s jumped on us.”

Unity Kickoff Festival, Shady Park, 26 E. University Drive, Tempe, Friday, September 22 and Saturday, September 23, 3 p.m. to midnight, $10 per day.

Visit www.eventbrite.com/e/unity-kickoff-festival-tickets-37087433512 for more information. 

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