The Return of Afrofuture Fest in 2023: Reflections on the Past and Communal Futures
By Adrienne Ayers
Afrofuture Fest originated as a 25th birthday party for myself on Anishinaabe Land at the sacred grounds of Feedom Freedom Growers in 2017. At this gathering, I centered communal love and black expression with my immediate community.
A year later in 2018, the focus of the gathering extended beyond myself, into a deeper purpose which took shape as a fundraiser for a youth program built from relationships I developed with students while long-term substitute teaching at a Detroit Middle School. The fundraiser in 2018 did not include a ticketing structure centering African equity as it was a small, private event. Therefore, neither myself nor my youth were concerned with the possibility of the presence of non-black, non-brown, or non-indigenous attendees at that time. Our immediate community was used to events being hosted by me and affiliate organizations that uplifted the needs of our people and celebrated our existence.
However, a year later in 2019, I was faced with the reality that if I hoped to provide the programming I dreamed of for African youth whose very existence and birthright demands that they are valued, in a world where my comrades and I were all competing for grant dollars which are not guaranteed, I would need the support of more than my immediate community. Increased visibility was now a part of the path we would take. So, as we prepared for what would be the third iteration of a celebration of life, liberation, and African futures, we deliberately centered the notion of equity for Detroiters and sought to use the event as an opportunity to raise money for Afrofuture Youth (AFY) between the ages of 14 to 19 years old. Thus, we decided it was best to open the doors for Afrofuture Fest 2019 to those beyond close friends, family, and comrades to receive the support we desired by making our event more public.
At the time I was a lifelong Detroiter of 27 years, former Lead Organizer of Black Lives Matter Detroit from 2015-2017, and organizer with a history of working intentionally with African people in my city since 2012. I had the privilege of my norm being majority African faces, spaces, and consistently received approval to name events as “Black only” or “Black and brown only” more times than I can count. The spaces I knew and grew to love felt sacred and exuded an energy of shared knowledge and way of life.
In comparison, the big concerts and festivals events that got more shares and visibility in Detroit, seemed to attract white patrons who oftentimes outnumbered African attendees. This is problematic as it indicates a lack of consideration for the clear gentrification being perpetuated, the lack of access for majority African Detroit, and the lack of intention that promoters (both African and white) put into ensuring barriers are reduced for African Detroiters to take part in activities which often rely upon African cultural creations, and benefit from the privileges of being in an economically suppressed city, without acknowledging that reality. So, it was on our hearts and minds to make sure majority African Detroit knew that this space was for them by creating a ticketing structure that charged our people less while still staying rooted in the reality that we were on a mission to raise money for Detroit-based African youth.
In hindsight, ]we were naive to not expect backlash. For example, when we told one of our performers about the ticketing plan, although she identifies as Black, she expressed that since African attendees would pay less than her white grandmother she did not want to perform. So we parted ways. We did not believe in forcing others to adhere to our plans, as the festival was simply for those who agreed with the structure or were open to learning more. However, though we had felt as if the situation with her had been resolved, we were soon to learn that that was not the case. She quickly took to social media to belittle and attack our choice, and clearly, we defended our actions. This public argument soon caught the attention of the local media, and that is when all of the trouble and trauma I would experience over the next few years began.
Based on this public argument, an initial article was written by the Metro Times, and then other outlets picked up and story, and soon the story had gone viral across the internet. And, it was a version of the story that didn’t often fully highlight the nuance and context for our original decision. In many instances, I felt the reporting was either culturally incompetent or downright lazy… We, the organizers, paid the cost through death threats leveled against us, our youth, our family, and our elders. The vitriol came from all around, internationally, and from locals I had once seen as allies, and from various members of the white community including especially dangerous white nationalists.
The backlash took place before, during, and for months after the festival. Mama Myrtle’s (one of the founders of Feedom Freedom Growers) personal cell number was leaked and she then received threatening texts from white nationalists. My email and social media were full of continuous death threats towards me and my youth group members. Finally, while working on my Master’s Degree in Community Development at the predominantly Catholic and white University of Detroit Mercy, my school and program were shared on Fox News forcing me to miss class due to safety concerns.
