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The Arts

Back in Black

The Stakes Are High For Baltimore's Old Yet New African-American Festival.

Jefferson Jackson Steele

By Natalie Davis | Posted 6/19/2002

When the AFRAM expo was put on hiatus in 2001, it was generally understood that Baltimore's once vibrant and beloved African-American festival was being retooled, not put out of its misery.

The 25-year-old event had fallen on hard times. Attendance, which reached 100,000 as recently as 1993, had dropped to fewer than 15,000 folks for AFRAM 2000. The festival's location--and perceived status--had fallen too; that last hurrah was held at Pimlico Race Course. No disrespect to the home of the Preakness or its environs, but Pimlico is pretty far away from chichi downtown.

Something had to change. New inspirations to attract a vast audience, old and new, had to be found. AFRAM couldn't die. You are obligated to have an African-American festival if you claim to be the Greatest City in America, especially if the Greatest City's population is two-thirds African-American. You also have to make it profitable. Which means you must give people a reason to come.

On May 31, Mayor Martin O'Malley and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People President Kweisi Mfume explained why they believe everyone should check out the newly christened African-American Heritage Festival. Their press conference at Babe Ruth Plaza just outside Oriole Park at Camden Yards (where the event takes place June 21-23), took on the air of a pep rally. A crowd of political and civic leaders and event volunteers cheered as festival chairperson Mfume announced the event's musical headliners: Erykah Badu, Brian McKnight, and Maze featuring Frankie Beverly. But Mfume and the mayor received equally enthusiastic applause when they announced other elements of the born-again fest: a glittering new location in a prime locale. A commitment to showcase African-American and Caribbean culture. An homage to black churches. Meaningful and fun activities for children. "Really, there is something for everybody," O'Malley said. He then extended an invitation, by way of the event's theme: "Come see who we are."

It's no surprise that O'Malley, the first Baltimore mayor since 1976 to oversee an ethnic-festival schedule that did not include an African-American-focused offering, would want to bring the institution back stronger than ever. The social and political ramifications are obvious. "No group has made a greater contribution to the life of this city than the African-American people throughout generations here," he says. "They built this city, raised loving families, and accomplished some of the greatest accomplishments in the free world, really, if you step back and think about it."

Seeking a proven leader to bring the festival back to life, the mayor turned to the man many once hoped would run for his job. O'Malley pursued a reluctant Mfume through a series of monthly phone calls.

"Of all the people in this country who could have said, 'I'm too busy,' 'I have too many national responsibilities,' 'I can't get involved in putting on an ethnic festival,'" it was Mfume, the mayor says. But he persisted, and in June 2001 he made the sale.

"It was something important for the city of Baltimore," Mfume says. Ultimately, he adds, he couldn't pass up the "challenge to re-create this endeavor and give it back to the citizens."

Mfume says he went to work assembling a team of volunteers to help organize every aspect of the event. Committee chairpersons came from civic groups, churches, and local businesses that had expressed an interest in helping organize a brand-new event.

"Some of this is trial and error. I've never done anything like this before, and neither have they," Mfume says. Inexperience notwithstanding, the organizers recognize the importance of making a big first impression--the African-American Heritage Festival has a lot to live up to.

The late, lamented AFRAM Expo, part of the city's annual Showcase of Nations, was first held in 1976 to honor the history and culture of black Baltimoreans and their African ancestors. During its heyday, the event attracted visitors from throughout the region. Baltimore-based jazz singer Maysa, who will perform with saxophonist Phil Waters at this year's festival, recalls a time when the event was something folks looked forward to all summer. "When I was growing up, AFRAM was the thing to do," she says. "It was like a big family reunion, and I mean big, with massive crowds."

During its peak years AFRAM drew large, passionate audiences, but over time the event gradually lost its allure. Organizers cite a number of reasons for AFRAM's decline, primarily frequent changes in date--from late spring to early fall (the 2000 event ran at the tail end of September, well past the summer festival season)--and venue--from Hopkins Plaza and Rash Field downtown to Mondawmin Mall, Dunbar High School, Pimlico, and, one year, underneath the Jones Falls Expressway. "People saw it as disrespect, so they just stopped coming," Maysa says of the ever-changing venues. As crowds waned, the festival piled up heavy debts. By 2001, the dwindling attendance--and enthusiasm--led the city to put the festival on hold in hopes that future organizers could find new inspiration.

Rediscovering some old inspiration might help, suggests conference planner, consultant, and entrepreneur Marie Henderson, who helped organize the first three AFRAM Expos. "When you have any endeavor, you can't lose sight of what its original intent and purpose was," she says. "I think some direction, some of our original vision, was lost, to be very honest. I don't think it was intentional and certainly not meanspirited. But we have a lot of entertainment venues in the city. AFRAM wasn't meant to be just about entertainment. Honoring our history and culture was supposed to be the primary thing."

