The roots of the festival were planted in Nathan White's brain when he moved from his native Liberia to Minneapolis in 1993. While a student at the University of Minnesota, White lived with his mother at the Cedar Riverside Apartments. One of his fondest memories was the West Bank's late summer ritual and music extravaganza, Cedarfest.
"And I can remember waking up to the music, but every block had music from a different culture," he says.
White is now an ethnic-based event organizer and promoter. He wants to bring the Cedarfest spirit back to the West Bank on behalf of the Twin Cities' booming African immigrant population.
White is organizing Afrifest, a music and art festival with a dual purpose: to unite the region's African populations and to serve as a coming-out party for the African diaspora in Minnesota.
"We find ourselves in a completely different place, another country, another state that we are calling home," he says. "It is time now to let the folks know what we are about and also find out what they are about."
White says 5,000 Africans live in a four-block area on the West Bank. Many of them are Somali, some are Nigerian or Ethiopian, yet they live in isolation from each other. Culture and language are often barriers, but so is ignorance. White says music can break through that.
"You can cross the street and meet your neighbor," he says. "You guys do listen to the same music, you know? You do dig the same artists. You do get down to the same beat, and that's why we're trying to take it down to the basic level of how we are all similar and not all the differences between us."
There are differences to contend with.
As a West African, White may have difficulty convincing East Africans to get behind the festival. Rhonda Eastlund-David, executive director of the Brian Coyle Community Center, which serves primarily East African immigrants, cites an example: Somalis may frown on the idea of a festival where men and women mingle together and where liquor is served.
"There's definitely some Somali folks that embrace a more restrictive form of Islam and don't necessarily agree with that," she says. "So I think the hardest part they're going to have is overcoming some of the different cultural barriers that might arise and just in the short time period that they have to pull it together."
There's also a relatively low comfort level between African immigrants and the larger population. Rachel Joyce, who's the marketing director for Afrifest, says that's because mainstream Minnesota has made few overtures to Africans and hasn't necessarily been invited in by the community.
"If you're just curious, there aren't a lot of opportunities for you to say, 'Hey, I hear there's a lot of Somalis here. I think I'd like to go meet me some of those.' Where are you going to go?" Joyce asks. "To the Somali store? You can't 'dial an African.' So, in lieu of that, we're having a big party that everyone can share in."
Afrifest is slated for August 18 and 19 at Currie Park, just across the street from the Cedar Riverside Apartment complex. It will feature African art, food, fashion, and most of all, music. A main stage will showcase eight or nine acts, with a community stage designed for emerging artists.
Organizers are trying to book a national African act to kick things off at the Cedar Cultural Center, but are deliberately focusing on Minnesota talent for the bulk of the festival. Local concert promoter George Ndege, who's originally from Kenya, will be rounding up the musicians.
"It's amazing how much talent is here," he says. "Some of the artists were or are still big names in the countries they came from, but not here. And we've been working with different artists to help them grow, not only as new citizens, but also as artists who are adapting to a new environment."
Afrifest organizers believe they can attract up to 15,000 African immigrants to the festival, but admit they still have a lot of legwork to do.