MusicMusic Features

Brain Aid Fest Brings Mental Health Awareness to the Athens Stage

Stephen Cramer, the founder of local nonprofit Brain Aid, is transparent about his own struggles with mental health. “Every time you hear of a suicide, whether it is a celebrity or just anyone, it just breaks my heart, because I have been there,” he says.

With Brain Aid, Cramer hopes to end the stigma associated with mental illness. From Sept. 14–17, he is bringing this message of awareness to Athens nightlife with Brain Aid Fest, the first of what Cramer hopes are many socially responsible music festivals organized by his nonprofit, whose board of directors includes professional therapists and a licensed psychologist.

Taking place at Flicker Theatre & Bar, Little Kings Shuffle Club and The World Famous (see The Calendar for listings), the Brain Aid Fest lineup boasts 39 artists spanning a plethora of genres. Local favorites such as Blacknerdninja, Rev. Conner Tribble, African Soul and Los Cantares will perform, among many others. The sets are scheduled so that as a set ends at one venue the next starts at another, alternating as the night goes on and ensuring maximum music consumption for all attendees.

Interspersed throughout will be a clear message of caring for one’s own mental health, a topic that has long been taboo in many circles.

“Everybody’s chemistry is different. I know a lot of people who are pro-mental-health, like my dad, but they still are not proactive with theirs,” says Cramer. “They feel the stigma with taking medicine.”

The tie between music and mental-health awareness—a topic familiar to Athenians thanks to the efforts of Nuçi’s Space—was obvious to Cramer, as the entertainment industry has been particularly affected by mental illness. “Comedians and musicians, I would bet they die by suicide or overdose more often than the rest of the world,” he says. “Creative people are more sensitive.” This, along with inspiration from the Live Aid concert of 1985 and Cramer’s love of music, led to the creation of Brain Aid Fest, which Cramer has pulled together over the course of a few months.

“[The musicians were] so receptive to the idea… I’ve been very pleasantly surprised at the lineup that I’ve been able to put together,” Cramer says. “I’m just excited about the whirlwind that it will be… Just seeing my friends playing music and [being] positive about mental health.”

The gravity of the overarching topic is not lost on the artists scheduled to perform, as many have encountered mental illness in life and can draw on those experiences.

“I’ve had friends in the past who have suffered from mental illness, so it was like a no-question, no-brainer type of deal,” says Eugene Willis, aka Blacknerdninja. “When it comes to things on the local level, something that impacts Athenians, I try to make time to do it. Out of all of the shows, those are the most important shows.”

The rapper has seen firsthand the dangers of mismanaged mental health after losing a friend to suicide, which is closely linked to depression. Willis emphasizes the importance of being aware, speaking about these issues and paying close attention to loved ones who might be struggling.

“I’m looking forward to the event because of what it stands for,” he says. “There are so many people who will talk about mental illness, and there will be a platform to come out and be in a place where they can speak about it.”

Others emphasize the healing power of music. “Musically, it’s just trying to provide a good feeling… I think that setting is helpful for anyone trying to overcome anything,” says Los Cantares’ Jim Wilson, who has been open about his struggles with mental health and swears by the cathartic effect of playing music. “Our set will be fun. It will be full of positive energy, and there might be some onstage banter appropriate to the theme at hand.”

For Cramer, this first festival is just the beginning. “My weird goal is for people to see a positive mental-health ad every day,” he says, adding that he hopes to expand this venture with ambitious social media, advertising and partnership goals. One day, he hopes to gain national momentum for the nonprofit and continue spreading awareness through festivals, concerts and conferences.

“[People] don’t need to be ashamed if they are depressed, they just need to be proactive,” he says. “And I want to keep pounding the idea that there is hope.”