On a blazing hot Sunday, where high temperatures got up to a muggy 92 degrees, Chicagoans from all across the city slid over to the Garfield Park Music Circle Center, a.k.a. “The Circle,” for the inaugural The Purple Block Party, headlined by Dipset rapper Jim Jones and West Side collective Pivot Gang and hosted by Power 92 radio personality Bree Specific. 

While the Aug. 28 event dealt with a low turnout and operational hiccups, the Purple Block Party was an authentic and culturally rich West Side experience that unveiled the park’s untapped potential. It should be seen as a welcomed new tradition in the neighborhood; one that could significantly improve with broader methods of street marketing and a more balanced lineup of young and veteran hip-hop artists.

“I think this is a dope community event. It’s good to see something on the West Side,” Lifa Brown said. Hailing from the South Side, she was happy to attend the Block Party and see it thrown in a neighborhood that has historically suffered from disenfranchisement. 

“You see a lot of things happen on the South Side and not a lot of things happen in this community at all,” she added.

On the other hand, some West Side residents felt differently. Despite agreeing that the Purple Block Party is a great idea for the Garfield Park community, resident Jason Ferguson attributed the low turnout to the lack of direct outreach.

“I actually would feel better if the event was involving people that lived here in the community,” said Ferguson, who’s lived in the area for 42 years. “That’s probably one of the reasons that we don’t have the turnout because no one really knows about it, and none of the people from the community are actually involved.”

When asked if he was aware that esteemed publicist and Swank PR owner Briahna Gatlin — who founded and curated the Purple Block Party — grew up in nearby L-Town off North Leamington and West End avenues, he replied that he did not know she was from the West Side and noted that communication with the residents was the main reason why many people hadn’t heard about the event. (Reporter’s Note: On Aug. 30, Gatlin called to clarify in a post-interview that Ferguson knows her but was unaware that she grew up out West).

“It’s a good thing to do and it’s a good start,” Ferguson added. “But we got to involve the people from the community when you’re doing things in this community.”

The event was loaded with fun activities and games for kids and adults. In the Kids Zone, for example, children drew chalk drawings on the ground and played in a bouncy house. 

There also was a variety of affordably-priced food from local and Black women-owned vendors, primarily offering a range of healthy and hearty options such as Jamaican food, polish sausages, and pineapple fruit bowls. 

Throughout the day, there were performances by local, independent artists and DJs including Kali, Nia Kay, Huey V, Baha Bank$, Vic Lloyd, and more.

For Gatlin, having the Purple Block Party at The Circle was a chance to do something positive in “unmarked territory.” The Garfield Park neighborhood as a whole is one of the most neglected areas of Chicago. Since the 1960s, it’s been through a series of devastating events; including the 1968 uprisings following the assassination of Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., the War on Drugs and the 1980s crack epidemic, and decades of businesses divesting from the neighborhood. 

Today, like much of the predominately-Black West Side community, Garfield Park is a neighborhood seeing little-to-no economic investment. Its residents have a life expectancy of 69 years, one of the lowest in the city, according to WTTW. In 2021, according to a Depaul University housing study, 40% of West Garfield Park residents and 43% of East Garfield Park residents lived below the poverty line.

Most times, people only visit the area when going to the famous Garfield Park Conservatory, where major companies like Spotify and Red Bull have held ticketed events with artists such as Chance the Rapper and singer Jamila Woods, along with other Black, local talent.

“At first, I was thinking about doing it at another park, but I realized nobody had been here and did anything,” Gatlin said. 

As far as West Side parks go, Douglass Park has been the primary go-to for large-scale festivals such as Lyrical Lemonade’s Summer Smash, the newly-added Heatwave Music Festival, and its longest resident, Riot Fest. Each festival is thrown by white figureheads; except for the independently-operated Summer Smash. Co-founder Berto Solorio, a person of color, is responsible for the overall operations and production of the festival while more visible Cole Bennett curates everything from the artist lineup and theme to art installations and planning with the overall Summer Smash committee. However, all three attract predominately-white crowds from across the country. 

