Near the Anacostia River sits the Gateway Pavilion, a dramatic, birdlike structure on the east campus of the old St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington D.C. The landscape is haunting, with large trees standing among abandoned auburn-colored buildings.
A sea of men and women, some with pierced noses, wearing fitted jeans and Converse sneakers, are patted down and searched before they are allowed to venture into the front gate. Some sport shorts and sweatshirts with slogans like, “Never sold dope.” And the hair: Fros, fades, locks, twists, dreads and braids. Men with full beards and thick, black-rimmed glasses.
They're all lining up for the annual Broccoli City Festival and they are exactly the people the festival's creators want to attract.
“They’re like hipsters but they have a good job,” said Brandon Mceachern, who started the festival three years ago with his childhood friend, Marcus Allen.
Sprawled across the pavilion are many options for festival-goers. The main stage is housed in the front where headliners including Willow and Jaden Smith, Joey Bada$$$ and Erykah Badu will later perform. Across from the stage is a wooden enclave resembling a spaceship where food and vendors are stationed, selling everything from fresh-pressed juices to chicken and waffles. Nearby, works by local artists are on display. Volunteers walk around directing people to different areas and throw away the biodegradable cups and plates people leave behind. The festival coincides with Earth Day, and includes music, food, live art installations and fitness sessions.
Broccoli City was created by Mceachern and Allen, both 31, and from Greensboro, North Carolina. It’s a multifaceted company involving food, wellness, environmental justice and social health education. Mceachern first used the name in 2009, when he created a T-shirt line called Broccoli City, Greensboro's nickname. His friends helped him market the shirts online, selling them at various events around the country.
During this time, Mceachern was living in Los Angeles, spending afternoons cruising around South Central noticing the increasingly large number of "food deserts"—areas that lacked grocery stores, but flourished with fast food chains. He thought about the many people who were not eating well because there was nowhere in their neighborhoods to shop.
He called Allen, who shared his sentiment. “It’s not fair that people in certain neighborhoods don’t have access to healthy food,” Allen said. “Everyone doesn’t start at the same race line.”
Mceachern and Allen spent the next year formulating a plan to help fix the problem and to attract youth to healthier eating habits. They used music as the pied piper for their message.
“It makes it relatable to younger people who wouldn’t be open to this lifestyle,” Mceachern said.
They also decided that Earth Day would be the best holiday to which they should peg their mission, and held the first annual “Global Coolin’” Earth Day block party in Los Angeles in 2010. Young people flocked to the event, eager to see then unknown, but locally celebrated rappers, Kendrick Lamar and Dom Kennedy.
The festival’s purpose was broad but clear: to connect Millennials with a green lifestyle and to promote social responsibility. Vegan and vegetarian food vendors displayed their products and artists showed their work.
The event was a success, but Allen said the duo needed to dream a little bit bigger. “It just didn’t feel like the direction that we should be going in,” he said.
After taking a year to repurpose their message, Allen and Mceachern held the last block party in 2012 at Papillion Gallery, a local art space in Los Angeles. In 2013, they moved the event to Washington, renaming it “The Broccoli City Festival.” They landed at the newly renovated Gateway Pavilion, which had been created as a sustainable space.
Mceachern and Allen call themselves “social entrepreneurs.” They formed a business relationship during their college days at North Carolina A&T State University in the early 2000s. After graduation in 2005, Mceachern moved to Los Angeles to work as a production assistant on “The Way It Is,” a short-lived reality series based on R&B singer Keyshia Cole. Allen started a career in marketing and advertising, working as a government contractor in Washington.
Both men, who have distinct Southern drawls, had mothers who were teachers and grew up with a passion for knowledge. “He’s the artist, I’m the business guy,” said Allen. They’ve seen each other through career highs and lows. Mceachern chuckles while recalling his short-lived rap career, in which Allen was his manager.
“I’m like the only brother he ever had. But we curse each other out almost every week,” Mceachern said.
Allen said his biggest challenge this year was funding, but they were able to secure two very large sponsors, Toyota Green and Whole Foods. Allen, who had pitched both companies previously without success, said it was a “major blessing.” Mceachern said it is sometimes hard to convince sponsors that “African-Americans care about their health and their well-being.”
They also thought it crucial to reach out to artists who promote love and self-actualization, two themes that align with their message of living well. This year’s headliner was Badu, a longtime advocate of veganism. She didn’t sing, but performed as a deejay under her pseudonym “ DJ Lo Down Loretta Brown.” Bassist Thundercat accompanied her on stage, adding deep grooves to the backdrop of oldies by the Bee Gees, The Gap Band, and new songs by Lil Wayne and Lamar.
Badu sported a large brown afro and engaged with the crowd, sometimes taking short breaks between songs to give “I love you DC!” shoutouts or riff on a Beyonce hook. At the end of her set, she left the stage to join the audience in the rain, much to their delight.
Right before Badu’s set, Brooklyn rapper Joey Bada$$ performed around 10 songs. Tink, a singer and rapper from Chicago, also had a lively performance, belting out her indie hit, “The Ratchet Commandments,” a message to young women on self-respect.
During Tink’s performance, Willow and Jaden Smith, the quirky children of actors Will and Jada Smith, rushed in front of the crowd to dance by themselves for a brief moment before they performed. The siblings shared the spotlight, with Jaden moving like rapid fire across the stage from one end to the other while Willow showed off her vocals singing about self-discovery and teen angst. At the end of her hit single, “Whip My Hair,” Jada, who had been standing on the side watching her children, appeared on stage, dancing between them and the crowd erupted.
But along with food, music and art, Mceachern and Allen included vendors who promoted #blacklivesmatter to address the rash of killings of unarmed black men and boys.
The night before the festival, Freddie Gray had died after his spinal cord was nearly severed while in police custody. Mceachern grabbed the microphone before Badu's set to talk to the crowd about their generation's responsibilities to stand up for civil rights.
“They were looking at me like, ‘Say something that we need to hear,’” he said. “At the end of the day, somebody has to stand up on their Harry Belafontes and their Sidney Poitiers.” The reference to the two entertainers who participated in marches and protests, and used their celebrity to attract attention and funding to the Civil Rights Movement was a rallying moment.
The importance of this year's festival was validated by two high-profile appearances, one from Muriel Browser, mayor of Washington, D.C., and Gina McCarthy, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
“To have the director of the EPA come out to our festival in Southeast D.C. -- that’s the president’s representation coming to our festival,” said Allen.
Mceachern’s pivotal moment was a bit different, though.
“For me, it was Erykah coming in that crowd with that rain.…You can’t pay for that,” he said.
The duo plans to take the festival to other cities and plans for next year will begin in three months. They are confident that their message of green sustainability will catch on.
“Broccoli City is the wave, it’s the future,” said Allen.