Billed as one of the oldest and largest cultural events in the country, New York’s International African Arts Festival (IAAF) has become more than a showcase featuring top artists and performers from around the world. It is, for the numerous vendors, media sponsors, and corporate partners, an increasingly reliable revenue stream, guaranteeing the participants a good time and profitable returns on their investments. “Each year, the event has grown larger, and for all involved the bottom line is economics,” says noted publicist Julia Shaw, who has been affiliated with the IAAF for 10 years. “This year, we will have about 250 vendors and, given the products on hand, we can expect the money from our community to circulate several times before leaving it.”
Shaw says the vendors have to feed their families and pay the rent, and if the turnout is as strong as it has been over the years, the vendors should not only be able to take care of their families, but earn enough to share the wealth with other vendors. The means to obtaining a profit for the vendors is certainly a key concern for Mzee Moyo, who has been with the festival since its inception 35 years ago and who currently is the event’s chief of operations. “For many years we held the festival at Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn, which allowed us to earn money at the gate,” he says. “But since we are no longer at a place where there is a gate, we have to find other ways to gather the funds to ensure our existence.”
This year the five-day festival will take place daily at Commodore Perry Park from June 30 through July 4. The spacious park is located in down- town Brooklyn.
If the festival itself is somewhat short of its investment returns, most of the vendors are doing very well, Moyo continues. “One of our past vendors—Carol’s Daughter—that sells health and personal care products has gone on to national acclaim,” he says. “She is but one of the vendors who began with us and went on to establish a name for herself in business.”
The festival began in 1971 as a fund-raiser for the Uhuru Sasa School—a community-based initiative that educated youth and adults about African culture. The fund-raiser was a small festival with about 20 arts and crafts vendors, local entertainers, and food prepared by parents. Almost 2,000 people came to the event and the fund-raiser was a success. That early format of entertainment, food and marketplace drew increasing crowds annually and became known as the African Street Carnival.
“We plan to continue the same process,” Moyo explains. “For example, this year we are featuring a tribute to the late percussionist Ray Barretto. In the past we’ve been graced with such notables as Lauryn Hill, Eddie Palmeri, KRS-1, India-Irie, and The Mighty Sparrow. Along with the talent, which we’re in the process of finalizing, we’re presenting the works of many local, national and international artists from across the diaspora. Our dance, music and spoken word programs consist of a range of traditions from Yoruba to Rastafarian; art forms from steel bands to gospel choirs; genres from jazz to reggae; and nationalities from Senegalese to Garifuna.”
Another redeeming feature of the festival, Moyo adds, is that it’s family-oriented, which means there are products, entertainment, and food for all to enjoy.
Enjoyment clearly has been a watchword for many of the thousands who have attended the festival over the years, and, given the legacy Moyo and his crew are striving to retain, there’s no reason to doubt the success of this year’s festival, no matter what venue they choose.
By Herb Boyd