University City

Charlotte promoter has a knack for bringing big acts

Leo Bennett has always had a knack for gathering talent.

When he was a 19-year-old sophomore at Florida A&M University, he persuaded both Ice Cube and Queen Latifah to perform during homecoming, even though the concert’s shoestring budget allowed little pay for the gig.

Bennett recalled watching in awe as the sold-out show drew thousands of students into the university’s gymnasium.

Bennett went on to earn his doctorate in pharmacy while at the university, but at that moment in the gym, a concert promoter was born.

For the past 20 years, Bennett, president of Charlotte-based Variety Entertainment, has used that knack to put on Funk Fest, a two-day musical gathering that unites old-school with contemporary music – from hip-hop to blues – under one roof.

In a few days, Funk Fest Charlotte will take over University City with the likes of LL Cool J, Salt & Pepa, The Roots, War, Outkast and Fantasia Barrino, among other acts.

The event, Sept. 12-13 at Metrolina Tradeshow Expo, is expected to draw from 15,000 to 20,000 concertgoers daily. Ticket prices start at $65 for general admission for one day and $100 for two days.

“It’s like a gumbo, this music festival,” Bennett said of the variety of musicians from different eras and genres who appear at the six Funk Fests that take place each year in the South. “When you say ‘funk,’ people think George Clinton, but funk is actually where all different types of music originated, from James Brown to Michael Jackson.”

Bennett said this year’s event will be even more exciting for him, thanks to another group he’s gathered.

This year’s Funk Fest Charlotte will be the inaugural fundraiser for Lifting as We Climb, a nonprofit charity for homeless and disadvantaged youths that Bennett launched last December with a handpicked team of board members including former NBA player Derrick Coleman and music celebrity booking agent Jeff Epstein.

By recruiting members with deep ties to the kinds of activities that appeal to children, like basketball and music, Bennett said, he hopes to reach children with little guidance in their lives.

“The problem with a lot of nonprofits is you can’t get to the kids,” he said. “If you can’t get to the kids, you have a lot of ideas but you’re just spinning your wheels.”

Bennett said guidance from his own family – most of them educators who made sure he did his homework and stayed away from the wrong crowds – made all the difference in his life while he grew up in Mobile, Ala.

“How I came up, and knowing that I got to this point by the grace of God, I feel like I owe back to the community to make sure that these kids have the opportunity to do better for themselves,” said Bennett. “I’ve always had the passion to give back and hopefully, maybe, change somebody else’s life.”