Confusion filled the air as many of us who were targeted saw the same people who had advocated for more accessible spaces, tear down African trans, femme, youth, elders, and organizers whose intention had just been to protect our people who systemically and systematically face erasure in our own hometown. We never expected the festival to gain as much attention as it did, but we wanted to ensure that if it did grow over time that our people would always be given value in the space either by being the majority, or the major beneficiary of our efforts.
The consistent media attacks from articles, memories of being ambushed in person by local news channels 2, 4, and 7 at once, and the death threats had took a toll on my health. I felt hopeless moving forward and was left to face the lack of trust I had developed as a result of those I had once called community taking stances against our efforts or not showing solidarity. When all was said and done, it would take three years before I felt healed enough to fully interact with what had taken place. This was due to clinically diagnosed PTSD which resulted in fear and anxiety produced by anything related to the festival, including being physically upon the land where it had been held. Because I hold such deep love and appreciation for Mama Myrtle, Baba Wayne (the other co-founder of Feedom Freedom), and Monique (daughter of Mama Myrtle and Baba Wayne), my absence from them over the three years it took me to heal was especially difficult.
As time moved on, I continued to see jokes take place online calling out and “canceling” those who were deemed anti-Black/anti-African and were accused of contributing to the harm that AFY had experienced. However, there was nothing funny from my point of view. I could not laugh at those who don’t have access to ongoing political education, organized community, or communal care, and so therefore, a limited understanding of the detriment of white supremacy and capitalism on all of society. There was no humor found in knowing that harm could take place as a result of the history we don’t learn and the analysis we don’t engage in. At the end of the day, regardless of harm, individuals are not to blame and we must take a look at our collective efforts to pull as many African and brown folk as possible into the folds of communal care and organizing. In the words of Kwame Ture, “You can never make an analysis of the oppressed in any aspect of their lives and leave out the oppressor. If you do so, you’ll blame the oppressed for their condition.” Capitalist conditions and lack of spaces to develop a sound analysis of what is happening around us is the problem.
To be clear, despite the negativity from local sources, we received great coverage from the Washington Post, New York Times, Fader magazine, and Al Jazeera and the festival also turned out to be an outward success as we raised around $10,000. It was truly fulfilling watching so many performers, artists, and youth have a great time. And despite the naysayers, there was also so much international love and support. However, at times it felt like the attacks blinded me to the love. And in the end, all of the money went back to everyone who offered time and services to the cause and our youth program did not receive any funds. Although we loved supporting those who had participated, the reality is the entire ordeal had left our babies out of the equation as white narratives and tears were centered. I knew then it was time for a break from public interactions in order to heal and recenter, and I only had the mental, physical, and spiritual capacity to hold my youth until very recently.
AFY, has spent four hard long years focused on recovery and tending to those who mattered most, our AFY “siblings” (youth participants). Things eventually died down enough for me to virtually implement the curriculum I had developed which focused on wellness, political education, and organizing. Discussions on wellness focused on resources such as ancestor connection, tarot, meditation, yoga, energy cleansing and energy attracting, sound frequencies, and astrology, as tools to take care of each other holistically. Our political education engagement involved learning about capitalism and imperialism through sessions led by the All African Peoples Revolutionary Party and Black Alliance for Peace. Finally, we ended the curriculum by taking our youth to Philadelphia PA, the first stop on the Underground Railroad, to learn about organizing in action with the Urban Tree Connection, Arien Ariaztro, Deep Space Mind 215, and our loved ones Shane and Dante who have supported AFY since meeting our youth in Oakland, CA in 2018.
As we spent time away privately loving each other and slowly growing, our youth developed individual “liberation projects” inspired by answering two questions, “What does an African Liberated Future look like to me?” and “What values and practices are necessary for that future to come to fruition?” Their projects were also inspired by personal interests and what was learned during our time together. As a part of their projects, AFY is currently creating two films, one called ‘Fluid” by Nia Barnes, focused on the multifaceted reality of African bisexual men, and another called ‘Projections|Reflections” by Treasure Anderson focused on how to remain your authentic self in a capitalist society, and both will debut this Summer. Finally, an anticapitalist, free, wellness and art space called “Community Care Collective” is currently taking place until July, by youth Anjilena Fox. As our AFY siblings stepped into the world sharing their vision through liberation projects, I was inspired to once again attempt to do the same with their support by bringing back Afrofuture Fest for the summer of 2023, in a more intentional manner.
