Baltimore has an abundance of nicknames that, depending on context, teeter from laughable to eerily spot-on. One that’s never quite stuck for me is Smalltimore, which implies there are only so many degrees of separation between city residents — that, in one way or another, everyone is connected through life experiences, professional networks, neighborhood proximity or the little scenes they occupy.

Socially, the city doesn’t feel more or less connected than any other metropolitan area that’s comparable in population. But even more importantly, that nicknames obscures the fact that this city is so segregated that many people are living in markedly different realities regardless of the mileage that separates their homes, favorite bars or religious gathering spots. The Preakness Stakes are a litmus test for how connected Baltimore actually is.

I was born and raised in this city. Yet before last year, I had never been to the nationally significant horse racing extravaganza despite the vast majority of my family hailing from Park Heights, the West Baltimore neighborhood in which the event takes place. That’s the case for most Black Baltimoreans I know.

Poet Wallace Lane reflects on growing up in the shadow of Preakness

It’s probably because of how the thing has been marketed through time: photos and videos primarily of white people in celebratory moods adorned in their loud colonial-feeling Sunday best enjoying an event that started less than a decade after this country granted enslaved Black Americans their freedom. From where I stand, the folks behind Preakness seem to have made themselves clear on what kind of people they’d like to come out and enjoy horses being pushed to the brink of their demise. Or better yet, they’ve made themselves clear on who they don’t want to participate.

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But last year, that temporarily changed. In the event’s first race since the COVID-19 pandemic, a new feature to the festivities was added under the umbrella of Preakness Live: a mixture of performances, art and food the day before the race.

It was handled by Black Baltimoreans who have gone on to achieve considerable success. The artist Derrick Adams (who is my uncle) curated the arts segment, which saw local artists impose their visual language onto stationary freight containers. But the music, curated by record label executive Kevin Liles, felt like a seismic shift.

Through Liles, Preakness Live featured Houston superstar rapper Megan Thee Stallion, whose persona — cowboy hats informed by Texas rodeo traditions and a stage name that includes the term for a non-neutered male horse (Megan Thee Mare doesn’t really hit the same) — couldn’t be a better fit. The headliner for the night was the legendary Grammy-winning singer and rapper Lauryn Hill. “To have one of the Super Bowls of horse racing in Baltimore invest in the city, bring the city’s soul out, is a blessing, man,” Liles said in an interview with Billboard about the event last year.

The news of these additions hit me and friends in a way the Preakness never had before. In previous years, we’d acknowledge the event, but more as a caution to avoid Park Heights traffic at all costs rather than expressed interest in attending. What art from Black locals and sets by trailblazing Black women in hip-hop suggested was that maybe the Preakness had finally grasped the fact that the event takes place in a majority Black neighborhood in a majority Black city and maybe those people would like to be considered in the programming. There has to be some trade-off for people from the Maryland ’burbs taking up all the residential parking, right?

During the concert that Friday night and the race the next day, it felt like Black Baltimore had a place inside Pimlico Race Course — not a complete takeover, but a place. There was genuine joy radiating on that field: screams for Megan whenever she teased a bit of twerking, especially when she invited fans up on stage for some collaborative ass-shaking. People waited with patience for the notoriously late and fickle Hill, willing to stick it out for a chance that might not ever come again. Near the art installations was Restaurant Row, showcasing the culinary skills of small Black-owned chefs and food spots. It felt right.

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When looking at the lineup for this year’s Preakness Live, though — just its second year in existence — you’d have a hard time convincing me that decision-makers for the event want a repeat of 2022, regardless of how “seen” Black Baltimoreans felt.

Lauryn Hill performs during last year’s Preakness Live Culinary, Music & Art Festival. (Arturo Holmes/Getty Images 1/ST)

Instead of clear-cut hip-hop heavyweights, the May 20 headliners are pop juggernaut Bruno Mars and electronic dance music duo Sofi Tukker. (Many of the Black chefs from Restaurant Row won’t be present, either.) In comparison to the excitement and anticipation that I heard expressed in group chats and in small talk at parties n 2022, the chatter for next weekend just isn’t there — not in publications, not in casual conversation, not on my social feeds. I say this in full consideration of my reality not being the reality — there are surely circles of people somewhere in this region who can’t wait to cut up to some Top 40-esque crossover tunes.

In a press release about the 2023 lineup, Liles, who did not respond to a request for comment from The Baltimore Banner, said that as a “native son” of the city, he was “so proud to be a part of last year’s inaugural event, showcasing the rich culture that Baltimore has to offer. This year, I look forward to building on that ideal, and welcome my good friend Bruno Mars to the Preakness LIVE stage.”

But the question is what about 2022’s Preakness Live made organizers deviate, in less than a year, from a hip-hop-centered musical direction? If it was in the interest of getting more bodies in the space, then why not see how it could grow with continued nurturing over time?

And what does this suggest about the event going forward? Is it to engage with music that caters to a sect of Baltimore that hasn’t historically been represented to any considerable extent, but only when you are in need of making a splash after suffering from a global pandemic that halted large public gatherings?

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These changes in direction in such a short time dictate which Baltimore communities feel like the Preakness is reflective of their wants and desires: who they like to listen to, who they want to be around, the foods they most enjoy. Smalltimore doesn’t quite fit as a city descriptor when, at the flip of a switch, the fissure between who’s valued and who’s not can be made evident so quickly.

lawrence.burney@thebaltimorebanner.com

Lawrence Burney was The Baltimore Banner’s arts & culture reporter. He was formerly a columnist at The Washington Post, senior editor at The FADER, and staff writer at VICE music vertical Noisey. 

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