O’FALLON – From patrons dressing up in their in Kente cloths in honor of Ashanti traditions to its musical lineup being inspired by the budding AfroBeats scene, residents will be immersed in their cultural roots as they take a stroll and enjoy the many activities provided during Labor Day weekend at O’Fallon Park.
The park will be hosting its second annual Taste of Africa, featuring a long list of musical acts, vendors, and food inspired by the African Diaspora. The two-day festival was created as a response to the lack of community-wide events for families held on the north side.
“We saw the Taste of St. Louis being pushed all the way out to West County, we saw the Annie Malone Parade pushed downtown, and we were seeing the things that we wanted in the community no longer there,” said Tory Russell, event coordinator and mission director of the International Black Freedom Alliance, “So we got some people…who wanted to do some things in our community to provide the same thing that everybody else had.”
With this in mind, Russell teamed up with Taste of Africa’s executive director Ashley Bailey, activist Chrystal Gates, and Alderman John Collins-Muhammed to help create the first festival held in 2018. This year, more north city business owners and community residents from O’Fallon and College Hill have joined the original team behind the festival to make it even bigger impact.
“This community event is very critical because black history and black culture is a weapon in the struggle for racial uplift,” said Collins-Muhammed, “My goal is simply to make black history, our history, and the history of our community accessible to all who call north city home.”
“The first one last year, I thought it was really good,” said Russell “We had a live DJ playing Carribean Music, Soca, and Afrobeats, and was able to mix that with the R&B, jazz, and Old School Hip Hop. I think people were reluctant, like, what’s going on in the park?”
“I think perception is the biggest challenge,” said Russell, “We don’t have access to big sponsors. People out of town and in different districts see north St. Louis as a dangerous place. So, [for] the first year and this year, the number one question asked is [whether] it is going to be safe?”
The festival attracted over 3000 patrons in three days, with no reported incidents in an area that is usually magnified by violence in mainstream media, according to Russell. However, changing that stereotype was one of the challenges in creating Taste of Africa. Especially when it came to pitching the idea to sponsors.
This year, the festival is taking place while O’ Fallon Park is in the process of being renovated. In 2017, city leaders wanted to invest over a million dollars in order to renovate the park’s roads, playgrounds, and boat house. The park is still in the process of being remodeled.
“When somebody kind of cares about the [boathouse] and see that it’s being remodeled or being taken care of, it can be more populated. So I think it’s going to have a positive impact [on the community],” said president of United Exterior & Construction Javier Garcia.
While the entire park is still being renovated as the festival closes in, residents who have heard about the event have been excited to see what Taste of Africa will bring to the north side this weekend.
“That will be great,” says resident Howard Williams “Back in the day, they had Afro Day at Fairground Park. That was cool. That’s before those [youngsters] came around. But I think it would be nice, If [we] can get together as long as no one acts stupid. I hope it works. If it does, I’ll be here with my cooler and my beer.”
For Russell, the most important aspect of Taste of Africa is building that connection between north side residents and the Diaspora.
“That’s really what we want to get out of it,” says Russell “The connections, conversations, and talking to people who have been around the world. Hopefully, that expands people to travel to Africa [as well as] around the Diaspora and create those connections beyond the festival.”
Taste of Africa will kick off August 31st at 12pm and run until 7pm on September 1st. This is a free event. For more information, visit tasteofafricastl.com.