RALEIGH — The city’s September festival season kicked off this weekend with the African American Cultural Festival of Raleigh and Wake County, which brought an anticipated record crowd downtown for musical performances, storytelling, an art market and more.
Organizers said the fourth celebration of African-American culture was the largest yet, with more than 25,000 people expected to attend by the festival’s close Sunday night.
James Roberson, chair of the festival’s board, said the event just gets “bigger and better” each year. Not only does the festival play an important role in recognizing African American culture, but it also brings tourism dollars to the city and gives a platform to small businesses that sell food and wares at it, he added. “This is an economic boon to Wake County and the city of Raleigh,” he said.
Raleigh will host several additional festivals this month, including the Hopscotch Music Festival, SPARKcon and the International Bluegrass Music Association’s World of Bluegrass.
City leaders have said that they expect September’s full slate of 11 downtown events, from festivals to conferences, to draw more than 200,000 people for diverse lineups of music, visual arts, shopping and food.
On Sunday, within minutes of taking the main stage, opening musical act Rebirth Deliverance Ministries had audience members out of their chairs, clapping and dancing on Fayetteville Street.
A little later, in the family event area, a crowd of children and adults sat in a semi-circle eagerly learning the basics of drumming.
And as the performances and workshops continued throughout the day despite bouts of rain, visitors browsed booths featuring everything from paintings and jewelry to beauty products and books.
Festival organizers had to cancel the final scheduled concert of the evening, by veteran funk stars the Ohio Players, when thunderstorms that caused flash-flood warnings in several counties rolled through downtown Raleigh.
A great atmosphere noted
Visitors to the festival earlier on Sunday said they came for the atmosphere and camaraderie.
Darlene Cannon, a Raleigh resident who attended the festival both days, said she’s always particularly excited to see the festival’s musical performances, which range from jazz and gospel to funk and hip hop. It’s a bonus that she doesn’t have to go far for so much entertainment.
“It’s good to be in Raleigh and do something,” she said.
Linwood McNair came to the festival from Rocky Mount with a group of friends for the first time on Sunday. He said he was enjoying the variety of activities the festival offered and seeing people come together in celebration.
For this year’s festival, organizers commissioned a painting by Larry “Poncho” Brown, a Baltimore-based artist who has participated in Raleigh’s African-American culture festival since it began.
Brown has traveled the country for years to showcase his art, but North Carolina usually wasn’t a leading destination. But that’s changing as festivals like Raleigh’s grow. His commissioned painting, titled “Culture Keepers,” recognizes the procession that opens the festival each year.
The sound of drums and the sight of dancers never fail to captivate the audience, and it’s a memory that sticks with Brown. “You can’t help but be caught up in it,” he said.