I’ve long been a fan of Lois Fernandez, the lady who co-founded the Odunde Festival in Philadelphia in 1975. As great a visionary as Lois has always been, however, I’m sure even she couldn’t have imagined 38 years ago when she was planning the very first festival in her beloved family neighborhood at 23rd and South streets, that the stars would re-align and that global economic realities would shift, so that she, her daughter Bumi and the Festival itself would become critical players in the overall Greater Philadelphia economy.
But, hey, that’s exactly what has occurred.
Even though I was born and raised in North Philadelphia and usually just “passed through” South Philadelphia, quickly, on my way to other destinations, I did follow Odunde, almost from its inception.
When I say “follow,” I don’t mean in the “Twitter kind of way,” where you simply sign up on a terminal or a mobile device and “follow” people from the comfort of your own home. No, if you wanted to “follow” Odunde, back when Lois conceived it, you had to actually get on a bus, or the subway, or drive your car to South Philadelphia, and be in it.
You had to actually hear the music from Western Africa and from throughout the continent as it was being played. You had to dance to it. You had to taste the food, haggle with the vendors and actually wear the garb from Nigeria, Senegal, Ghana, Kenya and elsewhere. You had to actually go to the banks of the Schuylkill River with Lois and the rest of the community for the annual tribute to Oshun.
You had to arrive early and stay late, because you knew you would run into all kinds of folks that you hadn’t seen for awhile — people who had been “too busy,” or out of town, during the rest of the year. You just knew they'd be back for ODUNDE.
At Odunde, you knew you’d get to see and meet with real African and Yoruba leaders, that you’d be entertained by artists such as Hugh Masakela — for free — Sweet Honey and the Rock — for free — and scores of others. Did I mention that all the entertainment was free?
In its early years, Lois’ vision was, in my opinion, marginalized by the City’s leadership. Perhaps that happened because back in 1975 being really concerned about African culture, and indeed, about Africa people, was definitely not a mainstream phenomenon.
At the time, Odunde was very much perceived as “just a street festival,” attended, in the main, by Black people, and of virtually no interest to the people in the rest of the Philadelphia community.
In fact, as the Festival grew each year, Lois and the other organizers began to receive signals from "new" people, who had begun to gentrify parts of her beloved South Philadelphia. They were saying, for all the world to hear, that perhaps Odunde should no longer be held on South Street. They even went so far as saying that a predominantly black and African event should no longer be “tolerated” in a community that had recently seen an influx of middle- and upper- middle class whites.
Clearly, that was not Philadelphia’s best hour.
I remember, as clear as day, reading a response made by Lois to an Inquirer reporter who had asked whether it really was time for Odunde to move from its original home on South Street. I’ll never forget Lois’ answer. It was direct, profound and, I dare say, poetic. Here’s what she said: “I’ll move Odunde off of South Street when the people in New Orleans move the Mardi Gras off of Bourbon Street.”
That’s when I called Ms. Fernandez and asked how I could be of service.
I found that there were already some long-committed community members working tirelessly, on Odunde’s behalf. They included Stanley Straughter, Mayor’s Office for African and Community Affairs; Barbara Daniel-Cox, local public relations and promotional legend, and Kenny Gamble, and Rahim Islam, both of the Universal Companies, among many others. As we moved in more closely to support Odunde, elected officials such as Dwight Evans, Anthony Hardy Williams, Vincent Hughes, John Street, Anna Verna and Kenyatta Johnson were also champions of the Festival.
We begged for corporate and government support, and negotiated with, when possible, and fought with, when necessary, the new South Philadelphia opposition, helping to build a healthy, productive respect for the African culture in Philadelphia.
But, you know, there must really be a God, because, while all of this was going on, the global economy began to shift. Countries that used to consider themselves economically independent, such as the Western powers, now, no longer were.
At the same time, other countries, that previously had been seen as global economic “paupers,” as “third world” and “developing," now were seen, clearly, as the world’s emerging, economic giants.
In keeping with all of that, over the past several years, Odunde’s leaders have also begun to recognize that their annual celebration of African culture need not necessarily be confined to specific places on the African continent. Indeed, they have increasingly realized that the African Diaspora has produced African-based cultures on virtually every continent, all of which deserve to be celebrated.
Through the mass dispersion of African people, largely as a result of the slave trade, in early years, and through the ever-increasing mobility of self-determined Black people around the world in the 21st century the celebration of African-ness can be virtually held any place on earth.
Hence, about 18 months ago, Odunde’s organizers began to meet with the Convention Bureau, the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation, Select Greater Philadelphia, the Mayor's Office and others with strong economic development interests, to discuss ways to leverage Odunde’s nearly 40 years of global relationships, to create mutually beneficial economic benefits for Philadelphia and other countries, around the world.
Brazil was a natural, early choice.
The nation is the world’s fifth-largest country by both population and geography, and the home of one of the globe's fastest-growing economies. The country has export relationships with approximately 400 U.S. firms, including several located in the Philadelphia area. Brazil has a population of approximately 190 million inhabitants, and has the largest number of people who are of African descent outside Africa, and is second only to Nigeria in the world. According to that country’s 2010 census, persons of African descent now represent the majority of the population, for the first time in Brazil’s history, constituting 50.7 percent of the total population.
And, here’s the Odunde connection: Of this population, an estimated 500,000 people practice a form of the Yoruba religion, which originated in Western Africa.
Consequently, over the past 10 days or so, largely through the good offices of Stan Straughter, two major Brazilan dignitaries — His Excellency Mauro Vieira, Ambassador to the United States from Brazil, and Ney Campello, Secretary of the Bahia Government, Department of Special Affairs for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, have visited Philadelphia, at Odunde’s specific invitation. They have met, among other places, at the Wharton School of Business, and at Drexel University's LeBow College of Business, to discuss, with a diverse group of economic, business and political leaders, opportunities to further enhance the City's economic relationships with their country. Taking a special interest in these visits, of course, were the Philadelphia Sports Congress and Nick Sakiewicz, president of the Philadelphia Union Soccer Team.
Who would have thought?
Clearly, it is an entirely new day for the ODUNDE Festival, under the leadership of its dynamic, new president, Bumi Fernandez, and a new day of direct economic engagement between the city of Philadelphia and places such as Brazil, thanks to organizations such as ODUNDE.
Keep an eye on all of this. It's a great and timely story.
A. Bruce Crawley is president and principal owner of Millennium 3 Management Inc.