Pharrell Williams is bringing back his Something in the Water Festival after a two-year hiatus. The Grammy-winning singer and producer is moving the celebration away from his hometown of Virginia Beach to the nation’s capital this June, and it will coincide with a historical holiday that he recently championed.
The three-day event will be held next to the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on Juneteenth weekend — June 17-19.
“There couldn’t be a more significant time or place to do it,” Williams, 49, said by phone on Monday. “You’re going to see all the best and baddest and greatest music acts coming to perform and show their reverence for us as a culture, and when I say us, I don’t just mean us African Americans, but people who love other humans as well, and right there on Independence Avenue.”
Juneteenth, also known as Emancipation Day and Freedom Day, commemorates the end of slavery. On June 19, 1865, the last enslaved Black people in Galveston Bay, Texas, learned of the Emancipation Proclamation, which had taken place two years earlier.
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In 2020, Williams spearheaded an effort to make Juneteenth a legal state holiday in Virginia. He also galvanized other state governments and corporations to recognize Juneteenth. The following year, President Joe Biden made it a federal holiday.
News of the festival moving to Washington, D.C. leaked out earlier this month when Williams’ friend and rapper Pusha T of Norfolk talked about it during an interview but didn’t disclose the details or the date.
In keeping with the spirit of the inaugural Something in the Water, which was held in Virginia Beach in 2019, this year’s festival boasts a lengthy list of performers, including Calvin Harris, Chloe x Halle; Dave Matthews Band; Lil Baby; Lil Uzi Vert; Pusha T; Tyler, The Creator; Usher and more.
The event will also highlight Go-Go music, a funk style that originated in Washington, D.C., in the late 1970s, with performances by Backyard Band, Rare Essence and Sounds of the City.
A pop-up church event, which was also held at the first festival in Virginia Beach, will take place on a fourth stage on Sunday of that weekend.
“We are proud to be working with Pharrell to bring Something in the Water to D.C. for Juneteenth weekend,” said the district’s Mayor Muriel Bowser in a press release. “D.C. is open and we are ready to celebrate.”
There will also be some events during the festival that will be held in Hampton Roads, including Adidas-sponsored pop-up basketball courts in Norfolk, Williams said. No events are planned in Virginia Beach.
Williams, who was awarded a ceremonial key to the City of Virginia Beach in 2014, originally planned the first Something in the Water festival after the city’s former police chief sought his help. Every spring, students from historically Black colleges and universities vacation in the resort area for College Beach Weekend. The chief wanted Williams to plan a structured, safe event for the students and others to keep violent behavior at bay.
Williams agreed and said at the time that the name of his festival was a shout out to the plethora of talented artists, intellectuals and athletes who hail from the Commonwealth. Williams grew up the historic Seatack neighborhood and graduated from Princess Anne High School, where he was in the marching band.
While in high school, he and his Virginia Beach friend and production partner, Chad Hugo, collectively known as the Neptunes, were discovered by urban-pop producer Teddy Riley. The rest is history.
Something in the Water 2019 illustrated Williams’ magnetism and influence in the music industry with its star-studded lineup of performers. Jay-Z, Diddy, Busta Rhymes, Usher, Snoop Dogg, Missy Elliott, Timbaland, Charlie Wilson and Tyler, the Creator performed on the beachfront stage.
It was widely regarded as an overwhelming success, despite some reservations from residents early on, which didn’t go unnoticed by Williams.
“A lot of people have amnesia about the festival in the very beginning,” he said. “There were a lot of people on board, and then there were some people who quite honestly thought it was going to make the issue that they had with Week 17 worse.”
City leaders also refer to College Beach Weekend as “Week 17″ because it typically falls on the 17th week of the year.
Williams planned to bring the festival back to Virginia Beach in 2020, but it was canceled amid the pandemic. Then, that spring, a cousin of Williams’, Donovon Lynch, was shot and killed by a police officer at the Oceanfront.
Williams felt that the city’s leaders were not transparent about the fatal shooting and turned their back on his family.
“The way that was handled really broke my heart,” Williams said. “You can’t admit you made a mistake? How was I supposed to feel?”
His disappointment with the city continued. In the summer of 2020, when the “Black Lives Matter” phrase was painted on the street leading to the White House, Williams urged Virginia Beach leaders to do the same on the Boardwalk, but the idea was met with resistance.
Last fall, Virginia Beach businessman Bruce Thompson turned down a plan from Williams to hold an event at the historic Cavalier Hotel featuring comedian Dave Chappelle. Thompson cited a number of reasons for rejecting it, including the size of the event and the “content” of Chappelle’s show.
“There are people who control which way the wind blows down at the beach,” Williams said. “I’ve been shown the door.”
Even though the festival brought out the best in the beach community, he feels a “toxic” sentiment remains.
“The way love was so in the air… it was thicker than the humidity of our beloved city,” he said. “I never dreamed in a million years that that didn’t mean enough.”
But he hasn’t completely given up on Virginia Beach. He remains a partner in a multimillion dollar entertainment venue and surf park development project planned at the Oceanfront.
“It’s the only focus I have there,” Williams said. “There are some councilmen and women there who are really pushing hard to get Atlantic Park going, and that means the world to me because at least somebody was willing to keep their word.”
For now, Williams is focused on his next big event in the nation’s capital.
“Me and Virginia we’re going to do this together in D.C. and welcome our brothers and sisters from Maryland, and obviously our brothers and sisters in D.C., and literally just have ourselves a great time,” he said. “It’s going to be nothing but love, nothing but human beings coming to celebrate true independence.”
Tickets will go on sale at 10 a.m. Saturday at somethinginthewater.com. Fans who purchased festival passes for previous years can buy tickets early, beginning at 10 a.m. Wednesday through 10 p.m. Thursday. Also, a “Virginia Locals Only” presale will begin at 10 a.m. Friday in person at the Veterans United Home Loans Amphitheater.