Folk Alliance Raises Clenched Fist, With Ukulele, For 2017 Conference In Kansas City

May 24, 2016

Leah Watts of Folk Alliance International unveiled artwork with a ukulele in a 'clenched fist of resistance against the struggle, whatever the struggle is.'
Credit C.J. Janovy / KCUR 89.3

Folk Alliance International reaffirmed its commitment to Kansas City on Tuesday and announced that British folk musician Billy Bragg will be the keynote speaker for its conference in February 2017.

It will be the third massive gathering of folk musicians in Kansas City since the organization moved its headquarters here in 2013. At that time, the organization signed a five-year contract with the Westin hotel in Crown Center, guaranteeing thousands of folk musicians would spend nearly a week in Kansas City each February through 2018.

“To anyone else it’s a hotel,” the organization’s executive director, Aengus Finnan, said of the Westin. “To us it’s a musical playground every February, as 2,500 delegates descend from 17 different countries on Kansas City and fill those walls and rooms with music 24/7.”

That will be the case for at least two more years, until the conference moves to Montreal – part of Folk Alliance’s standard rotation to Canada – for 2019 (the organization is beginning its process of exploring conference sites in the United States for 2020 through 2025).

“Even when we’re producing the event in Montreal, we will still be based here in Kansas City,” said Finnan, noting that since it moved to Kansas City, the Folk Alliance staff has grown from two to seven full-time staffers.

The Westin hallway during the Folk Alliance International conference in February 2016.
Credit Hannah Copeland / KCUR 89.3

“It’s exciting to see the arts administration footprint growing within our organization,” Finnan said. “As small as it is in comparison to some of the larger organizations here, it’s an important part of our calling Kansas City home. As we continue to expand our outreach activity and our year-round work, there will be more and more interaction and partnership with the city.”

Meanwhile, there’s the February conference to host. Finnan announced that discounted early registration would open on June 1 (a month earlier than in the past). The deadline for musicians to apply for official showcases – June 15 – is also a bit earlier.

In unveiling the artwork by Canadian graphic designer Michael Wrycraft that will be on advertisements, posters and T-shirts around Kansas City (and the world), Finnan also issued a challenge for musicians to become activists.

Noting that Wrycraft’s design was based on iconic labor-movement imagery and contained the universally recognized “clenched fist of resistance against the struggle — whatever the struggle is,” Finnan said, “we’ve affectionately placed a ukulele into the fist of resistance. The ukulele has become more of a populist instrument of late, and (conveys) that idea that everyone has a place in participating in social change.”

To reinforce that idea, Finnan said, a theme of “Forbidden Folk” would be noticeable in official conference programming.

“What we are going to do is celebrate activism in art and look at the ways folk music has, in the past and currently, played a role in labor movements, the civil movements, environmental movements, pacifist movements and political movements as the voice of the people – the folk music, the music of the folks. That sums up our call to action for artists to really look beyond the career, at their role and their place and the opportunity to voice their concerns and ideas on issues of the day.”

C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.