It’s about 1:00 p.m on a Wednesday afternoon when Darryl Perkins texts to push our 1:30 p.m interview back to 2:00 p.m. He has another meeting that is running late. His office is the bustling Busboys and Poets on 14th and V. He sits across from a young, beautiful, mocha colored afro-centric woman who seems quite poised and professional. He, a bearded, laid-back California transplant, is always drenched in a creative yet awe-inspiring demeanor.
“So what’s up?” He said as he offered up the other half of his chicken salad sandwich. The noisy lunch rush is a sort of background music to the theme song of his life. Full, chill, educated. He opens up his spiel like he normally would, talking about food. He is so passionate about food. To him, food can change the world. “I ate every night at the dinner table with my parents,” he said. He spoke of the time as one of unity and reflection for his mixed-race family. Mother,Japanese and his father, Black.
Perkins has championed his mantra of people, planet, and profit. This ethos of building communities is what drives his role as Chief Impact Officer for the Broccoli City Project, a program focuses on urban community building with healthy initiatives. They host an annual event, The Broccoli City Festival, an Earth Day music festival that is accompanied by healthy food trucks, vendors, and a plethora of fitness options. This year the rapper Future and songstress Jhene Aiko headlined the event.
There has been a revival of what it means to be black in America in recent years. Through the Broccoli City Project, Perkins has become a change agent for people who want to cultivate an identity that resonates with being black in America.
The Black Lives Matter Movement has catapulted this conversation into the mainstream. The simple plea to “matter” beckons a cry for humanity. Perkins hopes to feed that hunger through offering relatable experiences that reference the variety of ways that current Black Americans see themselves. “We are not a monolithic people”, Perkins said.
Black Americans are hungry for images in which they can relate. Events like AfroPunk have been a longstanding outlet for those who share diversity within the black community.
Media outlets like CRWN Magazine, which rolled out its first issue at AfroPunk was overwhelmed by the demand to see an accurate representation of black women in print. Spaces on the internet have burst at the seams with the desire for mediums that represent the current black American lifestyle. Hashtags like #staywoke serve as a platform for social concerns of the culture.
Back in the day, circa 1997, entertainment executive Kedar Massenburg, who has been credited with catapulting the careers of Erykah Badu and D’Angelo, coined the phrase ‘Neo-Soul’. The was a phrase used to describe a genre of music. It is a fusion of Jazz, Funk, Hip-hop and of course, Soul. It was music for a niche audience of black people who described themselves as ‘conscious.’
Over the years, music has always thrust black culture into the mainstream. It has also dictated the way black people see themselves. The Broccoli City Project is using this formula to appeal to the diverse urban audiences they want to attract. (Just think of it as a Joni Mitchell meets Tupac and you will have the quintessential Broccoli City demographic.)
For instance, Issa Rae, of the hit web series Awkward Black Girl on Youtube carved a path for voices like hers. Her comical antics as a non-traditionally black woman was embraced by millions. So much so, she has gained her own HBO series, Insecure, and a book deal. She has championed the narrative of awkward black people everywhere, “I felt like my voice was missing, and the voices of other people that I really respect and admire and want to see in the mainstream are missing,” she said. Today, Rae’s YouTube Channel has more than 200,000 subscribers.
The 90s era of compartmentalized urban culture has crossed over within black culture. Neo- Soul has evolved from being a music moment of the 90s to becoming a lifestyle, and Perkins is becoming a vanguard of it. Through social entrepreneurship, Perkins is helping to change the face of his generation from common stereotypes to a diverse population of socially aware pioneers.
Broccoli City Project is making room for a collection of themes.
Perkins role in Broccoli City’s efforts throughout the year is heavily focused on food deserts in DC. Perkins believes the black community must evolve in order to progress. “We are dying of preventable diseases,” Perkins said when speaking of traditional soul food. “Just imagine if we sold food like we sold drugs,” Perkins said. By simply changing to health-conscious vendors at their festival, the Broccoli City Project has shifted their audience to those who also care about health.
“The Broccoli City Project has been successful because they have stayed in tune with pop-culture, but don’t let it overtake their underlying message,” said Xzavier Brown, Farmer with Black Urban Growers (BUG), D.C. “They have shifted themselves into the driver’s seat; now they can influence pop-culture,” he said.
Behind the scenes, what festival goers do not see, is the hands-on approach the Broccoli City Project takes to make space for volunteers in black communities – in schools, city council meetings, churches, you name it. “Over the past couple of weeks we secured partnerships with USDA to do a garden and [health] curriculum at Malcolm X Elementary school in Southeast, DC,” he said.
It all started with humble beginnings. “I remember sitting in many community meetings as a little boy,” Perkins said. His father served as Public Health director for Alameda County, CA. Like his father, Perkins is usually dashing from place to place for meetings.
In 2009, as a program coordinator at the Hip-Hop Caucus, he was part of a nationwide campaign called Respect My Vote. After that, he co-founded Broccoli City Project with Brandon McEachern. If McEachern is the President of the Broccoli City, then Perkins is the Mayor. As Chief Impact Officer for the BC, Perkins wants his preverbal ‘citizens’ to be engaged, informed and inspired.
With write-ups in Black Enterprise, Fader and Rolling Out Magazine, BC have burst at the seams with support. People are literally starving for outlets such as Broccoli City. Complex Magazine donned Perkins the “Obama of green in Chocolate City.”
This year, Perkins organized The Power of One campaign, where volunteers gained entrance into the festival by planting community gardens and helping with local community development projects. Over 11,000 people attended the festival in 2014. In 2016, thousands of volunteers moved, and shoveled garbage and debris during the Anacostia River Cleanup effort.
Our meeting quickly comes to an end Perkins is off to explore and work some more. “Korean?… Chinese?” an acquaintance asks, wondering about his mixed race heritage. “Japanese,” he replies.
Looking on, the need to categorize him by race was jarring. Yet the casualty of her inquiry warranted a glare as if she cut you off in traffic. Perkins continued, unbothered. “I’m a black man,” he said without flinching. It’s all the same to Perkins. For Perkins race is not the cornerstone on which to hedge our bets, but rather just a characteristic.
He and a consortium of progressive minorities have blazed a new trail. They are curious and hungry for a new normal. They may find yet.