Event Spotlight: St. Louis African Arts Festival

For more than a quarter century, this Forest Park gathering has fostered community and raised awareness of the culture and contributions of the African diaspora

The author (right), with Nfamara Touray

The author (right), with Nfamara Touray

“You’ll hear it before you see it,” said Gerald Brooks, chairman of the St. Louis African Arts Festival, referencing the music and activities of the multi-sensory event that I would soon be attending. 

As I experienced firsthand over the Memorial Day weekend in Forest Park’s World’s Fair Pavilion, the 27-year tradition is still going strong. The festival was founded by Cynthia Cosby, executive director of the African Heritage Association, the organization that has hosted the affair since 1995. Powered by more than 100 volunteers, the St. Louis African Arts Festival has become a much anticipated cultural mainstay in Forest Park. 

Attracting around 20,000 attendees every year, the festival is set up to emulate a traditional African village, where houses are in close proximity to each other. The intent is to provide an authentic environment and foster community. 

To kick off the day and energize the crowd, drummers parade around the grounds performing a drum call. In the African call-and-response ritual, the lead drummer calls a rhythm to be answered by the other drummers. This engages the crowd and sets the tone for the experience, one that includes a great variety of cultural offerings.

Activities, performances, food and public services all focused on raising awareness about the culture and contributions of the African diaspora, while underscoring community in St. Louis. Over the years, organizers have made a substantial effort to create an experience that appeals to a wide audience. 

“There’s something for everyone,” said Jason McNairy, co-chair of the festival. 

And one of the highlights was the food, which allows visitors to sample flavors that span continents. In the food court, the air was scented with culinary treats from Senegalese fish and rice, called Thiéboudienne, to jerk chicken from Jamaica. 

“We try to offer a range of foods that represent the African diaspora, dishes that many can enjoy,” said McNairy. 

In addition to eating wonderful food, shopping at the festival always results in great finds. The African Marketplace, located inside the Pavilion, was filled with vendors from around the country selling an assortment of wares from textiles to artifacts, spices, jewelry, leather goods, and African garb and accouterments, all reflecting the heritage, lifestyle, and traditions of Africa. 

One vendor, Nfamara Touray, a native of Gambia in West Africa, has been traveling from Chicago to sell merchandise at the festival for 26 years. Along with doing good business, he comes back because of the feeling of connection and community. “I love seeing all the people coming together, and seeing the same families every year,” he said. Families make up a large portion of the festival attendees.

To make certain the event is family-friendly, organizers provided a cross-generational experience. Along with arts activities for younger kids designed to expose them to African culture like puppet making, storytelling, painting, and African mask-making, there was a Teens Safari Hut. In the hut, teens gathered to explore African teachings, sing, learn textile crafts and perform poetry, engaging in a creative outlet that links them to the culture and history of the African diaspora. While young people participated in enriching activities, parents and adults enjoyed stage performances and even received health screenings and learned about wellness services throughout St. Louis. 

The Health Village, a significant component of the festival, has served as an educational resource and offered critical medical screenings. 

“For some attendees, it is the only health screening they will receive all year,” said Jannis Evans, the coordinator of the health services for the festival. And for those seeking natural remedies, homeopathic options were included. “We added acupuncture, a healing doctor, and a massage therapist,” Evans said. 

Not only has the festival been significant because of the activities and services, but also because its location, Forest Park, is a focal point for the St. Louis community.

“Forest Park is a natural gathering place,” said Evans. “They have events that are free, so everybody can really gain exposure to things.” 

Evans pointed out that in relation to sites in other cities, Forest Park offers a unique opportunity to access culture and green space. 

“You don’t have a free zoo in major metropolitan areas. You can’t just go to the art museum for free. You don’t have beautiful outdoor spaces to go to,” she said. 

Since convening in Forest Park is so natural to St. Louis residents, people from all walks of life feel welcomed to participate in the festival. The St. Louis tradition is an educational and social occasion that celebrates a rich culture and bridges the gap between communities in and outside the African diaspora.

Dr. John Grechus and his wife, Penny, have a ministry in West Africa and love attending the festival. 

“We are rural Missouri people who have come to know that the world is a big place,” said Dr. Grechus. “In West Africa, we feel very comfortable, but race relations in the United States are totally different,” he said. “If we can see each other as people and that we all have the same desires and love art and culture and food, it can bring us together.” 

Wendy Todd is a writer based in St. Louis. Her work has been published by many outlets, including St. Louis Magazine, Ebony.com, Washington Post, the St. Louis American and XO Jane.

Wendy Todd