The African World Festival will mark its 33rd year this weekend, but the event will also help to celebrate an even bigger milestone for its home site and parent organization: the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.
The free festival, which runs Friday through Sunday, is one of several events this year commemorating the African-American history museum’s 50th anniversary. Festival director Njia Kai says the museum’s semi-centennial inspired the festival’s theme this year: “Shining As We Rise.”
“We certainly want to be looking towards and working towards the next 50 years of this institution,” Kai says. “We really are emphasizing what we are doing well and have been doing well so far, but really promoting to our young people the opportunity that they have now to come and lend their talents and their resources to this museum to make the institution strong and keep its future bright.”
The festival features a variety of activities celebrating African culture, notably a beefy musical lineup featuring several nationally recognized talents. The roster includes Bob Marley progeny Julian Marley, Detroit gospel stars the Clark Sisters and Soweto Street Beat, an Atlanta-based group specializing in traditional South African song and dance. Soweto Street Beat will also be just one of many local and national performers participating in the Parade of Nations, which moves through Midtown into the festival grounds at noon on Saturday.
African arts and crafts will be demonstrated in an area of the festival called the African Folklife Village. Caribbean, African and African-American food will all be available for sale.
The festival will also feature a variety of vendors selling African-inspired jewelry, clothing and art. Louisiana-based jeweler Abe Lavalais says the festival was one of the first he exhibited at professionally about 25 years ago. Although he’s traveled to many ethnic festivals in different cities, he says he’s always impressed by how “black-orientated” Detroiters are when he works the African World Festival.
“When they see an ankh or a gye nyame or some African symbol, they’re kind of aware of it,” Lavalais says. “They know what it means, they know what it’s about, and they’re in tune with that. Most of the cities that you go to, that awareness isn’t there.”
Lavalais credits that awareness in part to the Wright museum’s influence.
“We don’t have very many black museums that are of the caliber that Detroit displays,” he says. “It’s one of the few places that does that, and does that very well.”
Kai says the festival’s mission – and the museum’s – is to educate and reach out to all Metro Detroiters, especially in a time when the community is “welcoming a lot of new residents.”
“I think it’s important for the various demographics within the city of Detroit to be introduced at their best to each other so we can meet and come to know each other, because it’s going to take all of us working together to sustain the continued upward movement of our city,” she says.
Detroit blues singer Thornetta Davis, who will return to the festival to perform “Lift Every Voice and Sing” at the opening ceremony, puts it more simply. Davis says “you don’t have to be black” to enjoy the African World Festival.
“It’s something that everybody in the Detroit metropolitan area should go to,” she says. “There’s a lot of beautiful entertainers and people coming together ... Anything that brings people together in love, in unity, is a good thing.”
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.
African World Festival
11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Sunday
Charles H. Wright Museum of
African American History
315 E. Warren, Detroit