(Reporter’s Note: On Sept. 1, community members reached out with concern about Solorio’s residency. In a post-interview with The TRiiBE, Solorio said he was born and raised in a Chicago suburb, and lived on the West Side for five years; specifically spending 2009 through 2014 living in Humboldt Park).

Riot Fest organizers have said they’ve offered free tickets to residents, held community cleanups, and hired workers from within the community. Summer Smash organizers have said they’ve done the same, with details listed on the event’s website. However, the perception and the reported impact of those festivals have been largely negative for years. Organizers from surrounding neighborhoods have since garnered signatures to have all three of the festivals removed from the park.

“I looked at [Garfield Park] as unmarked territory,” Gatlin added.

Given her involvement in various community efforts throughout her career, Gatlin also wanted to make sure that West Side community organizations were involved in every step of curating an event with major music artists while remaining friendly to a neighborhood that’s been historically divested. 

She partnered with organizations such as the Garfield Park Rite to Wellness Collaborative (GPRWC), Project Hood, Black Culture Collective, Westside Cultural Alliance, and BreakThrough to ensure that the community itself wasn’t left out.

“It’s about making people aware in the community and engaging them and involving them because when you involve the community, it does change the dynamics of what you’re doing because now that support level is there,” Gatlin told The TRiiBE during the event.

Interestingly, many residents showed up to the Block Party but posted up outside the event gates. Some even brought lawn chairs and coolers filled with liquor and water to chill outside the Block Party while enjoying the music lineup.

Many residents showed up to the Block Party but posted up outside the event gates. Photo by Tyger Ligon for The TRiiBE ®
Many of those who chilled outside the event heard through word of mouth that Jim Jones was performing and wanted to see the show, which they could see through the gate. Photo by Tyger Ligon for The TRiiBE ®

Some small vendors set up outside the event gates, too, selling everything from T-shirts and hats to cans of pop and bottles of water. Lamont Mems, a Garfield Park resident who was selling water outside, said events like the Purple Block Party are good for kids in the community. It keeps them out of trouble.

“I love it, man. It’s something in the community to keep the kids involved and get them out of the street,” Mems said. “Bring them over here to listen to some good music.”

Many of those who chilled outside the event heard through word of mouth that Jim Jones was performing and wanted to see the show, which they could see through the gate. They also got a chance to discover the newer artists on the lineup that they weren’t familiar with.

“[The festival] is nice, no mess, nothing. And we can still see, although you had to pay to go in, you could still see,” said fellow West Side resident Danita Blooming. She brought her lawn chair and sat with a girlfriend and a little girl outside the gates, citing that if she could afford the ticket, she would have paid to see Jim Jones.

The type of fellowshipping and camaraderie that took place outside the Block Party represented the true essence of the West Side. It’s the art of the pull-up. Pivot Gang member Frsh Waters, who performed that evening, said this is all a part of Black Chicago culture drawn from our Southern roots.

“Chicago, we really come from the South. Our people is still parking lot pimpin’ where you can pull up, go to the park, pull up with a cooler. You got your wine coolers, your bumpy face, your Henn, or something. You might have a small barbeque grill, make a little something, watch the kids play, they fall asleep, you put them in the car, ya’ll sit and got the music playing right outside,” Frsh Waters said. 

“So for us to have a festival, and on the other side of the fence we see people pulling up their chairs, this is what they’ll do if [the festival wasn’t] here,” he continued.

But the Purple Block Party being a paid event is what felt exploitative and contributed to the low turnout, according to some residents. Tickets started at $55 for adults, and $25 for children ages five and up. It didn’t matter to them that the Block Party founder was a Black woman from the West Side. 

