Remember when The Washington Post sent renowned classical musician Joshua Bell to perform in street clothes at a busy metro station? The Post recorded the details, which showed the violinist being largely ignored by passers-by. The human experiment went viral on YouTube and reminded us of the importance of slowing down.
But did all those people passing by that day really have somewhere they needed to be in a hurry? What if, deep down, it was misconceptions about street performers that caused these folks to scurry past without a second glance?
The unique cultural craft known as busking is just as misunderstood on Charlotte street corners as it was during The Post's experiment in D.C., but one woman is hoping to change that. In an effort to raise awareness, both for the public and for performers, April Denée has organized Buskapalooza, a festival of street performers in the heart of Uptown. The event happens May 17, in anticipation of the release of her documentary Busk!: The Heart of Street Performance at McGlohon Theater May 19.
For those of you who've never heard the term, here's some clarification: To busk is to perform in a public right-of-way for tips and donations. It's not a new concept. Visit major cities across the globe and you'll find buskers of all sorts on the streets. In Charlotte, however, the scene is small and shadowed by confusion.
Denée, creator and director of Busk!, is an advocate for grassroots art. "I am a firm believer that if you want something to change in your community, then you need to take action to help change that, whether it's a very small thing or a large thing."
After meeting a man who used random objects (glass cups, ash trays, etc.) to make music, Denée's interest in busking was born. She started working on Busk!, her first full-length documentary, three years ago. During that time (prolonged by pregnancy and motherhood), she also organized two Buskapalooza festivals in 2011. Taking over the streets of Uptown, the festival serves as an outlet where street performers and artists can showcase their talents freely.
One of the performers, both at the festivals and in the documentary, is Chris Hannibal, a local magician and motivational speaker who also travels around the U.S. and Europe doing inspirational magic-fused shows for corporate groups.
Hannibal credits busking to increasing his exposure, leading to bigger gigs at entertainment venues. He also believes that busking helped him to hone his talents.
"There's no better gauge of audience reaction than to perform on the street," he states. "They're not invested in any way. They didn't buy a ticket to come in and sit down, so they don't have to be nice. If I'm trying out new material, I've got an audience that can walk away at any time if it's the least bit boring or if they aren't connecting."
Found frequently busking at the corner of Trade and Tryon streets at the EpiCentre, Hannibal admits he encounters some negative perceptions about what he does in the streets.
"The biggest misconception is that the buskers are out there to scam somebody, when honestly, most of us are just out there to entertain," he says. "I get it all the time when I am performing and I have a group. I've even had a street preacher protest me because he thought I was trying to deceive people and take their money."
Some other artists in the Busk documentary include Charlotte-area musicians James Lee Walker II of Crackers and Snack Meat, husband/wife duo the Cloers, sketch artist Joseph Williamson Jr. and painter Carlleena Person, who died last year.
"The start of this project came from wanting the Charlotte community to understand buskers," says Denée. "But the point of that is for artists in the community, who may or may not be busking at this point, to feel welcomed and appreciated and want to come out more. They also need to understand all the different laws and rules and how to navigate the streets so they can go out and busk."
The documentary also places a strong emphasis on the challenges of street performing. This includes details on busking permits, run-ins with cops, violations of laws and regulations, private property and First Amendment rights, which, according to the film, "protects busking on public property as a right to free speech and assembly."
Hannibal describes his experience with local cops: "When they first put the bicycle cops out, those guys didn't know the city ordinances and that there's a law about street performers, so they were stopping me a couple of times a week and making sure that I was doing what I'm supposed to be doing," says Hannibal. "But once they got to know me and knew I was out there, they started watching out for me too, so it turned out pretty good."
(Buskapalooza III will be held from 5 to 9 p.m. Friday, May 17, on the streets of downtown Charlotte. The festival is free, although tips are encouraged for the performers. Busk!: The Heart of Street Performance will be screened at 4 p.m. Sunday, May 19, at McGlohon Theater at Spirit Square, 345 N. College St. Tickets are $5. For complete details, go to www.buskmovie.com.)