The Twin Cities’ inaugural Pan-African Festival, which runs from August 6-11, will highlight the Twin Cities’ prominent place as home to thousands of immigrants from all parts of Africa. Bringing together artists from Minneapolis to Mogadishu, Nairobi to Kingston, Monrovia to Madison, and many other places throughout the African diaspora, the Festival will celebrate not only the artistic expression of the African diaspora, but also the possibilities for collaboration and alliance in the land of 10,000 lakes.
Organized by the Diverse Emerging Music Organization (DEMO), a Twin Cities non-profit organization dedicated to fostering new musical talent, as well as the Twin Cities music community as a whole, this year’s Festival builds on last year’s AfriFest, held in August 2007 at Currie Park. Organized by a number of the same people organizing the Pan African Festival, AfriFest brought together not only a number of Twin Cities-based musicians from throughout the African diaspora, but also the late reggae superstar Lucky Dube.
“We really wanted to build on AfriFest, but it was important for us that we keep it community-based and non-profit,” says Rachel Joyce, one of the main organizers of the Festival. Unlike AfriFest, which was a for-profit venture, Joyce believes that “we have the freedom to deal with our aesthetic and philosophical goals when you take money out of it.”
In addition to Joyce, the core organizational group of the Festival—all volunteer—consists of long-time First Avenue manager Steve McClellan (who in the past booked both Fela Kuti and Sunny Ade to the Mainroom), George Ndege, originally from Kenya and owner of Kilimanjaro Entertainment, and Neo Rowan, who’s originally from Lesotho.
The Festival is not just about bringing peoples of the African diaspora together, though. As the organizers began planning the festival last year, numerous Twin Cities arts organizations, venues, and institutions, including the Parkway Theater, Sound Unseen, the Cedar Cultural Center (where DEMO held its Pan African Showcase last year) and many others, were eager to join in the Festival’s organization.
“It just all came together,” Joyce says with a smile.
The festival opens at the Cedar Cultural Center, at the heart of the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, home to many of the immigrants from all over Africa who have made the Twin Cities their home. Renowned Malian singer and guitarist Habib Koité, with his band, Bamada, will take the Cedar’s stage for a night of musical fusion of Malian folk and popular musics. On Thursday night, The Rake is organizing an exhibition at the Altered Esthetics Gallery in conjunction with the opening of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” exhibit, featuring music by the Wallace Hill Art & Drum Ensemble, as well as featuring art by Rabi Sanfo, who hails from Burkina Faso.
On Friday night, Mezesha Entertainment, which recently brought Kenyan singer and rapper Nonini to the Twin Cities, will be organizing “Safari: An Afro-Caribbean Experience,” as well as a reggae dance night on Sunday night. The riddims of Sunday night will follow the screening of three documentaries at the Parkway Theater: Hip-Hop Colony, which chronicles the rise of hip-hop in Kenya; Africa Unite, which follows the musical and familial progeny of Bob Marley in a celebration of what would have been his 60th birthday; and Music is A Weapon, the outstanding portrait of Fela Kuti, with rare interviews with the Afro-Beat pioneer and musical legend, as well as concert footage from inside his political and musical headquarters the Shrine and the Kalakuta Republic.
The majority of the music, however, will take place on Saturday. A slew of artists from across the artistic and geographic map will perform both inside and outside the Nomad World Pub. In addition to two dance groups, Diaspora and KUT Dance, there are singers and musicians that include Wegegta, with their fusion of Ethiopian pop and jazz, the Liberian singers F.A. and Munnah Myers, guitarist and singer Wain McFarlane, and the Liberian MC Z-Plus and headliner MC M.anifest, the dazzling wordsmith who calls both Accra, Ghana and Minneapolis home.
Just as Saturday closes with hip-hop, the festival itself will close with K’naan at First Avenue. The Somali-by-way-of-Toronto MC, who doesn’t shy away from the topics of violence and death in his native Somalia, is possessed with inventive wordplay that could stand its ground against any MC, is quickly becoming an icon of rap’s circuitous global proliferation. Black Blondie and The Usual Suspects will open. The latter group features their own Somali MC, Free Oen, who grew up a mere five blocks from K’Naan while living in the Dixon neighborhood of Toronto, one of the main enclaves of the city’s Somali population.
In the end, the organizers of the Festival, as well as many of the artists performing, see the as making a social statement for long after the festival’s over. Joyce says that the Festival is an attempt to use music as an agent for social change and social dialogue. “The Twin Cities are in a really interesting position globally to show how you do this right,” she said, “how you accept new neighbors and make them a meaningful part of your community.”
Similarly, McClellan, one of the founders of DEMO, sees the Festival as part of a larger motivation by the group to engaging with social issues. In his words, instead of just booking shows, he wants to DEMO “to make music a conduit to the bigger issues involved in both our local community and overall social change.
“I want people to come together and realize that other people they live next door to are NOT as scary or abnormal as they thought. I want people to come away with the realization that this community has changed and putting up fences and barriers only stalls the inevitable.”