A celebration of African heritage through the arts and storytelling embraces Knoxville this weekend.
The 30th annual Kuumba Festival kicked off the first day of its three-day event in Market Square on Friday, June 28, with festivities ranging from an all-day marketplace to dance and musical performances in the evening. A pop-up thunderstorm with heavy winds briefly paused the festival at 3 p.m., however activities resumed as planned shortly afterwards.
This year’s festival followed the theme of “Uplifting the spirits of our ancestors,” with a special dedication to Nkechi "Iyalode" Ajanaku, the longtime director of Kuumba Festival who passed away in 2017.
Vendors from near and far
Beginning at noon, the Kuumba marketplace provided a wide range of goods, from African-style clothing to authentic all-natural skincare products to Caribbean-style food.
Hajie Njaie, a Gambian vendor based out of Atlanta, has participated in Kuumba Festival for the past 10 years. Njaie’s wares include two varieties of African black soap - a handmade version from Ghana, and a second from Nigeria called dudu osum — bright-colored African-style dresses and a wide variety of scented oils.
Njaie said he has felt supported by the hosts and by everyone who comes to the festival.
“The people that really support us here, some of them are not even here for Kuumba, but when they come out, you know, they see this stuff that we have and they just support us, and it’s from all kinds of people,” Njaie said.
“It's not just black, or white - it's a whole mix of people. So, that makes me love the place. It's like color is not the factor here. It's just being human and supporting each other and seeing each others smiling face and dancing all weekend ... shaking hands, and it's just a lovely thing.”
Wisdom Jzar, a vendor based out of Charlotte, North Carolina, has sold hats and t-shirts with symbols of black empowerment and celebrating African heritage for two years at Kuumba Fest.
Jzar said that his merchandise has a common theme of unity, with the symbols carrying both cultural and historical significance: Ubuntu, which is an African philosophy that, “emphasizes the importance of the community or the collective over individuality,” the sankofa, a west African symbol which stands for reaching back into the past to apply those lessons to the present and future, and the unity fist, which refers to how change can be made more effectively as a community.
“The fingers only have but so much power,” Jzar said. “That's why it's the fist ... it's a call for people to come together.”
For Jzar, unity and the Kuumba Fest go hand in hand in am important way, especially in the historical context of the United States.
“As an African American festival or celebration, I think it's important that we have those types of celebrations because of the history that we have here in the U.S.,” Jzar said. “So it's important that we come together and we reconnect with a cultural heritage, so this all plays a part of that.“
Kuumba celebrates community, creativity
From vendors to local talent including poets, dancers, and musicians, the festival aimed to bring not just the African community together in a celebration of shared heritage and culture, but also to celebrate personal brands of creativity and personal growth.
Host of Kuumba Festival, Zock Solid, a.k.a “Sista Zock,” is a New York native and a UT alumna. For Solid, the festival is “about being optimistic,” and seeing the world in a new way.
Solid went on to say that while the essence of Kuumba is creativity, it’s also to celebrate the richness of African culture and heritage.
“A lot of people don't know that it's a whole bunch of countries in one, right? So, it's just getting people aware, and everyone's roots originate in Africa,” Solid said. “So a really, basically the celebration of humanity.”
Solid got her start with Kuumba Festival in the early nineties when she ran track for UT on a scholarship. After injuring her knee, she met longtime Kuumba director Ajanaku, whom she said, “welcomed (Solid) into her world of creation.” From her work with the Watoto group, Solid went on to work in the radio industry.
“It provided me a platform to be a host,” Solid said. “I started hosting here and then I started working in radio and now I have own band and a song in Spike Lee's 'She's Gotta Have It.'”
Solid hopes that Kuumba Festival will continue to serve the African community in many ways, especially for the next generation.
“(Ajanaku) was (instrumental) about creating a safe place for children to learn about their culture and how she was helping on that. She was a pillar in the African community, and to continue our legacy and hopefully people come out and support it because it's about stepping outside your comfort zone, and it's all about love and great energy here.”
Adolphe Bagabo, a native of Rwanda, has lived in Knoxville for the past three years. However, this was the first time he knew of the festival.
“As an African, I was surprised. You don’t expect this much color from Tennessee,” Bagabo said. “I wish I knew that this happened here every year...I would like to participate next year, because I see a lot of beautiful things.
Not everybody understands the other cultures as much — it’s my culture, so I would like to participate next year (as a musician)."
Music and dance
During the first half of the festival, a community circle of drummers and dancers provided a backdrop to the marketplace, open to anyone willing to jump in.
The second half of the festival showcased local talent from the oldest Black theater company in the United States, Carpetback Theater, which performed open-mic slam poetry.
A performance by the Watoto (meaning “children”) dance troupe livened up the Square, accompanied by local African Drum group Indigenous Vibes. The performance traditional combined a West African Drum performance and dances by artists of all ages.
Following the liveliness of the dances and drums, a performance by New-Orleans-based multi-disciplinary group Gomela brought story-telling and slam poetry together.
A live concert by the Ogya World Music Band (pronounced O-jah, and meaning “fire”) ended the night on a mellow note with positive messages and reggae-style music which had members of the crowd dancing along.
Other performances will include Solid’s hit song, “You Should Know That,” and a youth empowerment rally.
The Kuumba Festival will continue on June 29 and 30 in Morningside Park.