Kara Joy McKee remembers the first time she attended Groovefest in Norman – it was also the first time she volunteered.
“As I entered the park, an elderly gentleman handed me a basket of flowers and asked if I would like to pass them out to the crowd,” McKee explains.
Although she would not officially become an organizer for Groovefest until nearly a decade later, she recalls being inspired as a teenager then by the attendees’ passion for human rights.
Since 1986, Groovefest has urged Norman community members to change their world. The festival began as an “art in the park project” with about 50 participants – many of them members of the University of Oklahoma’s Amnesty International chapter – tossing Frisbees and playing in drum circles. Nearly three decades after that first gathering, much about Groovefest has changed. Now led independently of OUAI, the festival takes place once a year in September instead of biannually. It has expanded to include poets, bands, vendors, activists and speakers, and it attracts hundreds of attendees. But two aspects are unchanged: Groovefest is still about human rights, and it endures as one of Norman’s most beloved events. Aimee Rook, a member of the Groovefest art committee since 2005, says it is now the longest-running human rights festival in the world, and she credits the Norman community with the festival’s longevity.
“For many, they came because they went to Groovefest 25 years ago, when they were young, and now they bring their own kids to the event to learn about human rights and respect for others’ basic freedoms through music and arts,”
“It has been said [that] we are an arts community with a football team,” Rook says of Norman. “Our rich culture of education and arts is strong. Our thriving community appreciates festivals and truly values human rights in many ways through social services, generous churches, its [local] human rights commission, an educated police force, an active city council and a vocal community of elders and activists with a diverse point of view.
“I sincerely think Normanites look forward to the festival because of the positive community and the beautiful park and to listen to a variety of music outdoors with family in the park,” Rook adds.
Whether rain or shine, Groovefest goes on. Participants are drawn for another reason.
“For many, they came because they went to Groovefest 25 years ago, when they were young, and now they bring their own kids to the event to learn about human rights and respect for others’ basic freedoms through music and arts,” says Rook. “… Normanites have a strong appreciation for music through public education.”
Norman is home to several other popular festivals, including Summer Breeze, Midsummer Nights’ Fair, the Norman Music Festival and Jazz in June.
“Norman, and especially central Norman, is a unique community in Oklahoma,” says McKee. “As a college town, Norman has attracted intelligent, creative people and philosophical humanitarian types; and many of those same folks have stayed. The persistence of Groovefest is due in large part to the large number of very groovy townies who have chosen to stay in Norman and make it great!
“Energetic flavors from the student population still enrich the Groovefest brew, but it is mostly homegrown goodness,” McKee continues. “At any given Groovefest, you are likely to find a diverse mix of townies and students – on their own or with family – who walk, bike or skate to the park each and every year for this event. It has become a sort of family reunion.”
The lineup for this year’s Groovefest – Sept. 28 at Norman’s Andrews Park – will include such local bands as Brother Gruesome, Culture Cinematic, the Tequila Songbirds and more on the main stages. Vendors and food trucks – including The Loaded Bowl and Mariposa Coffee – will be there, too. The festival also hosts several family-friendly activities, such as hula-hoops, face painting and dancing.
Norman eagerly awaits the festivities, but the community has never lost sight of Groovefest’s roots: raising awareness of human rights causes. True to its theme, this year’s Groovefest program features a strong lineup of speakers, Amnesty International representatives and activists addressing a variety of human rights topics ranging from environmental issues to prison overpopulation. While broader topics, such as clean air, voter registration, education and free press are always an important part of the festival, this year also will focus on what Rook calls “hot local topics.”
“Locally, we must stand up for clean water, access to alternative energy that benefits people more than corporations, effective strategies to reduce our expensive prison population and voting to improve free access to quality education and mental health in Oklahoma,” Rook says.
“But really,” she continues, “we don’t parse out one human right over another. The idea is to respect individual rights to live, work and love without discrimination, abuse and torture for religion, age, gender, sexual orientation or political expression.”
It’s also about providing basic access to food, clothing and shelter.
“It benefits us all to be respectful and stick together,” Rook says. “We have far more in common than not. Building a positive and thriving local and global community without fear and intimidation is the key, and we work to do that through arts, music and human rights awareness.”
McKee says Groovefest is most focused on actionable causes.
“There are plenty of things to be concerned about in this world,” McKee says, “but I find it more useful to focus most on the things you can actually affect.”
For example, Oklahoma has the highest rate of female incarceration per capita in the world, and a majority of the women behind bars are there for nonviolent drug offenses, McKee says.
“Whom we vote for matters in that regard,” McKee says, citing local legislators who support mandatory minimum sentencing for certain crimes. “There are always volunteers registering voters at Groovefest, and I hope they are very enthusiastic about it this year.”