Fenced off back lot
A back lot at the Russell Industrial Center was the proposed site of the Backwoods and Bonfires music festival. (BridgeDetroit photo by Malachi Barrett)

City officials are at odds with organizers of a five-year-old hip hop festival, recommending cancellation of the event a week before it’s scheduled to take place at the Russell Event Center in Detroit.

Organizers with We Are Culture Creators, a local arts collective, asked a City Council committee Thursday how they could resolve issues with a special events permit they needed to host the sixth annual “Backwoods and Bonfires” music festival on June 24. 

But representatives of the mayor’s office recommended denial of the permit, saying it’s too late to address concerns with building safety, crowd and parking capacity and the ability to coordinate emergency response services for the festival. The council committee referred the permit application to the full council for consideration at its next meeting on June 20, but recommended the application be denied.


Meanwhile, an updated application submitted by event organizers this week remains under review. The city declined to provide BridgeDetroit a copy of the application, as the mayor’s office has not yet issued a decision on whether to approve it. 

Event organizer Danny Preston said the “writing is on the wall.” The festival is poised for cancellation. Preston said he doesn’t understand the city’s concerns, since the Russell Events Center frequently hosts similar festivals and crowded events. 

“It’s pretty upsetting, it feels like they’re not working with us,” Preston said in an interview. “We’re going to try and find some things out. We can’t wait too late to postpone it, but we’re trying to figure it out.” 

District 3 Council Member Scott Benson said public health and safety concerns reported by multiple city departments should be taken seriously. Earlier this week, council members also took issue with errors in the permit application and criticized organizers for promoting the event before obtaining necessary approval from the city. 

“We’re really just asking for grace in this process,” Elizabeth Stone, co-creator of We Are Culture Creators, told council members. “By no means do we feel like we’ve handled this process perfectly. We’ve managed to scale this from a side lot in our backyard to something where we’ve got a few thousand Black and brown people coming together peacefully and celebrating Detroit culture.”

Backwoods and Bonfires was set feature multiple concert stages, local businesses and live art performances. Organizers invested roughly $150,000 into the festival, Preston said, which aims to showcase local talent and small businesses. Rappers like Rico Trap, Sukihana, Rocky Badd, Trina and Gmac Cash were scheduled to perform. 

“Our partners make sure we have a community presence, that’s what we never want to lose and why we don’t get a bunch of mainstream artists,” Preston said. “Where else can you be an up-and-coming artist in the city and get a thousand people to perform in front of? This is where that happens.”

The event would be split between an outdoor area behind the sprawling former industrial complex and an indoor venue. Gail Fulton, a council liaison for the mayor’s office, said portions of the outdoor area lack certificates of compliance needed to legally rent the space, and the indoor venue is too small to accommodate the anticipated crowd.

The permit application states 4,000 attendees are anticipated. The first and second floors of the indoor exhibition building has a maximum capacity of 2,409 people, according to the city. 

“It was recommended in May that they change the location,” Fulton said Thursday. “We are far past the event planning deadline … There was advanced communication of potential issues at this location that led us to either make the recommendation of moving the event to another location, scaling back the size of the event layout or not having it at all.”

“At this point in time, it would not be wise for us to approve this event due to the magnitude of it all.” 

Preston said 2,000 tickets were issued for the event, including 1,200 that were sold to attendees. The updated application submitted earlier this week anticipates 1,800 visitors. 

‘Without any problems’

Michael Reyes, co-founder of We Are Culture Creators, said young Detroiters are relying on the festival to support their art financially and grow their profile. Organizers said the Detroit event has been run smoothly in the past, though Fulton said vehicles were improperly parked along the service drive along I-75 and in fire lanes at last year’s festival. 

“This festival features Detroiters,” Reyes said. “I participated in Movement, I participated downtown when we had all the (Grand Prix) race cars here, and that was great. People can come from all over the state to those events, but this specifically is 200 young Detroiters participating in hip hop.” 

Smaller Backwoods and Bonfire showcases were held to promote local talent in other cities across the Midwest, including Kalamazoo, Saginaw, Grand Rapids, Chicago, Columbus and Cleveland.

In Detroit, special events permits are required to conduct events in the public right of way or outdoors on private property. City guidelines state applications won’t be accepted under 60 days before the event, with “no exceptions.” The first application was submitted May 15, within the deadline. The updated permit application was submitted on June 11. 

A mayor’s office report includes comments from seven city departments that recommended denial of the permit application. The Buildings, Safety, Engineering, and Environmental Department (BSEED) reported industrial center had $10,148 in late inspection fees when the application was turned in. 

Niko Matsamakis, manager of the Russell Events Center, said the fines have since been paid, which was confirmed by the city on Friday. Matsamakis said certificates of compliance were renewed for the exhibition center in April. 

“There was a whole list that was sent back to me (from BSEED) about outstanding tickets and my team went through them one by one and checked on the city’s database,” Matsamakis said in an interview.

A special events permit was approved for an arts festival held by The Michigan Glass Project at the industrial center earlier this month. Matsamakis said the event took place in the same outdoor area where Backwoods and Bonfires had happened in the past. He said roughly 1,000 people were at the festival at one time throughout the day. 

“We have had a lot of very successful events out in the back, we held Backwoods and Bonfires last year without any problems,” Matsamakis said. 

The permit application shows the festival has licensed private security, medical services and portable toilets. It would feature food, clothing and merchandise vendors, and non-alcoholic beverages. Organizers initially sought a license for a cannabis consumption event, but abandoned the idea due to time constraints. 

“It’s just an unfortunate instance of not adhering to recommendations provided by the city, because everything is in the best interest of the petitioner for safety purposes, and of course, the City of Detroit for liability,” Fulton said Thursday.

Council Member Coleman Young II and Benson expressed concerns about perceived favoritism, since other events have been allowed to happen at the Russell Events Center. 

“I don’t want to put the city in a potentially hypocritical situation where certain events aren’t getting approved, and other events are,” Young said Thursday. “Even if that’s not the case, that’s what the appearance can seem like. A person who doesn’t understand will see an event like this canceled and another event approved for people who are more well-to-do or of a different community. They might view that as discrimination, even if that’s not the case.” 

Young also inquired about the future of the Russell Events Center, given the concerns about certificates of compliance and building safety.

Fulton said the city will continue to accept permit applications and approve those that meet safety standards and occupancy and parking capacity requirements.

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