It’s a tough act to follow when Jennifer Hudson is a drop-by guest at your first-ever event, but when Naperville SoulFest returns to Naper Settlement this year, the plan is to build on its inaugural success by bringing in several Grammy-nominated acts.
“Last year we had 6,000 people attend, which was amazing for a first-time event,” founder and organizer Michael Brown said. “Just under a month out, and (we’d) already sold 7,500 tickets so I’m just so excited for what we are going to be able to do this year.”
Brown created SoulFest, which is set for June 3-4 this year, as a way to celebrate African-American, Latin and Caribbean culture and music set against the backdrop of downtown Naperville.
“I saw that a lot of other cultures were doing festivals in Naperville, but there wasn’t one yet that was reaching out to this audience,” Brown said. “So I got together with a few other people and put together a proposal. Coming out of COVID, I didn’t know what to expect, but it was a great representation of what Naperville is all about.”
Last year’s festival quickly started trending on social media when recording artist and actress Jennifer Hudson dropped by to lend her support.
“She was just in the audience, being a regular person,” Brown said. “She wasn’t playing the whole Hollywood superstar thing, but just taking pictures and talking with people. It was very nice of her, and we didn’t expect it. It added something special to the whole thing.”
This year the festival has expanded from one day to two, starting at 4 p.m. Friday, June 3, with a performance by Carl Thomas, a Grammy-nominated R&B artist who grew up in Aurora. He’ll be joined by Avery*Sunshine, a singer/songwriter best known for performing R&B, gospel and jazz.
Friday tickets are already sold out.
Saturday’s lineup includes R&B star Syleena Johnson, R&B and pop artist Res and the day’s headliner, Kindred the Family Soul. Other artists performing throughout the day are Kendall Nesbitt, Pearl Newson, and E. Songbird and the Groove.
Saturday will be family-focused, with activities for kids in addition to the musical entertainment.
“Family day to me means that you bring your mom, you bring your grandma, you bring your seniors, and your kids, and your little babies and it’s basically like a backyard cookout,” Brown said. “It’s like a big family reunion.”
Kid-focused attractions will include a bounce house, basketball hoops and a mini-golf course. More than 100 vendors will be on hand to provide food, drinks, and products and services targeted at the African-American community.
“One thing that I’m proud of is the wellness focus as well,” Brown said. “We’ll have people there to talk about high blood pressure, diabetes and other issues affecting the African American and Latino communities. It’s a good way to reach out to people and let them know these resources are available.”
While bringing nationally known recording artists to Naperville may get the most attention, Brown said he is also focused on making sure his festival will be an inviting place to spend time with loved ones.
“I like that this is something everyone can do — spend time together as a community. That’s what we hoped when we came up with this idea,” he said. “That’s what I’m excited about.”
When: 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. June 3 and noon to 10 p.m. June 4
Where: Naper Settlement, 523 S. Webster St., Naperville
Jeff Banowetz is a freelance reporter for the Naperville Sun.