It seems like every year, more and more reggae music festivals sprout up all over the country, especially in California. However, for the last 11 years and counting, the Yes I Can Summer Meltdown Autism Awareness Art and Music Festival, held at the Santa Clarita Skate Park, has set itself apart from the others by hosting a special all-day gathering for a great cause.

Presented by Yes I Can (YIC), a program connecting peer mentors with students who have a variety of spectrum disorders such as autism and Asperger’s syndrome, the annual Summer Meltdown Festival continues to evolve each year. Members of the YIC program, plan and promote the festival throughout the entire year in order to execute a successful event. Those with and without disabilities do everything from using proper social media tactics to contacting bands, managers, promoters, vendors and stage crew.

Since gaining sponsorship from KROQ three years ago, the festival has seen its audience grow far beyond the Santa Clarita Valley. Just recently, the event’s co-founder, Bret Lieberman, was featured in an interview on Los Angeles’ KCAL 9 for their televised morning show. Accompanying Bret for this historic leap forward in the festival’s existence was Joshlyn Millan, a student from the YIC program, as well as one of the bands performing at this year’s festival, Krooked Treez.

The 2015 festival is set to host nearly 40 different bands along with 30 live artists painting throughout the entire day on three main stages. According to Lieberman, most of the bands and artists have been affected or touched by autism in some way. He adds, “Lots of them have learned about autism or Asperger’s through our music festival and by interacting with the students. This year’s lineup has something for everybody; there is reggae, electronic, rock, rap, hip-hop, funk and more.”

L.A. Weekly recently spoke to Lieberman regarding the festival’s growth throughout the years and why the cause behind the Summer Meltdown means so much to everyone involved.

What makes this year’s Summer Meltdown such a special event compared to those in the past?
Every year is special, but what makes this year extra special is the compassion that we have behind this year’s festival. The students have worked very hard to accomplish all things, even those things that seem near impossible. When we were told that certain bands were not possible, we proved that through commitment and drive anything is possible.

We are proud to say that we have such big names as Pepper, The Expendables, and a special acoustic performance from Nahko headlining our event. We are blessed to know that bands like Seedless, Hirie and Papafish return to spread our message of autism awareness, anti-bullying and social inclusion. We have partnered up with companies like L.A./OC Weekly and KROQ to spread the word, (Coachella), CalArts, PRG, 3D Edgeline, all to help take our production to the next level and make this year special. Without KROQ, our festival would not be as successful; we are truly honored to work with a company that is a class act.

We have learned to never let anyone drive our passion for the Summer Meltdown off track. The students are more committed than ever and are proud of what they stand for through the Yes I Can “Unity through Music and Education” program.

What does it mean to the students to be given the opportunity to go through the experience of putting together this festival, and do they continue to stay involved even after graduating?
Students have to be chosen to be in Yes I Can. The students in the program have been sought out by their teachers, counselors or administration to be a fit for this class. It is an honor to be in the Yes I Can class and to work on the Summer Meltdown, and every student is proud to say that they are a Yes-I-Canner and that they produce the arts and music festival.

There is no class or program like Yes I Can; where else can you learn real-world transition skills through working with your peers on producing a music festival for your own community? Over the past 13 years, Yes I Can has touched the lives of nearly 2,000 kids. Graduates return annually to visit and volunteer in the class, participate in social activities and fundraisers, and help set up and run the Summer Meltdown. The Yes I Can program and the Summer meltdown are truly both a family inside and outside of the classroom.

The crowd enjoying the 2014 Summer Meltdown Festival; Credit: Josué Rivas

The crowd enjoying the 2014 Summer Meltdown Festival; Credit: Josué Rivas

What would you say brings you the most satisfaction from the entire event?
The Summer Meltdown festival keeps growing each year with more support from the community, the students, the parents, volunteers and supporters within the music scene. This year the students got a personal visit from Kevin Lyman, the owner and creator of the Vans Warped Tour. The students got the opportunity to ask questions and get advice from one of California’s largest independent concert promoters. The students also got a visit from Dana Shingledecker-Greer, California Roots Festival’s Social Media Manager, on how to better promote, have a presence online, and learn different ways to connect with fans through social media.

The message the students want our guests to take with them after leaving the festival is “not to judge” and to “keep an open mind” at all times. Our event attracts guests from all areas, and everyone is blown away by how professional our production is year after year. The reactions of guests along with the smiles from the students once it all comes together are priceless.

What is the importance of keeping music and arts relevant within your students’ learning experiences?
Music is a universal language and is something that all human beings completely get. Art is very much so the same. No matter who you are, there is a beautiful way to express yourself through music and art.

The Yes I Can students experience music and art throughout the entire school year leading up to the Summer Meltdown through workshops run by professionals. Shout out to Artifornia and Haven Art Studio for always coming through. These professionals work hand-in-hand with the students to mentor them and to help them create both individual and collaborative art pieces. The students learn to brainstorm and work as a team. It takes patience, clear communication, and proper collaboration to effectively complete some workshops, while others are meant to open their minds and be “free-spirited,” as you will, art and music projects.

A child paints during the 2014 Summer Meltdown Festival; Credit: Josué Rivas

A child paints during the 2014 Summer Meltdown Festival; Credit: Josué Rivas

With such a great cause behind the making of this festival, are the bands you book usually pretty easy to get locked in?
Not always! Just like anyone else, the Yes I Can students have to work to get the things that they want. It takes communication, patience, collaboration and persistence to book an artist they want to perform at their festival. When they are told someone is too far-fetched, it only puts a passion in them to reach farther, work harder and to be stronger willed. The students have written letters of acceptance, composed professional emails, made phone calls, and even created personal video invites to some of their favorite artists asking them to donate their time and talent to the arts and music festival.

The students want the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Incubus, 311 and Green Day when asked to write down who they would like to see perform on their stage; my response is that one day it will happen. We wanted Matisyahu from day one to perform… It took us 10 years to make that goal come to life.

Do you have any ideas on how you plan to top this year’s festival with the next one?
The only thing we can do is to continue to learn and grow. Each year we figure out what seems to work and what doesn't, then we search for new and exciting opportunities for the festival. We welcome new members of our surrounding communities with open arms because Yes I Can/The Summer Meltdown is a family with no boundary. There is no blueprint out there when it comes to the Summer Meltdown; we have created it, and continue to re-create it each year. We are the only festival in California that is planned, prepared and produced by students with and without disabilities, who get to work alongside live music concert professionals. As a wise man named Kevin Lyman once told the Yes I Can program: “When asked what year was the best one yet — the answer is always, 'next year's.'”

The 12th Annual Summer Meltdown Autism Awareness Art & Music Festival will be held on Saturday, April 25, at the Santa Clarita Skate Park. Tickets are still available for $25 at the Support Local Reggae Store inside the Puente Hills Mall. Otherwise, visit to purchase tickets for $35.

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