‘Venice Soulstice’ to celebrate Black expression

By Darlene Donloe

Contributing Writer

VENICE — A year ago, Brennan Lawson, a business owner and community activist in Venice Beach, was visiting the home of his friend, Colin Hornett, when he got the bright idea to produce a community event complete with music, food and art.

The reason for the event would be to bring Black people and white people together in what he believed had become a splintered community.

“My thought was, ‘What if we found a way to connect the current white residents with the Black residents through storytelling, art and music,’” said Lawson, an Army brat who has lived in Venice for 10 years because he loves the freedom, the Black people, the proximity to the beach, and the fact that people are free to express themselves without judgment.

“I told my friends, ‘It would be cool if we did something for Black history, something like an art festival.’ The goal is to bridge the present and past. I want to connect and bridge those communities. I figured this was a great way to do it.”

The result is Venice Soulstice, a celebration of Black expression in the heart of Venice Beach, including music, dance, art, food and storytelling — where soulful sounds, vibrant visual art, history and the spirit of community come together.

The inaugural event, set for noon to 7 p.m. July 20, will take place at the historic First Baptist Church of Venice, located in the community of Oakwood, the home of Venice Beach’s only historically Black community.

There will be live performances from Mofaya & Friends, Olokun Cultural Group, and vinyl selections by Just Satyan alongside stunning art and live painting by Gakwaya.

Attendees can explore the rich socio-cultural history of the Black experience in California with author and historian Alison Rose Jefferson.

There also will be food vendors including Jamaican food from Ozi’s Kitchen.

Lawson said the event is designed to have something for everyone.

“We’re producing something that Oakwood hasn’t seen in a while,” he said. “This is a celebration of Black expression in a holistic sense.

 “All of this came to light and came together quite quickly,” said Lawson. “We went to Community Corporation of Santa Monica, who are affordable housing developers. They now own the church. They were happy to meet us and we were happy to meet them.”

While having Black and white people connect is his main objective, equally important to Lawson is the event’s ability to generate revenue that will directly fund affordable housing and community-focused projects vital to Oakwood, a community that has been ground zero for gentrification for decades.

“The power of expression is important,” Lawson said. “It’s important because it’s universal and it’s something that needs to be carried forth and practiced as part of a culture. It’s the only way to accomplish the goal of righting the wrongs of gentrification and changing what has happened to this community.”

Lawson said all proceeds from the event go directly to the artists and contributors.

At 35, Lawson has become a risk-taker who has found his purpose. Once his mind is set, he says he’s all in.

It happened when he decided to join the Air Force, when he got a master’s of business administration degree at W.P. Carey at Arizona State, when he took a gap year and lived in France, when he became a policy leader, a housing advocate and when the multi-hyphenate did a stretch in the tech industry at Spotify and Meta before launching ISM Fashion House, which has an eyewear collection called ILE De France.

Now, he’s focusing his efforts on what he says, “you don’t see too often on the Westside.” He and his co-organizers Hornett and Michele Capra, have produced what they hope is a community-changing event.

“For me, this kind of event is important because it’s about awareness and the sense of connection to the community,” Lawson said. “I want people to know about Oakwood being a historically Black community. My goal is to have a very Black event — as Black as possible. I want to educate folks on Oakwood and what it used to be.”

The First Baptist Church of Venice, founded as an African-American church in 1910, is among the last remaining significant resources associated with the history and development of the early African-American community of Oakwood.

The current church building opened in 1967 and remained a spot for the church congregation until it was sold to a private owner in 2017, with the congregation relocating to Westchester.

Lawson believes having the event on the adjacent parking lots of the church is kismet. The event was previously scheduled for a June date at a different location. However, when the city had to close that venue unexpectedly, Lawson, Hornett and Capra had to pivot.

That’s when they decided to hold the event at First Baptist Church of Venice, which was designated as a historical cultural monument in 2021, by the Los Angeles Conservancy.

“The historical significance is huge,” Lawson said. “It’s the perfect spot.”

Community Corp., Original Save Venice and Hoopbus have created a collaboration to restore the First Baptist Church of Venice as a community hub for the Oakwood neighborhood.

On its website, Community Corp. says its mission is to restore the dilapidated, vacant First Baptist Church of Venice into a community beacon of light for the Oakwood community, to honor the church’s special history, be a connection point for the Oakwood neighborhood, and bring life to the vacant property for the good of the community. Reportedly, Community Corp. plans to convert the church’s adjacent parking lots into a 100% affordable housing development.

For years Lawson has had a deep interest in affordable housing advocacy work.

During long family road trips between Georgia and Ohio, Lawson said he became fascinated by the cityscapes they passed along Interstate 75 when he was younger. He believes everyone should have economic opportunities and that the housing crisis in California will be won only by lowering the cost of housing.

Community and giving back are at Lawson’s core. When he’s not designing eyewear, advocating for affordable housing, or producing a community event, Lawson volunteers as a mentor with Arizona State University’s Center for Entrepreneurship.

“I’ve always had an interest in entrepreneurship,” Lawson said. “I have many interests. Right now my focus is on Venice Soulstice.”

Lawson said they are expecting 300 attendees.

To honor the sacred grounds of the church and to honor the wishes of the original Venice folks involved in preserving the church, organizers have requested that there be no alcohol, drinking or smoking on the premises.

The Venice Soulstice: Celebrating Black Expression will be held from noon to 7 p.m., at the First Baptist Church of Venice, 686 Westminster Ave. Tickets are $25-$35. For information, visit www.ticketleap.events/tickets/venicesoulstice/venice-soulstice.

Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at ddonloe@gmail.com.

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