If you’ve ever walked by the intersection of 14th and U Streets, Northwest, on the third Thursday of the month, you’ve probably seen the Big Ugly Truck dance party. It’s exactly as it sounds: a big, ugly pick-up truck found on Craigslist, parked on the curb with a DJ spinning tunes in the back and a crowd in front of the Reeves Center dancing and hanging out.
It’ll be at the same spot this Saturday afternoon for the Funk Parade, an all-day music festival and gathering celebrating the arts, culture, and music of the U Street neighborhood.
When the first Big Ugly Truck gathering happened in 2015, it was supposed to be a one-off thing, says organizer Niko Sommaripa. But when Prince died the next year, another dance party was scheduled, this time at 14th and U.
They didn’t have a permit, so when they police showed up, Sommaripa didn’t know what would happen. But, to his surprise, the police were cool with it, and even suggested the event should become a regular thing.
So it did.
The event has transcended beyond a fun gathering to become a means of organizing for social justice and community involvement, says Sommaripa, who runs the event alongside Steven Swann, Dior Ashley Brown, and DJ Geena Marie.
“We subverted the traditional access equations of race and wealth,” he says of the public gathering, adding that many long-time DC residents felt overlooked as the city developed and gentrified. “The truck serves as a platform to amplify voices.”
It was out there with Black Lives Matter after the death of Alonzo Smith, it wound through the streets of DC during the anti-Trump administration Werk for Peace event, and it was involved in the Sheldon for DC public art performance, which emphasized the civic importance of arts and culture.
The last cause is particularly important to Sommaripa, who co-chairs the Agora Dance company by day. And it’s especially important as the Funk Parade draws near. The event almost didn’t happen this year due to a lack of funding, a near-miss organizers attribute to the city’s changing demographics. (Luckily, they were able to raise the funds needed in time via crowdfunding and city donations.)
The festival’s almost-cancellation is indicative of a greater municipal problem, says Sommaripa. “The philanthropic culture in DC is geared more around power dynamics and meeting folks and being involved in certain circles rather than a genuine interest in the arts,” he says.
If the city focused on incubating the arts community, it would ultimately serve as a profit draw, he says, and people would flock to the city to see music and shows just as often as they do monuments.
“I don’t really see any reason why it shouldn’t or couldn’t be up there with New Orleans” as an arts and culture destination, he says. “When the city doesn’t make [arts and culture] a priority, it makes it a lot harder for people to find out about these things and for artists to perform.”
If you want to be a part of the new arts movement in the city, check out the truck this weekend for yourself. It’ll be at the corner of 14th and U during the Funk Parade from 1 to 7 PM.