There was a lot of mumbling and gossip about this year’s Afrikan American Festival. There’s been chatter about why international jazz icon NAJEE didn’t perform on day two. Some people complained about paying the five-dollar admission fee that was applied for the first time this year. Others suggested that the security was too forceful at the main gate. Some of the complaints were even highlighted on local radio station, 103.9 WDKX as personalities called out the growing festival on the station’s popular morning show the day after the event.
In all fairness, the issues are indeed legit. Festival coordinator Sonya Kittles believes that the hundreds of supporters, sponsors, or the lack thereof deserves explanation and clarity about some of the concerns that were highlighted after being mentioned on local radio.
“This year’s festival was more successful than years prior,” said Kittles, wanting to set the record straight. To commemorate it’s tenth year, the Festival was extended to two days. According to Kittles, there were more vendors, increased attendance and a few more sponsors added. As a family event, the Highland Park Bowl where the festival was held was filled with lawn chairs. Vendors sold chicken wings, gizzard and Caribbean-style dishes. There was also a musical line-up and homegrown comedians’ Chaz & Dash of the social media web-series, ‘Ride With Us’ entertained the crowd with comical sets, dance battles and on-the-ground engagement. Most memorable, the Roc City Steppers stole the show on day two with a choreographed line dance to pay homage to the late Tony Boler of WDKX, whose untimely death impacted the entire Rochester community.
However, that didn’t stop criticism from surrounding the festival. Some festival goers are still asking for an explanation, particularly about NAJEE. People suggested that there were technical difficulties while others gossiped about NAJEE refusing to perform because there were issues with paying his performance fee.
“But there’s much more to it than what people think they know,” Kittles said.
So why didn’t NAJEE perform? Kittles confirmed that NAJEE was indeed paid but the audio company that was originally booked to provide sound and equipment services were not able to fulfill NAJEE’s performance rider, which contained over 20 pages of technical and audio needs. Since coordinators did not receive NAJEE’s rider until a few weeks prior to the festival, it conflicted with their planning. So, at the last minute, Kittles and her team were forced to find an audio company that would have been able to meet the immediate requests in such a short period of time. Luckily, there was a company available to provide the requested services and agreed to accept payment on Monday following the festival. But on the day of the event, the sound company found out that NAJEE had already received half his payment and demanded their eight-thousand-dollar fee before the conclusion of the festival. Unable to meet the last-minute request, the company decided to shut down shop early which prevented NAJEE from performing.
And what’s the big deal about the five dollar entry fee? There were many complaints about paying five dollars to get inside the festival gates. Some people turned around, refusing to pay the admission fee. While the community has been used to the festival being free for the past nine years, coordinators needed to determine a way to help off-set costs but also wanted to make sure they implemented an admission fee that was affordable for the community. With little advertising dollars, Kittles said that her team used the channels they could afford to let people know about this year’s changes.
“We used social media, radio ads on the local jazz station and talked about the changes every opportunity we had to get in front of the media,” said Kittles. She admitted that some people were probably caught off-guard since her team was not able to afford some of the more popular channels used to reach Rochester’s African American audiences. Kittles said that sponsorship packages were sent to businesses but some of them didn’t even respond to her request. She say’s “there’s a lack of support for events that cater to the local African American audience.”
Among many, WDKX not responding to the sponsorship request, but what caught Kittles off guard is when the station’s promotional team unexpectedly showed up without once communicating their interest to support.
“They didn’t respond to our sponsorship request but we accommodated them and allowed them to be a part of the experience anyhow,” said Kittles. She said she also expected some support leading up to the tenth anniversary event from the station but criticized for them what she sees as an ongoing lack of support. It’d led her to avoid listening to WDKX for about nine years. And she suggested that there would have been less confusion with their support, ultimately.
For the past 9 years, Kittles and her husband has funded the festival using their own money.
As far as the security issues, she want’s people to understand that It’s mandated that the festival must have a law enforcement presence and an insured, bonded security team, which is one of the largest expenses. She plans to move forward by working with the security teams to ensure quality service while still abiding by all rules implemented by the festival.
“Security is there for a reason,” said Kittles. “They are there to help us make sure that the festival is safe and that people can abide by the rules we put in place.”
She’s hoping that the community understands that the goal is to provide a great experience from the time they enter the gates, until they leave and return the next day. She wants people to know that the reason security conducts a simple search is to ensure that no illegal substances, weapons, food or beverages enter the gates. She’s adamant about providing a fun, safe environment and want people to be supportive of the food and beverage vendors that are made available.
While slightly deterred about the lack of support and minor complaints about a very low admission cost and typical festival rules, Kittles said that she has already started working on next year’s festival. The admission cost will remain five-dollars each day to avoid the financial burden that has been placed on her family and lack of support from local businesses. She’s hoping that the community can be empathetic to her commitment and more supportive next year, especially since she’s aiming higher and plans to add a parade to the two-day event.