With our new ticketing structure for Afrofuture Fest, we are creating a sliding scale that takes into consideration race, class, and gender, through questions that allow people to be self-led and self-reflect on where they honestly think they fit as it pertains to payment. We also hope that it is understood that just because one group is paying less as a means to experiment with creating equitable access to counter the statistically proven, capitalist-driven, historical, and present-day wealth gaps, does not mean we are classifying higher amounts paid by other groups as reparations. The entire point of communal sufficiency is the realization and understanding that reparations (grants which are ideals that perpetuate the capitalist system), does not guarantee access to actual liberation for the working class, or the poorest and most marginalized of us. However, what is accessible are our minds, hands, hearts, personal and collective power, strategy, and organizing. We believe in communal sufficiency, and care, and we believe until we fully step into a communal way of living societally, we should still recognize the privileges we hold and how we benefit from the present system.
Many personal revelations have taken place as our ideological development has expanded since the first gathering in 2017. Through engaging with the All African Peoples Revolutionary Party I learned about the importance of shifting material conditions and also learned that we needed shared labor around communal practices and political education to meet material needs. Just as important, I realized I needed relationships beyond my youth and started to intentionally redefine what community meant to me. The 2019 festival , although still a sensitive subject for me, taught me everything I needed by showing me everything I did not want. I was under the impression that community meant those I consistently shared close proximity with, who looked like me, and therefore I tossed the word “community” around often. I soon came to realize that actual community was to be defined by shared values, ideologies, mutual safety, love, patience, and communal care, amongst other things. Just as quickly as I unlocked this new definition was as quickly as I called Mama Myrtle for the first time in three years, holding back tears. The very same day I found myself on a living room floor sitting at the feet of my elders and second parents, Myrtle and Wayne Curtis, who with loving and open arms told me “welcome home.”
Afrofuture Fest 2023 is now a homecoming. We are proud to announce that Feedom Freedom Growers will be the home of our programming focused on wellness, political education, and organizing, through a new intergenerational lens as we move away from solely youth-focused organizing. The trauma from the festival along with broken trust led me down a path where I took on directing the entirety of the AFY program alone. I finally understood that there was no way I could hold the weight of an entire program by myself, nor should I want or have to. Therefore I determined I needed to lean into trusting the community who have always held me and my youth. I know we can hold each other and even more community from youth to elders, by working together. Furthermore, I recognized the importance of not re-creating the wheel as so many aspects of AFY and FFG’s values and programming were similar as it relates to youth work, political education, and organizing. The theme of communal sufficiency will be uplifted not only through our working with FFG to better sustain the work, but by the forthcoming Free Reiki Clinic, the political education series we will create, the food we will grow, and the organizing where we lean into dreams and actualization of liberated zones within the Jefferson Chalmers community and beyond.
The first half of this year’s festival will also celebrate Communal Sufficiency through workshops that tie into an ongoing exhibition titled Communal Design, Collective Futures, curated by AFY and Deepa Butoliya, a professor at the University of Michigan STAMPS School of Art and Design. We’re bringing together a collection of DIY design, ancestral and futurist practices, and ideologies, featuring collective ways of existing in areas of material need as a response to the intersecting inequities Detroiters endure. Join us at Communal Design // Collective Futures for the opening reception on Friday, August 4th, 2023 from 4-9PM at the Midland Art Gallery, 333 Midland. Finally, join us for Afrofuture Fest, Sunday, August 6th, 2023 from 2-10 PM at Feedom Freedom Growers, 866 Manistique, in Detroit.
I am thankful to the souls who are tirelessly committed to liberation and understand that there will be times when we need to center our own people for the sake of shared understanding related to safety and culture. I am also thankful to my comrades who recognize that a free and liberated Africa requires a unification of shared thoughts and values amongst the diaspora.