The International African Arts Festival Celebrates 50 Years of Fun in Building Unity

by Maitefa Angaza
All Photos by Lem Peterkin

The 50th Anniversary International African Arts Festival (IAAF) was a balm for the Black soul. Although reference was made to the trying and tragic times we’ve survived since last we gathered, the warmth, creativity and beauty of the people was healing and enlivening. And despite a relatively light turnout due to rain the first two days, the third and final day of the abbreviated comeback schedule was packed with happy people. The ancestors — recent, historical and spiritual — were paid consistent homage and we were all reminded to give thanks for our resilience as a people.

The always safe environment allowed delighted children to air-out after the long lockdown, running, playing and taking part in games, arts and crafts and storytelling presentations. The merchants who support the Festival each year never disappoint, and attendees were delighted by the wide selection of African and culturally-inspired attire, accessories and jewelry, musical instruments, sculpture and other art. And as usual, because there was food to please every palate, many Festival attendees ventured to try a cuisine new to them.


The entertainment lineup was strong considering the financial- travel- and other pandemic-related constraints. Among the performance highlights were: the legendary Drifters; reggae and dancehall icon Johnny Osborne; the funky Ohio Players Review; the master jazz collaboration of Ahmed Abdullah and Francisco Mora Catlett in Diaspora meets Afrohorn; celebrated R&B singer Angela Winbush; Hip Hop/R&B girl group Verbosity, fantastic Detroit-based funk, reggae and Hip Hop band Mollywop; the phenomenal dancing and drumming of the Forces of Nature and Farafina Kan companies; beautiful music by singer/guitarist Koku Ganza from Zanzibar, Razia Said from Madagascar, and electric Congolese singing and dancing by Eto’o Tsana and Nkumu Katalay.
Spirited words were shared by Adeyemi Bandele and other Festival organizers and by elected officials such as City Council Majority Leader Laurie Cumbo. Zamani Moyo Smith, a young man who does the community proud, had poignant memories.


“I‘m what you call a ‘Festival baby,’ he said. “I’ve been coming my entire life. I’m the son of a Festival founder, Baba Mzee Moyo. The Festival serves so many purposes and it’s a testament to what we really want — we want spaces to have our own culture, to have our own money and to raise our children the way we want.”


Zamani’s father was proud that the Black dollar circulates productively in the village that Festival provides. When a family purchases fish sandwiches or vegan dinners, those merchants will use some of that money to get an outfit or piece of art from another merchant, who, in turn, will buy a title from a book or music vendor.


The festival started as the African Street Carnival, a block party held 50 years ago on Claver Place in Bedford Stuyvesant, homebase for The East Educational and Cultural Center, a Black cultural nationalist organization. The parent council of its school, Uhuru Sasa Shule (Freedom Now School), was celebrating the first graduating class. That little, but powerful block party grew into a cultural institution attended annually by people from across the globe.


Segun Shabaka, IAAF chairperson, believes the Festival will continue to serve and inspire the community.
“One of the major achievements this year is that we were able to livestream it all over the world!” said Shabaka. “Brooklyn is the largest Black community in this country, per capita, and the third largest in the world, next to Nigeria and Brazil! Every year new people learn about Festival, but if you’re conscious and African — you know about Festival! What we have to do is encourage our people to read Black newspapers, listen to Black radio and watch Black TV.”

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