Cassandra Houston started playing violin in elementary school, began cello in junior high and sang choir at East Hollywood High in West Valley City. While her brother was making hip-hop music, she wanted to perform, too — but hesitated.
“If you think about women in the hip-hop industry, they have always been sexualized,” she said. “I don’t want that.”
Houston, who today performs as The Pho3nix Child, now wants to use her voice to change perceptions of women in hip-hop — and help propel urban culture into the mainstream in Salt Lake City. She’ll make her first Urban Arts Festival appearance this weekend, as the festival marks its ninth year on Saturday and Sunday.
The festival has moved from a section of Pierpont Avenue in Salt Lake City to the west side Art Hub of the Utah Arts Alliance, to The Gateway mall and then to downtown’s Gallivan Plaza — and this year it’s expanding to include nearby Regent Street and McCarthey Plaza, too.
It’s grown from one day to two. And it’s developed from the initial idea of a skateboarding showcase to accompany a skate deck art competition into a celebration of urban art, diversity and city culture billed as Utah’s largest free community art event.
“We really let these cultures shine as they should,” said Derek Dyer, executive director of the Utah Arts Alliance, which organizes the festival. “A lot of times they’re just put in the corner or not really represented at all.”
Houston hadn’t expected to find such a welcome for her hip-hop, which draws on the poetry she began writing at a young age. “I always wanted to be involved in festivals and just be able to get my name out there in such a way,” she said, “but I had never been given the opportunity to do so.”
Singer Ischa Bee, from the duo band MiNX, has been performing at the Urban Arts Festival since its beginning in 2011, shifting from a small platform trailer to the grand stage at the Gallivan Center.
While there have long been places for more traditional art, she said, “it’s always so great when somebody takes the time and energy to create the extra space for the nontraditional.”
Bee is excited to share the stage with national headliner British-born rapper Slick Rick the Ruler, who has influenced her music, she said. Slick Rick will perform on Saturday; the hip hop pioneer earlier this year released a 30th anniversary edition of his renowned debut album, “The Great Adventures of Slick Rick.” He’ll also meet with youth in Salt Lake City to listen to their hip-hop, emceeing or other art, Dyer said.
The festival features hip-hop, rock, funk and jazz on two stages, urban dance performances, an artists’ marketplace, fashion, food trucks — and a Hard’N’Paint Basketball League slam dunk contest and 3-on-3 tournament.
Organizers seek to include any form of art created from inner city living — and basketball is a distinctively urban sport, played in parking lots and on the streets.
“Putting [basketball and the arts] together just symbolizes next level entertainment, at the same time as giving the kids an opportunity to see that there’s multiple ways to grow through the arts,” said Lance Lavizzo, CEO and founder of Hard’N’Paint Basketball League.
Lavizzo started the league to keep at-risk kids and those in poverty off the streets and “to give them something to do, give them something to call their own and show them black excellence at the same time,” he said.
On Sunday, about 20 customized lowrider cars will be on display on McCarthey Plaza. (That afternoon, some cars will take part in a “hop off,” to see which driver can get their car’s front tires to bounce the highest.)
“Everybody’s got some kind of art inside them,” said Jose “Shorty” Cornejo, part of the Good Times Car Club’s Utah chapter. “And our way to express the type of art we’ve got is to express it in our vehicles.”
Taking old Chevy Impalas and GM Buicks and building custom lowrider cars out of them is an art, not only in the hydraulics and engine work, but also in the airbrushed and detailed images inside and out.
In the past, Cornejo said, lowrider cars have been associated with gangs and drugs. But he has worked on lowrider cars and lowrider bikes with his children, and feels it teaches them the value of hard work and responsibility in a family atmosphere, as they bond while creating together.
“Our structure [with the car club] has always been from the bottom up,” he said. “Build the vehicle, build the character, build the relationships. A family-oriented club, that’s pretty much what Good Time is all about.”
The festival will include painting demonstrations from mural and street artists, and a community wall for participants to paint. Nine years ago, the first festival drew more than a dozen complaints from anti-graffiti activists, Dyer said.
“If we give these kids a place to do this, they won’t just do it anywhere and they’ll get good and it’ll be beautiful,” Dyer said he told them. And today, the city’s culture has shifted to the point where they are working with downtown property owners, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, on mural projects.
“What this city has done recently and what we’re trying to do is be a lot more inclusive,” said Amy Fowler, a Salt Lake City Council member and chair of the Redevelopment Agency Board. “It’s really amazing to see how this festival has grown.”
Keeping the event free is another way to be inclusive, Dyer said, as organizers hope to “eliminate any financial barriers for our community to experience the arts together.”
ABOUT THE URBAN ARTS FESTIVAL
The ninth annual Urban Arts Festival in Salt Lake City will feature more than 200 performances by artists, musicians and dancers, a 3-on-3 basketball tournament and a lowrider car exhibit.
When • Saturday, Sept. 21, from noon to 10 p.m. and Sunday, Sept. 22, from noon to 8 p.m.
Where • Gallivan Center, 239 S. Main, Salt Lake City; with a Sunday expansion to nearby Regent Street and McCarthey Plaza.
Admission • Free
Coverage of downtown Salt Lake City arts groups is supported by a grant from The Blocks, a cultural initiative of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County.