Perhaps eager not to jinx their labor of love, festival officials interviewed for this story seem loath to even consider the possibility that the Heritage Festival will not redeem AFRAM's legacy. ("It's going to be great" is almost a mantra among organizers when the question of success or failure is raised.) Mfume says the volunteer committee members, many with past AFRAM experience, have put in long hours "tweaking" the old expo's formula in an attempt to recapture its spirit. And the stakes for immediate success are high. With the enthusiasm attending the new event, organizers have raised more than $300,000 in city funds, private donations, and corporate contributions, ab0ut three-quarters of what Mfume says the festival will cost. But however civic-minded those private funders are, will they continue ponying up in years to come if the Heritage Festival doesn't draw throngs and generate buzz? Will the cash-strapped city remain enthusiastic if the event doesn't pump dollars into downtown businesses and public transportation?

Just as important is living up to the emotional attachment many Baltimoreans have to the old AFRAM. "Because of the history of this festival, it's important for us not to fail, for us to create instead a rejuvenated festival that might be with us for another 23 or 24 years," Mfume says.

To that end, festival organizers decided that reviving the festival meant, in part, reviving that original vision: offering top-notch entertainment while making sure the educational, historical, and family-friendly components were high in quality and given the spotlight they deserve. That spotlight had been lacking in recent years, as more and more attention went to big-time entertainers and AFRAM started to feel like Artscape, the Fells Point Festival, and too many other summertime music-and-food fests.

Hence the new focus on showcasing the African-American cultural and historical dynamic. Two large tents inside Camden Yards will offer seminars, living-literature performances, poetry readings, educational exhibits, and more. Strolling griots will share oral history with folks all over the festival site. For the event's duration, Babe Ruth Plaza will become Watoto (Swahili for "children") Square, featuring rides, games, and educational activities for the kids.

Mfume also decided to integrate the African-American church into the celebration.

"It is intuitive, I think, of President Mfume to merge church with community," says the Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant, pastor of Baltimore's Empowerment Temple and chairperson of the festival's faith committee. "He understands that Baltimore is, in essence, a church town, so at every level of the festival the church is playing a part."

That means visitors can expect to hear prayers from a variety of faiths. An exhibit on the history of the African-American church will be on display. And from noon until 2 p.m. on Sunday, June 23, Bryant will preside over an interdenominational service featuring clergy and church groups from congregations spanning the city. Out of respect for churchgoers, there will be no beer sales from noon to 2 p.m. on the 23rd. "I really want to extend gratitude to President Mfume for making that kind of commitment when, in reality, he really didn't have to," Bryant says.

All this attention to education and history does not mean music lovers will get short shrift. Badu, McKnight, and Maze top a strong bill with a "hip" quotient that had been lacking at recent AFRAMs. "We have to make an impact right out of the box," says LaRian Finney, president and chief executive officer of Visionary Marketing Group and head of the festival's entertainment committee. "Mr. Mfume came to me with a wish list: 'LaRian, this is who we'd like to get, and we can spend X amount of dollars.' We've been fortunate enough to be able to make it happen."

Fortunate, yes, but also well-connected--which is why Mfume asked him to take the job. Finney has worked with nearly all the acts performing at the event, including the big names as well as local lights such as Maysa and Waters, folk-groove band Fertile Ground, reggae group Stryker's Posse, and many more. "I'm very confident that Baltimore, D.C., and the mid-Atlantic area as a whole will be pleased," Finney says.

Mfume maintains the mix of talent, timing, and location will rejuvenate the former AFRAM franchise. "For this festival, in a majority-black city, to be successful, it must be showcased," he explains. "It's got to be downtown where the jewels of the city are, so people coming far and wide will have a chance to see it, unlike an ugly cousin we might stick in a closet. The same with the date. We wanted to make it as early in the festival season as we could." The new date makes the event "the first citywide festival of the summer," he says. The new expo also dropped AFRAM's modest $5 admission price; entry to the Heritage Festival is free.

One more thing had to change. "The name AFRAM served the festival well in its early days, but it was almost as if we were afraid to say 'African-American,'" Mfume says. "This has to be a definitive festival, so it was important for us to say 'African-American,' and also to say 'heritage.'

"There are a lot of expectations riding on the revival of the old AFRAM festival. Our theme is deliberate. We want everyone to come see the richness of African-American history, education, culture, and visual and performing arts. We invite everyone to come, learn, enjoy, and see who we are."

For a complete schedule and more information on the festival, see www.africanamericanheritagefestival.org or call (410) 318-8286.

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