Questlove gives Philly artists a boost with local billboard blast

Created with Mural Arts, the artwork is part of a promo campaign for the music documentary “Summer of Soul.”

The first Mural Arts 'Summer of Soul' billboard on I-95 is by Symone Salib

The first Mural Arts 'Summer of Soul' billboard on I-95 is by Symone Salib

Conrad Benner
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A billboard visible from the highly trafficked I-95 corridor and from street level Fishtown will feature a rotating cast of Philadelphia artists over the next month.

They were all asked by Questlove to create original works to advertise his new movie.

The project came together quickly, said project manager Conrad Benner. In just about a month, Questlove (aka Ahmir Thompson, Philly native and cofounder of The Roots) and Searchlight Productions teamed up with Mural Arts and paid three local artists to make their own billboard-sized murals.

The first iteration of the public art project was unveiled on June 25.

“Searchlight had in-house design work used across all marketing platforms across the country, but Questlove wanted to do something different in his hometown,” Benner told Billy Penn. “He has a great relationship with Mural Arts [and] wanted to do something in Philly to support artists.”

Works from three local creators of color will be on display: Symone Salib, Ernel Martinez and Arthur Haywood.

Currently on display is the second mural, created by Mural Arts veteran Martinez. His previous works include ASpire: No Limits at 21st and Ellsworth and Why We Love Coltrane at 29th and Diamond.

The project was surreal for Salib, whose work was the first on display at the Front and Laurel streets billboard two weeks ago. The Philly muralist, a 2021 Billies nominee, makes art characterized by striking linework, prominent faces, and bright colors.

Earlier this year, Salib just happened to set a new personal goal: Getting her art on a billboard.

Within three months, Questlove reached out and asked her to do it.

“It’s been hard in the pandemic to have started 2021 with goals that felt in reach, just with the uncertainty of how the year might go and what was physically possible,” Salib said. “The universe truly works in mysterious ways and to say that I feel blessed to have been a part of such a beautiful project is an understatement.”

The movie, dubbed “a Questlove jawn” in the trailer, is titled “Summer of Soul.”

It shines a light on the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which took place over the course of six summer Sundays. It featured performers like Stevie Wonder, The 5th Dimension, and Gladys Knight & the Pips — and managed to attract hundreds of thousands of attendees.

For decades, its impact wasn’t fully recognized, because footage of the festival sat unreleased in a basement. That is, until Questlove “rescued” it all, got the rights, and turned it into a documentary.

The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and earned both the Grand Jury prize and the Audience Award. It will be released on Hulu and in some theaters on Friday, including the Bryn Mawr Film Institute, at AMC locations in South Jersey and a special showing at The Bourse.

The Fishtown billboard is already up and ready to be admired.

Martinez’s work went up on July 5. Next week, it’ll be replaced by a mural from Arthur Haywood, whose oil paintings have gone up from Cheltenham to Courbevoie, France.

The final artwork is scheduled to stay up until July 18, but Benner said he wouldn’t be surprised if it lasts even longer than that — depending on when a subsequent advertiser takes over the Fishtown billboard.

The I-95 advertising space was rented by Searchlight Productions. Benner said he’s not sure how much it cost the production company to score the spot. In general, billboards in Philly can range in price from $1,500 to $10,000 and up for four weeks.

Artist Symone Salib in front of her 'Summer of Soul' billboard on I-95

Artist Symone Salib in front of her 'Summer of Soul' billboard on I-95

Conrad Benner

This isn’t the first time Mural Arts and Questlove have worked together.

In 2013, the public art organization commissioned a mural to honor The Roots. It was painted on the side of a charter school at Broad and South, about a half mile from the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts, where Questlove and Black Thought (aka Tariq Trotter) first met.

Benner, who runs the public art blog Streets Dept, said this project is a rare example of a successful way to advertise in the public space.

“We’re promoting a really great film by a Philadelphian, who’s trying to tell the story of a really important piece of Black American history that so far has not been told,” Benner said. “Hiring artists to celebrate the work of other artists, I’m a huge fan of that.”

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