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Baldwin hosts first Long Island AfroFest

Festival celebrates African culture, diaspora

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Hundreds of people packed the Baldwin Community Garden on Sept. 7 for the inaugural AfroFest celebration, an afternoon of music, dance, art and food representing the culture of Africa and the African diaspora.

While festivals like AfroFest have been held around the world, including in Manhattan and Chicago, organizers said it was the first held on Long Island.

Baldwin couple Lisa and Cosmas Collins decided it was time to bring a festival observing the everyday impacts of the African diaspora to their hometown.

“The community is made up of people of a diverse background,” Lisa said, “and I think it’s nice that everybody’s background and culture be celebrated, and for everybody in the community to celebrate the different aspects of what makes up where they live. It’s not just other people of African descent, but anybody — the event is for anybody to come and enjoy.”

“And there was a diverse group that came out,” added Annie Doresca, a member of the AfroFest Planning Committee who is also president of the Baldwin Board of Education. “There were definitely people from all over from different cultures that were there.”

About 400 people came to the festival throughout the day, at the community garden behind the Baldwin Historical Society on Grand Avenue. The planning committee comprised six Baldwinites — the Collinses, Doresca, Sara Hill, Magda Campbell and Ashley Davis.

The Collinses were inspired to organize the festival during Black History Month earlier this year, when they said Plaza Elementary School hosted an event titled “Experience Africa,” which explored the African diaspora’s impact on society. They wanted to expand the event and bring it to the wider community.

Cosmas has been planning African entertainment events for the past 15 to 20 years. “He’s been organizing events all around the world,” Lisa said, “but can we do something on our doorstep, at home? We just realized that we needed something here, as well, for the community.”

“There was an appetite for the type of cultural exchange for the public,” said Darien Ward, the president of the Baldwin Civic Association, which sponsored the event. “It was an invitation for people to come in and dance with the AfroFest group, and I think it was well-received by the Baldwin community.”

The Town of Hempstead provided a stage, he added, where internationally renowned choreographer Judith McCarty and her dance troupe, Afro-Afriqué, performed to Afrobeat, a genre of dance music that incorporates West African elements, jazz, funk and hip-hop. The style has been around for a long time, Lisa explained, but has become more mainstream over the past year. The traditional sounds can be heard in Drake’s 2016 hit “One Dance,” featuring Wizkid and Kyla, which has been played on popular radio stations like HOT 97 and Power 105.1.

“And with [the music] comes the dancers and the food, so it’s a whole cultural thing,” Lisa said. “I think it’s a movement that’s starting to catch up here.”

The festival also featured storytelling, children’s activities, a drum circle and nearly 30 vendors offering African fare and goods. The Baldwin Public Library partnered with organizers to bring storytelling to the event, and Baldwin High School students volunteered to help with arts and crafts.

“It was a group of young, old — it was a wide range of people that were there,” Ward said. “It was a great event. It was well-attended. This was the first time we did this, and there were people who asked us if we’ve done it before, so that was a testament to the fact that it was welcome.”

“[I] had so much fun at the very first AfroFest on Long Island yesterday,” County Executive Laura Curran said on Facebook after the event. “A lively community celebration with music, dance, creativity, art and food representing the beautiful and diverse culture of Africa and the African diaspora.”

Cosmas said he recently attended an African Festival similar to AfroFest in London, where more than 15,000 people attended. He said the music is an element that unites people as neighbors.

“Baldwin is an environment of community and family, and there’s always a need for different events for families to attend,” Doresca said. “This shows not only was there an interest in the culture, but an interest in having a unified event where families from all over within Baldwin, and even outside of Baldwin, could just come and enjoy themselves in the community.”

Organizers said they would soon begin to plan next year’s event, hoping to make it an annual celebration in Baldwin.