Culture shock is to be expected when one relocates from Ghana to Iowa. But when Kuuku Saah arrived in Des Moines to attend Drake University, he ultimately found a degree of familiarity in Iowa’s music scene and 80/35 — Des Moines’ progressive indie and jam music festival. The two–day event features many local, regional and national artists collaborating with community builders to promote central Iowa’s arts and culture scene.
“[Attending 80/35 for the first time] was such a powerful and unique experience,” Kuuku said. “I grew up in church and know how impactful music can be. But feeling something at a music event in downtown Des Moines was incredibly powerful in a different way.”
After enjoying the festival as a spectator, Kuuku was then inspired to get more involved with the event. He started as an 80/35 volunteer, then became an engaged board member of the Des Moines Music Coalition (DMMC), the nonprofit organization that hosts 80/35 and aims to bring a stronger and more diverse music scene to Iowa. Today, Kuuku has taken on an even bigger role in shaping Des Moines’ culture as DMMC’s board president.
“[80/35 is] a testament to the kind of people that Iowans are – very caring and willing to use their time and resources to make sure people around them have a good time,” Kuuku said. “The broad theme is caring and always looking at ways to help our neighbors and the people around us.”
Kuuku and the DMMC have also worked to bring a variety of eclectic music festivals to Des Moines, as well as programming intended to foster an appreciation for the arts among Des Moines’ youth. All signs point to these programs making a transformative impact. Kuuku specifically remembers a young rapper and singer who said a youth program had helped him overcome his shyness to let his personality shine on stage.
Adding to his already impressive resume as a community builder, Kuuku serves as chair for Party on 6th, an upcoming block party on 6th Avenue (between College and Jefferson Avenues in Des Moines) that will feature more than 10 musical performances, local food trucks, arts and craft vendors, a financial empowerment village and a kids’ zone. Kuuku recently championed the effort, one of the many ways he’s positively impacting the Greater Des Moines community.
“The story of the people is told through their culture,” Kuuku said. “That’s how you learn about morality, that’s how you learn what’s right and what’s wrong. You learn through music, through plays, through song, through storytelling from generation to generation.”
Beyond his involvement as a volunteer in the music scene, Kuuku’s commitment to the community can also be seen through his work as a business owner and developer. In 2020, he purchased Mars Coffee, a space-themed artisanal coffeehouse in the Drake neighborhood, furthering his mission of cultural enrichment for the Greater Des Moines area. Kuuku also serves on the board of One Economy Financial Development Corp (OEFDC), an organization that aims to create a more equitable community by offering loans and supportive services to low-income individuals who don’t traditionally qualify for access to financial assistance.
“Our focus is building community,” Kuuku said. “I think that’s the essence of humanity. Trying to make a space for community while making other people around you better.”
As 80/35 nears, Kuuku is expecting 25,000 attendees to experience what makes the Des Moines music scene special and see why Kuuku feels a special kinship with his home away from home.
“I think the community that we have within Des Moines and Iowa as a whole is what has made me stay. It’s been incredibly powerful to build community here over the last decade and a half and find people who are passionate about equity for all, but also interested in making the city and state better than they already are” Kuuku said.
Interested in attending 80/35? Get your tickets here.