Without the disruption of the pandemic, the Baltimore AFRAM Festival would have been running continuously for 45 years.
But this weekend, the dearly missed summer tradition—dedicated to celebrating Black art, food, fashion, and culture—is set to make a spirited comeback. In an effort to adhere to public health guidelines, AFRAM has transformed into a hybrid festival with both virtual and in-person events.
Organizers have also expanded the festivities from one weekend to an entire week—from Aug. 15-27—and come up with new programming including a movie screening at Herring Run Park on Aug. 17, a bike party leaving from Druid Hill Park on Aug. 18, and a skate night at the Shake & Bake Family Fun Center on Aug. 20.
“Taking the year off was a little bit upsetting,” says Whitney Clemmons Brown, public relations officer with Baltimore City Recreation and Parks, which organizes the event. “But we had to learn how to pivot.”
The genesis of Baltimore AFRAM, originally coined as part of the city’s annual Showcase of Nations, can be traced back to 1976. In the years since, AFRAM has changed locations, altered its name, switched organizers, and now weathered a peak pandemic, but its spirit has been determinedly passed on.
“It is one of those festivals that you wait to come around every summer,” says Brown, recalling her own memories of attending as a young girl. “It’s a Baltimore staple.”
For many Baltimoreans, including Brown, AFRAM is not merely about the performances and vendors, but rather a city-wide family reunion. (Hence, AFRAM’s frequently used #AFRAMILY hashtag.) Brown describes it as a gathering for neighbors, acquaintances, and children to come together and share “a time for reconnection.”
To that end, Brown says one major challenge for bringing AFRAM back amidst a global health crisis has been providing enough space to showcase as many Black makers, artists, and entrepreneurs as possible, while also ensuring the all visitors’ health and safety.
While the in-person events are spread across the city, locals will be able to tune in to the virtual parts of the festival on AFRAM’s website, on television with CharmTV, or live streamed on WJZ Online. The upside to this, says Brown, is that people can participate in these events anywhere, “even if you are out of town, across the country, or all around the world.”
The celebration will kick off this Sunday, August 15 with Mayor Brandon Scott and Water for Chocolate chef/owner Sean Guy preparing a virtual Sunday supper. The cooking segment will be followed by a roundtable discussion on Baltimore soul food staples.
AFRAM’s new programming also includes the inaugural AFRAM Restaurant Week, in which 20 Black- and women-owned businesses have designed a special dish for locals to savor while honoring Black culture and cuisine. (Think: fried catfish at Taste This, Buffalo shrimp at The Civil, lake trout at Fishnet, and crabby biscuits at England Eatery.) Cane Collective’s Watermelon-Basil Punch, the official mixer of the celebration, will also be available at pop-up locations throughout the week.
Among the many musical highlights to look forward to are in-person performances by indie soul artist Navasha Daya and homegrown R&B singer Maysa at Middle Branch Park on Thursday, August 19. Other headliners will include rap legends Busta Rhymes and Wale, who will perform virtually on Saturday, August 21. Additionally, funk queen Chaka Khan is on the virtual lineup on Sunday, August 22. You can also catch local talents such as DJ Mighty Mark, singer Janelia Soul, and funk legend Rufus Roundtree throughout the week.
If all goes well, this year’s transformations could very well become a blueprint for the festival’s future.
“The possibilities are really endless,” Brown says. “We learned so much this year that we are definitely going to strategize and carry over into the years to come.”