Former West Side resident Melody Dunlap said the event was a “waste of time,” citing that it should have been free for the neighborhood and should have simultaneously functioned as a back-to-school supplies giveaway for the kids. That’s what typically took place in the 1990s at smaller neighborhood block parties, where block clubs pulled their resources together to provide free food and school supplies to everyone.

“They were charging $35 for each body to get in there and then you had to buy things in there,” Dunlap said. “We’re in the heart of a Black community, Garfield Park. This could have been sponsored for free and should have given out school supplies. It’s all about getting money. They’re here to make money off of Blacks like they always do.”

Dunlap didn’t enter the Block Party and was not aware that school supplies provided by Loretta Hospital were being given out at the Purple Block Party. She, too, chilled outside the event gates. 

“Had this been free, there would have been a great deal of young Black men and women in here enjoying these festivities, but this is their way to eliminate us,” she added.

Another common area of disconnect among the crowd inside and outside the gates was the artist lineup. While some recognized Nia Kay from her time on The Rap Game, the reception for many other performers was lukewarm.

However, rappers Huey, Kali, and Pivot Gang seemed to have gained new fans. 

The DJs on the other hand, like Vic Lloyd, DJ 9AM, house legend Ron Caroll, and DJ Ash10 were the anchors in setting the ultimate Summertime Chi vibes for the day. Enjoying the smell of burning sage in the air while grooving to Afrobeats, old-school hip hop and R&B, songs from Beyoncé’s RENAISSANCE was a unique experience that you can only find at a Black festival like The Purple Block Party.

Other than Jim Jones, some of the older residents outside the gates said they would have preferred to see more West Side staples similar to Saturday’s The Big Payback: A Drug War Reparations Concert and Fundraiser, Class of ‘96 with Shawnna, Twista, Do or Die, and Crucial Conflict. That concert took place at The Metro on the North Side.

Additionally, a case can be made about the lack of notable West Side talent such Sicko Mobb and Chris Crack, who have not performed in Chicago in quite some time.

Despite the criticism, Pivot Gang rapper and West Side native MF’Melo, who was involved in planning the Purple Block Party, was optimistic. He said this weekend’s event laid the foundation for things to come.

“It’s the first one and it’s raining so Chicago gotta get warmed up to it. But honestly, I’m not mad at this,” Melo explained. “Of course, we all want it to be full capacity, elbow to elbow, but I’m glad that it’s any people out here that came out to support the first event and what the West Side got to offer. It’s only gonna build.”

Despite some sound issues, parts of the Block Party were still being set up by the 10:00 a.m. event start time, and the lack of a full-fledged area with Wi-Fi and charging stations in comparison to other festivals across Chicago, the Purple Block Party still proved to be a strong showcase of Gatlin’s curation talents. For her first major event, she did a great job providing a peaceful atmosphere for a fun time. The Purple Block Party has the potential to be a hallmark for the West Side and also deserves to be commended for being one of the rare Black women-created and -led festivals that not only provided a good time but with no major incidents occurring.

When asked what was one of the most important things she learned from putting on her first major festival, Gatlin said patience and being more prepared.

“Getting more ahead of the game and being more prepared [was one of the biggest lessons]. My most difficult thing was funding and resources, but I had to lean on the community for that,” Gatlin explained. “I’m a business owner so I took a risk and a lot of people came through. That’s why including the community was so important.”

Regardless of the flaws, Gatlin is hopeful that The Purple Block Party made a positive impact and would inspire more events to happen at The Circle, whether they be one of her events or not.

“I’m sure next year it’s going to be something like this in Garfield Park again. It might not be my thing, but I’m damn sure going to come back and do it,” she said.

Correction: This story has been updated to clarify the relationship between Purple Block Party founder Briahna Gatlin and West Side resident Jason Ferguson, the organizations she partnered with on the West Side and that school supplies were given out at the Block Party. It also clarifies Summer Smash co-founder Berto Solorio’s residency in Chicago.

is a freelance writer for The TRiiBE.