Reproducing Festac ’77: A secret among a family of millions

Can you talk about the timing of this project? Festac took place at the beginning of 1977, after a difficult planning period. What is its continued relevance to the diaspora, in particular now?

The most immediate trigger was the failure of South Africa’s World Cup in 2010 — we knew Bafana Bafana were not going to win it and that it wouldn’t deliver all the jobs-jobs-jobs promised. The justification for the megalomaniac spending for that event had to be cultural  —  to alter, fundamentally, the way Africans see themselves and how the world sees us. Instead they produced that waka-waka nonsense.  But it wasn’t enough to point to the failure of the imagination: we began to research global cultural events that the continent had hosted in the 20th century, that were not restricted by the instrumental logic that guided South Africa’s World Cup.

Like pan-Africanism, it is a story that begins in the diaspora and moves to the continent with the wave of independence of the 1960s — first in Nkrumah’s Ghana in 1958 with the All African Peoples Conference. These gatherings take a cultural slant with the First World Festival of Negro Arts (Fesman) in 1966 in Dakar, and eight years later at the Pan-African Cultural Festival (Panaf) in Algiers. Festac ’77 in Lagos marked the closing of this “festival decade”.

Each of these festivals is remembered as a singular moment in the history of the country in which it took place. Always the first of its kind and ideologically dissonant — whereas Dakar ’66 manifested as a platform for Negritude’s ideals of black culture, Panaf ’69, mandated by the OAU (Organisation of African Unity)  looked to culture as a tool of liberation and development. However, individually and as a cluster, they functioned as laboratories for the development of new, worldwide politics and cultures. Their shared aim was to look beyond the binaries established by the cold and hot wars (East-West, North-South), and give form to universalisms that had emerged since the Haitian revolution. In other words, to institutionalise the black world.

To circumvent the limits of nativism (Dakar ’66) and Afro-radicalism (Algiers ’69), Festac ’77 imagined black solidarity as inclusive. So, people and communities (black diaspora) as well as postcolonial states (African) would be represented. The tension between these modes of affiliation, black/African (and plenty others), is what the festival is all about — it simultaneously presents and celebrates the art of statelessness and state-art, while putting all forms of political representation under pressure. 


For example, members of the Africobra arts collective (Chicago) are part of the United States delegation — except the US isn’t invited, only black Americans. They’re not there as members of Africobra either, because artists are invited as individual members of a recognised political community. They end up representing a country that does not exist — Black America. But it gets better. The only state symbol at their disposal is a flag — Marcus Garvey’s flag of pan-Africanism, which is itself a challenge to the idea of the nation-state. On the other hand, Miriam Makeba was a citizen of nine countries (excluding South Africa) and represented them all. The poet Mário Pinto de Andrade, one of the founders of Angola’s MPLA, appeared at Festac as Guinea-Bissau’s minister of culture. That’s the beauty and depth of the mess that Festac makes visible.

The work of producing pan-Africanism as a political reality is ongoing and, sadly, what we currently celebrate as “Africa Day” is the reduction of that project into a manageable bureaucracy in the OAU — now the AU (African Union). But the questions — What is black? Who is Africa? — are very much alive in the cultural realm. One of the questions this book asks is, can a past that the present has not yet caught up with be summoned to haunt the present as an alternative?

How did you approach the research for this? Was there a central source that provided much of the material or were you calling on existing networks across the black worlds for material?

The Centre for Black and African Art and Civilisation in Lagos is an important resource to understand Nigeria’s investment in Festac — three successive military governments carried the project. It was founded by Olusegun Obasanjo in 1979, to act as custodian of the Festac archive and it holds many important planning documents and recordings of performances. But no central archive can contain the enormity of this event. Like the map in Jorge Luis Borges’s famous parable, it would need to be as big as the territory.

We had to use our network to gather material, and take time to build trust with people in countries we’ve never visited. We’re fortunate to have brilliant researchers, like Stacy Hardy, Graeme Arendse, Duduetsang Lamola and Ben Verghese, in the group. We used side projects to advance the research — for instance we published an issue of the Chronic in 2015 that examines divisions between North and sub-Saharan Africa, a central issue at Festac. Through such prepublications we were able to gather and produce material on some of the key questions of our research.

