In April, when Pharrell Williams put together Something in the Water — an event in his hometown Virginia Beach, Virginia, that featured performances by Travis Scott, Anderson .Paak, and Pusha T — he went out of his way to emphasize that it was not, in fact, a music festival.
“This is a community festival,” he said. “I wanted everyone — corporations, artists, community leaders, the City Council — to participate and express themselves.” Something in the Water, which drew 35,000 fans, showed a way forward for artist-created festivals, which can be a powerful antidote to corporate, homogenized megafests like Coachella and Bonnaroo. Along with an impressive list of musical acts featuring the likes of Travis Scott, Anderson.Paak, and Pusha T, the event offered dance workshops, industry panels, film screenings, a pop-up church service, and a Shark Tank-style “pitch competition” meant to attract a diverse group of attendees, business leaders, and corporate sponsors.
Something in the Water was hardly a vanity project for Williams, who personally met with city council members and traveled to Walmart’s headquarters in Arkansas to pitch sponsorships on behalf of the city. Williams isn’t the only artist to curate his own festival — Lykke Li recently threw her Yola Fest in Los Angeles with Courtney Love, Cat Power and Megan Thee Stallion — but his decades-long role as musical kingmaker and superstar has allowed him to give back to his home city with many more resources.
Equal parts self-help guru, shrewd businessman, Zen Buddhist cosmic hippie and hipster fashion icon, Williams is one of the few musicians who can appease both early-adopter tastemakers and middle-class moms. Or, as A$AP Ferg told the Something in the Water crowd earlier this year: “Pharrell made it cool to be a motherfuckin’ nerd.”
“Confidence is in my work ethic,” Williams says. “If I show you something that’s undeniable, well, then, it’s undeniable.” The city agreed, extending Something in the Water for three more years, and even local law-enforcement officials were impressed by how smoothly Williams’ civic-minded party went down. “Internally,” said one FBI agent who was on hand, “we were calling it ‘the Pharrell vibe.’ ”