people dancing on a stage
A dance group performing at the 39th African World Festival in 2022. This year, the Wright Museum of African American history is celebrating the festival’s 40th anniversary. (Courtesy photo from the Wright Museum)

Kevin Davidson has a long history planning and designing festivals in Detroit.

The one he’s been most engaged with from its inception is the African World Festival, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

While Detroit already had an Afro-American Festival, city officials reached out in the early 1980s to museum founder Charles H. Wright, executive director Kano Audley Smith and board members to create a weekend event that celebrated the history, art and culture of the African diaspora, Davidson said. 

“We started off by inviting these artists who participated in an art fair that took place on Washington Boulevard over a number of years…to participate in the African World Festival and create a marketplace there. And then of course we added entertainment. That’s how it started,” he said.

an outdoor vendor selling African items
The African marketplace is one of the highlights of the African World Festival. (Courtesy photo from the Wright Museum)

Forty years later, the festival has become a summertime staple for Detroiters. This year, the weekend full of entertainment takes place Friday through Sunday at Hart Plaza.  Funk legend and headliner George Clinton and his band Parliament-Funkadelic will take the stage at 8 p.m. Friday. 

A mix of local, national and international acts are also expected to perform, such as the Detroit Youth Choir, jazz group Sun Ra Arkestra, singer and emcee Mumu Fresh, Detroit R&B singer Re’Lxuise and Cuban composer and pianist Omar Sosa. 

Other highlights include 125 vendors, which will feature events from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. There will be a walking tour with Detroit historian Jamon Jordan, a silent disco, west African dance workshops and health and wellness classes. 

Wright Museum members can attend the festival for free. Tickets for non-members are $15; college students and seniors are $10; and children younger than 13 are free. 

“This is a fantastic way to experience African culture and honor our legacy,” Wright Museum President and CEO Neil Barclay said in a news release. “We’re proud to celebrate 40 years of hosting this experience in Detroit, and we want everyone to join us in the anniversary celebration.”

Documenting history 

Davidson’s favorite poster is one that he created for the first African World Festival. Artist Carl Owens created the piece, which depicts a man with two halves. One half features him in an African hairstyle and necklace. The other is more modern, with the man wearing his hair in an afro. 

“I got a chance to go over to Carl Owens’ studio and he had a chance to share some ideas and pick my brain,” said Davidson, who is now the director of design and fabrication. 

The inaugural festival took place August 26-28 in 1983 at Hart Plaza with the theme, “The African World is One.” The headliner was blues musician Taj Mahal and featured performances by Nigerian singer King Sunny Ade and South African dance troupe Izulu Dancers. 

poster for the African World Festival in 1983
A poster from the first African World Festival in 1983. (Detroit Free Press archives)

Scenes from the first festival include a crowd of people sitting on the Hart Plaza steps listening to a funk band, chicken and ribs sizzling on the grill and attendees browsing a case of jewelry, as seen in footage from the Detroit Historical Society. 

“I remember (King) Sunny Ade and the performance was so powerful,” Davidson said. “It was very spiritual, it was an introduction to African highlife. I was really impressed with the performance.” 

For the third festival in 1985, Zenani Mandela Dlamini, the daughter of South African civil rights activists Nelson and Winnie Mandela,made an appearance to accept an award on behalf of her mother, reported the Detroit Free Press. She also delivered a speech, calling for the United States to ostracize South Africa, as it was still under apartheid. Nelson Mandela was serving his 23rd year in prison at the time and wouldn’t be released for another five years. 

Kevin Davidson (Courtesy photo)

“That was major for us,” Davidson said. “His (Nelson’s) daughter was right here in a city that was 80% African American and then there was the connection between Detroit and South Africa fighting apartheid. It was meaningful and significant to have her there.” 

At the 1989 festival, a local and significant player in the American civil rights movement would be honored–Rosa Parks. Davidson said that moment was iconic, too.

“She was the mother of the civil rights movement for us here,” he said. “That was magical because she had not only come to the festival but had made several visits to the museum. I had an opportunity to get to know her and she was more than just this Black woman who decided not to give up her seat on the bus.” 

Davidson said during the 1990s, the African World Festival became more of an educational experience, featuring more lectures about the continent and bringing in more African artists. He said the event has always been a priority for the Wright Museum, even when the institution struggled financially. 

“It’s been our No. 1 public event throughout the years and so, we’ve made sure to invest in it,” he said. “We’ve never relented. We’ve always made sure that the festival went on.” 

Today’s festival 

To celebrate the festival’s milestone, the Wright Museum created a 40th anniversary exhibit, which will be located at Lincoln Garden. Davidson said the exhibit will feature 40 festival posters and 200 to 300 photographs from the festival throughout the years. Guests will also be able to take pictures and record inside the free photo booth and recording chair. 

The festival will also feature the Watoto Village with kids’ activities like games, arts and crafts and short films. The Detroit Youth Choir will perform two shows at 5:30 and 7 p.m. at Watoto Village Friday.

DYC Director Anthony White said attendees can expect to hear some of the songs the group performed on “America’s Got Talent,” “Brighter Day” by Kirk Franklin and a Motown revue. 

The shows will be a comeback for the choir, as the group has not performed at the African World Festival in about 20 years, White said. 

“I believe our young people need to see how African American people celebrate the culture and arts,” he said. “A lot of kids don’t get an opportunity to be surrounded by African culture.”

Davidson said he hopes the festival will continue for years to come. 

“I’m looking forward to seeing the festival take its rightful place as the granddaddy of festivals,” he said. 

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