This is the paradox of Festac. Some of our most important writers, artists, thinkers participated — 17 000 at official count. Many of them speak of it as a paradigm shift, one of the most important events they’ve attended. The impact of the event is visible in their artistic and political choices, yet it seldom appears as a full story. Audre Lorde and Jayne Cortez published poems, Wole Soyinka wrote an essay, “Festac Agonistes”, and Festac appeared in a few memoirs. The only book-length project I’d seen was by the anthropologist Andrew Apter in 2005. This intrigued me — the people who experienced Festac seemed unwilling to write it, as if bound by an unspoken nondisclosure agreement. And so its stories circulated in the manner of a family secret — a family of millions of people.

On the other hand, there are at least 40 music albums about Festac. It refuses to be written, but is spoken, sung and performed on record more widely than any other historical event I’ve researched. So our primary archive had to be the dispersed recordings produced by the likes of Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou (Benin), Gilberto Gil (Brazil), Tabu Ley Rochereau (Democratic Republic of the Congo), Syli Orchestre National (Guinea), King Sunny Adé (Nigeria) and many more. Together these LPs constitute a sound-world in which the memory of Festac is as active as it is missing in print.

Working through sound requires an embrace of opacity: there is always too much information — and never enough. It helps to feel surrounded by the information, to surrender, when attempting to write stories too big, too personal, to be perceived in their fullness. Indeed, some stories are bigger than storytelling. Black music is not only the largest and most sophisticated archive at our disposal, it is also an efficient laboratory for the rebuilding of archives that are primarily inscribed in bodies. 

Working through sound, the mixtape was a natural format for aggregating ideas. So we initially spent quite a bit of time producing Festac mixtapes,  in collaboration with the poet and myth-scientist Harmony Holiday. It was also useful for introducing the complexity of the project to possible collaborators.

We wanted to tell stories of Festac through those who participated. But it is practically impossible to determine who was at Festac from official records. For example, a group of artists and activists led by Mdali founder Molefe Pheto travelled to Nigeria uninvited and without visas. At the Lagos airport they were welcomed as “Soweto revolutionaries” and let into the country — in fact, escorted to the festival village as VIPs. Their names do not appear in official documents, but everyone else saw and envied them! Fortunately, Pheto likes to tell this story and it reached my ears via the curator Khwezi Gule

Gathering these stories had to be collective and public work — this was our peer-review system. We would organise events and invite people who were rumoured to have been at Festac to help to identify companions in the images we collected. It didn’t always go well — in one instance some of his colleagues “identified” the bass player William Parker in Marilyn Nance’s extensive photographic documentation of the US delegation. I hurriedly wrote to Parker to request an interview, only to learn it wasn’t him. He wasn’t at Festac but we thought he should have been and so he was! It is documented.

I was struck by the self-archiving practices of the radical people who attended Festac. Many produced piles of newspaper clippings, yellowed photographs, even K7 recordings that had been untouched for years. Whether by storing stories in people’s minds like Pheto did, or by stashing printed materials in their homes, Festac alumni saved their memory of the event. A rare special issue of Sechaba was found in Keorapetse Kgositsile’s personal library; an unheard live recording of Sun Ra was in a shoebox full of K7 tapes in New York. Lefifi Tladi kept his correspondence with Malangatana Ngwenya and other artists from Festac.

Learning about who was there (or wasn’t) became a way of producing an art history of the black world. Meanwhile, a columnist in Der Spiegel asked, could there be a white arts festival?

Why, and what point, did Toni Morrison’s The Black Book become the inspiration in terms of method of presentation?

Initially we imagined the book as a collection of essays to be edited by the writer Akin Adesokan and myself. We produced a few drafts of this book, but none felt right. There was no music, and the people were left out.

Another project had begun to take form in our minds since the work on mixtapes — a publication that could be heard as well as read. A book that would represent with care the array of verbal and visual texts we’d received from our elders — the spoken anecdotes, newspaper reports, essays, advertisements, music sheets, posters, diary pages, artworks. 

Stories would have no beginning or end, everyone would be speaking at the same time and in their language. It would be polyvocal, polyglot, polyrhythmic and many more plurals; it would demand close listening. It would have no chapters or sections, it would begin wherever the eye falls. It would have many contradictions. It wouldn’t distinguish between new writing and older material. It would present each story as an invitation to produce more stories. Some stories would include a byline, others not; some pages would be numbered, others not. There would be a system, but it would be as unpredictable as the cataloguing of a private jazz collection, or read in all directions like Dumile Feni’s scroll. 

