This past weekend was the Cincinnati Music Festival, Presented by P&G, previously known as the Ohio Valley Jazz Festival. I was invited to the city to not only experience the festival but to experience Cincinnati, and I can honestly say I was blown away.
Coming from a big city like New York, you can easily miss out on the culture smaller cities have to offer, and the hospitality of “Queen City” oozes out as soon as you touch down.
I spent my first night resting up after my flight and preparing for my first day on the town as our hosts, Source Cincinnati, had an itinerary that started with breakfast at 9 a.m.
Upon arrival at the fabulous Hyatt Regency Downtown Cincinnati, I could tell that it would be a warm visit. Aside from being greeted by Cincinnati Music Festival banners, I could tell that the hotel staff was equally excited for the weekend to come. I had a seamless check-in where I received my hotel key and a goody bag sponsored by P&G! My room was beautiful and the view was stunning. Perfect for the weekend I anticipated having.
Saturday started with meeting the other group members ranging from social media influencers, journalists, and a few who fell somewhere in between. We were greeted by our hosts, loaded up our van and began our day.
The first stop was a hearty breakfast at Boomtown Biscuits & Whiskey. Now I know what you’re thinking; “Biscuit AND whiskey?! For breakfast!?” I’m sure the option was available but I settled for their locally sourced black tea. To start us off, the staff and chef greeted us with biscuits as well as their notable variety of gravies and butters that included both garlic and honey butter that I wish I slipped into my bag.
As for my meal, I opted for their YUKON sandwich which consists of fried chicken, sawmill gravy, smoked cheddar, and bacon. It was just as amazing as it sounds.
Aside from this being the initial bonding moment with my fellow tourists and our hosts, we were introduced to Kick Lee, a music producer turned entrepreneur who founded the Cincinnati Music Accelerator, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to teach entrepreneurial life skills to music creatives in the city. I was impressed by the passion he has to help uplift his peers and help them to reach the next level in their careers.
After lunch, we headed to Swing House, a livable art installation created by Dutch-born, Cincinnati-based artist Mark de Jong. This whole-building art project consists of a freestanding 1880s three-story brick home.
De Jong removed the home’s interior walls and upper floors and built a swing right in the middle of the opened-up interior. It’s as cool as it sounds and you can even stay at Swing House via Airbnb for a fairly affordable price.
The next stop on our tour was the American Sign Museum where we got to take in the history of legendary signage beginning with the fancy gold leaf glass signs of the early 1900s, through the pre-neon era of lightbulb signs, to neon’s heydey in the 1930s-1940s, and on into the plastic era of the funky ’50s.
For lunch, we visited Findlay Market, home to numerous homegrown businesses and locally sourced produce. We were introduced to Goetta, a Cincy/Kentucky staple which consists of ground meat (pork, or pork and beef), pin-head oats and spices and is eaten in numerous ways including breakfast egg sandwiches.
Another thing that stood out to me during our tour, led by Cincinnati Food Tours, was Findlay Kitchen, a non-profit food business incubator. Findlay Kitchen supports food entrepreneurs looking to start, grow and scale their business, by providing affordable access to 11 licensed commercial kitchens, commercial-grade kitchen equipment, and ample storage space. They partner with external programs and organizations to provide the necessary training, mentorship, and resources to aid business growth. I really loved how much the city of Cincinnati invests in its own people and helps locals start businesses. Aspiring restauranteurs usually go on from Findlay Kitchen to a residency at a pop-up restaurant or table outside of the market and eventually go on to open their own space.
After the market, we headed to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. You never really realize how close you are to history which is why I appreciated this experience so much. At the beginning of our tour of the museum, we were taken upstairs by our guide and shown the Ohio river to aid as a visual as we heard the story of slaves escaping Kentucky to find freedom in Ohio. The entire tour down memory lane was breath-taking. They even have an actual slave house on the premises that has a legendary story to go along with it.
We had some time to relax and take in what we’ve seen for the day before meeting us for dinner and drinks at Mita’s, an eclectic restaurant focusing on both the traditional and modern foods and beverages of Spain and Latin America, with tapas, ceviches, cured hams, cheeses, and large plates.
After Mita’s, we made our way to Paul Brown Stadium for the Cincinnati Music Festival to experience the nation’s oldest – and now the largest with 90,000 festival-goers – annual R&B music festival as VIP guests with backstage access and a dedicated suite for our group.
The first night’s lineup included performances by Maxwell, Earth, Wind & Fire, RBRM (Ronnie, Bobby, Ricky, Mike of New Edition), Tamia, and Raheem DeVaughn. I got to meet Ronnie, Bobby, Ricky & Mike and almost completely fanned out, they were fun & very welcoming even to a young fan!
All the artists KILLED their performances. I mean, of course, they did, they’re vets. We were taken back to the ’80s & ’90s with New Edition classics, hit right in the feels by Tamia and were ready to fall in love just by hearing Maxwell’s voice (okay, maybe just me).
Sunday started with breakfast at Maplewood, one of downtown Cincinnati’s most popular breakfast spots for a delicious breakfast. Maplewood is a bright, 150-seat restaurant with white-washed woodwork and expansive windows, featuring fresh food items created with local and seasonal ingredients. I had their steak and eggs which was bomb and a mimosa because, why not?
We had the rest of the day to ourselves before hitting Paul Brown for the final night of the festival. We headed up to our suite to get a bird’s-eye view of the performances by Mary J Blige. Frankie Beverly & Maze, Blackstreet Ft., Teddy Riley & Dave Hollister, The Ohio Players, & MAJOR. Teddy Riley kept the New Jack Swing vibes from the previous night going with a live medley of all his hits and was joined by Blackstreet & Dave Hollister and had me singing my little 90’s baby heart out (even though we were the only ones that didn’t get a shoutout). Frankie Beverly & Maze and The Ohio Players had the two-steps going non-stop.
Soon after it was time for the main event — Mary J Blige. Mary, oh Mary, she did not come to play around. In the midst of singing numerous hits, she kept a theme of female empowerment going with select songs like “Share My World,” “Just Fine,” “Be Happy” and “No More Drama” while giving us speeches that you just know came from her heart and related to her latest personal troubles. Every performer left their heart on that stage and I’ll never forget it.
I’ve thanked them a million times but huge thanks to Source Cincinnati for their hospitality and this experience. I’m already trying to round up friends for another trip!