Spoleto Festival USA is set to close at Riverfront Park on Sunday in a flurry of emotions, at least if Curtis Harding has anything to say about it.
“Come prepared to dance, laugh and maybe cry,” Harding said. “We’re going to go across the board.”
The singer and guitarist will close out the night with his contemporary R&B, soul and funk music. Two local acts, The Artisanals and Benny Starr (the first rapper to ever perform on the finale stage), will open for the headliner.
Harding’s involvement with music began at an early age. His mother was a gospel singer who performed at churches around the country. Harding didn’t have a permanent home through much of his childhood. Instead, he would learn to call the church home, joining his mother onstage. He said the church provided him with his musical foundation.
“It’s where I learned the ropes of spontaneous musicianship,” Harding said. “It helped with being on stage and being honest and open as a musician. I don’t believe that the church is a building. It’s people.”
Thanks to his sister, who introduced him to secular music as a teenager, Harding developed a love for the sounds of Motown and other legends of black popular music. It’s a sound he couldn’t shake.
“I relate to that old soul stuff,” he said. “When I listen to it, I hear the times. I can hear what they meant and they felt. That’s what music is.”
His career as a professional musician took off in the early 2000s, and he toured alongside artists such as Cee Lo Green, Outkast, Lauryn Hill and The Roots. He also sang backing vocals and wrote music for Green’s hit 2010 album “Lady Killer.”
Harding broke out as a solo artist in 2014 with the release of his debut album “Soul Power.” Three years later, he followed up with “Face Your Fear,” his sophomore effort produced by Danger Mouse. The album earned a spot on NPR Music’s list of top 10 R&B albums of 2017. Though both albums are clearly influenced by the music that inspired him as a child, Harding said he tries to bring something new to the genre.
“I’ve never tried to re-create what’s been done,” he said. “I consider it an addition, like adding an extra room to a house. That old stuff is already so good, I see my job as to reinterpret it.”
Rapper Benny Starr, born and raised in the Lowcountry, brings his brand of socially conscious hip-hop to the Spoleto stage at 7 p.m. Sunday.
Starr first came onto the scene in 2015 with “Free Lunch,” a jazz- and R&B-infused hip-hop album. This past September, he recorded “A Water Album” live at the Charleston City Music Hall, which will be available on vinyl later this month.
Both works tackle issues facing the Charleston community, such as institutional racism, misogyny and political division. Starr, 31, believes he has a responsibility to use his platform as a musician to speak on these “truths.”
“I think music gives me a vehicle to express all of those things,” he said. “I want to engage with people, ignite people and tell the stories of the Lowcountry.”
Now, he’s set to become the first rapper ever to perform during Spoleto’s finale. The magnitude of the moment is not lost on the young artist.
“It means a lot to me,” said Starr. “I think of all the people who look just like me, who (had talent) enough to command that type of audience with their art, their voices and their stories, who probably didn’t get the opportunity to do it.”
The Artisanals — guitarist-vocalist Johnny Delaware, guitarist Clay Houle, keyboardist Ian Klin and drummer Nick Recio — kick off the finale festivities at 6 p.m. Sunday.
The group draws inspiration from Indian music and iconic American rockers like Tom Petty, and adds a healthy dose of 12-string guitar and distortion. Delaware, who founded the band alongside Houle, said they aim to be anything but milquetoast.
“You need a little edge to your art, because if everything’s a little too clean then it’s boring,” he said.
The past year has been a busy one.
The band released its self-titled debut album “The Artisanals” in September, turned over a new lineup of musicians, made two appearances on the popular YouTube music show “Jam in The Van,” and are currently in the midst of a U.S. tour running coast to coast. Delaware said he doesn’t take this moment lightly.
“Ever since I was 7 years old, I’d be playing on pots and pans and telling my buddies what to play on theirs,” said Delaware, who moved to Charleston in 2012 to join the city’s budding music scene. “It’s just a dream come true to get to do this.”
The Spoleto Festival finale at Riverfront Park, an new venue for the event, will include food trucks, a pop-up bar serving beer and wine and fireworks. Bring folding chairs and picnic supplies.