Fashion, food, music, eloquence. They all intertwine in Africa’s staggeringly diverse, universally appealing artistic traditions.
That’s exactly why AfrikCan, the first annual celebration of Africa’s positivity and creativity, includes The sound, the word, the taste, the look, the philosophy in action. Taking place in Boston’s Ramsay Park on July 21-25, the festival will showcase all the facets of African culture in all their glory and greatness. Highlights include established artists and rising stars, all reveling in their heritage and discoveries as Africans striving for a new direction for the continent.
In all its variety, the festival echoes the experience of many passionate, dedicated African creatives, like unstoppable Boston-area entrepreneur Marie-Claude Mendy, the festival’s founder and driving force.
“I grew up in Senegal, and there were three huge things in our culture: food, fashion and music,” Mendy explains. “Even in a poor household, when they entertain the meals are amazing. They dress up in the finest fashions. There’s always music, and I grew up with reggae, Cuban, Brazilian, soukouss, zouk, soul, salsa, disco. That was in Dakar, but you’ll find stories like that all over Africa. That’s what we’re showing here, we’re representing all the regions of the continent, from Dakar to Dar es Salaam, from the Cape to Cairo.”
Though new, the festival has attracted some of the continent’s greatest talent. The music lineup reads like a who’s who guide: Grammy-winning Malian superstar Oumou Sangare is set to headline, along with Alpha Blondy (Boston premiere),the biggest reggae band to emerge from the continent; Nigeria’s it-man Wizkid; Congolese superstar JB Mpiana; Haitian roots trailblazer Emeline Michel; and South African legend Black Coffee (Boston premiere).
Alongside them, Afropean R&B divas Les Nubians, Ghanaian-American MC Blitz the Ambassador, and the homegrown Afrobeat talent of Antibalas will explore how African music has expanded around the globe. Fresh voices of young artists--the sensual electro-soul of Ghana’s Wiyaala (US premiere); thought-provoking, hard grooving Afro-jazz feminist MC Akua Naru (Boston premiere); the unstoppable punked-up Afrobeat of NYC’s Osekre--show the full range of African perspectives, sounds, and inspiration.
Full line up and schedule at www.afrikcan.com
“There’s a big movement toward African unity, at home and abroad,” says festival curator, Osekre Ishmael, a young musician and arts instigator with roots in Ghana. “We want to connect the Pan-Africanist and Afropolitan generations, the young and the established. The voices are all relevant, they have something to say to one another. We’re bridging gaps."
That total experience of the modern, outward-looking Africa with its rapidly growing economies and youthful energy is what AfrikCan will showcase, giving America an eyes-wide glimpse of how broad the spectrum of African life really is these days. “We’d like to show it all,” Mendy observes. “During the day we’ll have storytelling, literature, and conversations about activism and engagement. I want to give Africans a platform to voice their ideas.”
Nothing involving Marie-Claude Mendy would be complete without food; after all, that’s her livelihood and reputation. In the 1990s she moved to the U.S. and a few years later she opened Teranga, the celebrated Senegalese restaurant in Boston, where she still presides over the kitchen.
“Some of my earliest memories sitting on the kitchen floor, peeling garlic, grinding spices in the mortar and pestle, handling any chores my mother would let me do,” she remembers. “That inspired my passion for food. When I was 11, I started making family dinners and meals on weekends.”
With her ability and keen entrepreneurial eye, Teranga has become one of the city’s culinary success stories and will host the festival’s red-carpet charity event on Friday, July 24. But success as a restaurateur has made Mendy hungry to do more. AfrikCan is the result.
“It’s time to get out there and make a statement,” she declares. “I wanted to do something big, something that expanded on the restaurant’s spirit of hospitality. The festival is part of Teranga, and it’s going to keep growing every year.”
It’s also important to Mendy that fashion is integrated into the bigger African picture. As a girl in Dakar she came to appreciate the expressive potential of fashion and beauty, but when she worked as a fashion consultant at Bloomingdale’s department store after arriving in America, “I never saw designs that reflected the style of my home. That’s why we’ve included fashion as part of AfrikCan. We have cooperatives that hand-dye, that create beautiful fabrics and garments. They deserve the spotlight. We’ll also have a discussion on hair, and how to embrace your beauty. That’s a big part of being African, too.”
Beyond encouraging ongoing conversations among Africans and between generations, AfrikCan wants to spark curiosity and excitement in general, to see the beauty and lay all the old myths to rest. It’s the global community that’s Africa, proud of its position. Of course, flowing through it all will be the music, one of the most thrilling touchstones for the continent’s multifaceted cultural achievements.
“Music is an integral part of my DNA,” Mendy notes. “I was introduced to it the day I was born and it plays such an important part in African culture. Without the right music it just wouldn’t be a festival!”