It should not feel precious but everyone should want to keep it — it should rest on the kitchen table with the family photo album. Every black person should recognise something in it, anything — and read from there. Everyone else can join in too, but they must know when to leave. It should be read in groups. No one should be able to read it entirely — unless they speak at least nine languages. This book could only be made by many hands, page by page.

Encountering Toni Morisson’s Black Book in 2017 was a revelation — such a book already existed! It was a blessing. She had produced it 43 years earlier to tell the story of African Americans over three centuries. The Black Book is a mystery, so perfectly choreographed everything feels random. All the cues are buried in the reader’s own mind. 

We sat by her feet and learned to play jazz. We had to internalise all the material we’d collected to produce meaningful connections: where would we feature Jayne Cortez’s poem “They want the oil, they don’t want the people”? Would it go with the report on the 1973 oil crisis in The Black Panther Intercommunal News Service — a crisis that enriched Nigeria and made Festac possible? Or would it sit near Ama Ata Aidoo’s story of meeting Cortez at the food queue in the Festac Village? Sometimes the connections produced themselves – it was a lot of DJ work on the page.

The Black Book isn’t mentioned at all in our publication — we wanted Festac to be the only context, from cover to cover. But I am very proud of the fact that a few readers picked on this connection. It’s like our book has a family name.

How far do you see Festac’s tentacles stretch, both in terms of how it shaped ways in which the arts could be mobilised towards liberation (with particular reference to South Africa) and in how it reshaped diasporic connections, years into its future?

Nigeria’s involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle is well documented — the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) had an office in Lagos since the 1960s. And in the aftermath of the June 16 uprisings, Tsietsi Mashinini and his Soweto Students Representative Council comrades were hosted by the Obasanjo government. Thabo Mbeki was then deployed to Lagos to woo the Nigerians, with his first task being to lead the ANC delegation at Festac. The South African liberation movement was there in its fullness — PAC chief diplomat David Sibeko was there. Oliver Tambo dropped in for the closing ceremony. 

The  festival took place in the middle of the war some historians describe as “cold”, but which was very hot these parts. The Chimurenga was intensifying in Zimbabwe and civil war was ongoing across the white redoubt in Southern Africa, instigated, of course, by the apartheid regime. The inauguration of Jimmy Carter as US president took place a week into Festac, and he immediately dispatched Andrew Young to Lagos, who did his best there to avoid Agostinho Neto, the leader of socialist Angola.  There are photographs in which the VIP section looks like a seating of OAU general assembly. Festac was definitely a space for palace-political work.

But major political moves also took place on the performance stage. For instance, Mbeki managed to unite a cross-generational group of South African artists and ANC activists behind a single project led by the composer and trombonist Jonas Gwangwa — a dramatisation of the recent June 16 events featuring music, dance, poetry and popular theatre. The success of this performance arguably led to the formation of the Amandla Cultural Ensemble, a powerful, roving organ for mobilising international support for the struggle the following decade; the formation of Medu Art Ensemble and the organising of the Culture and Resistance Conference in 1982; and the establishment of the ANC’s department of arts culture the same year.

By declaring itself a “black” country in its constitution of 1804, Haiti changed the rules — a republic could be black, just as Western liberal democracies assume their whiteness. The emergence of continentalism in the late 1950s, which culminated with the founding of the OAU, allowed many African leaders to sidestep this issue. But it came back to the fore at Festac — Senegal threatened to boycott the festival if North African countries were invited to participate. Thus the festival had to be renamed, from the “World Festival of Black Arts”, to the “World Festival of Black and African Arts and Culture”. 

But the issue simply would not go away. Brazilian activists confronted their government —  why were so few black artists, intellectuals and organisations in their country’s delegation? Sudanese intellectuals asked, what of “Black and Arab”? Indigenous Australians claimed they were neither black nor African and departed shortly after the opening ceremony. People took these questions home to reshape cultural politics and, in cases like Brazil, Cuba, Australia and others, to initiate a national debate on race.

Before Festac, only a few African states had established national cultural institutions beyond what was inherited from the colonial state. Gabon’s National Theatre, Zaire’s National Ballet and Cameroon’s National Orchestra, for example, were founded in preparation for Festac. This brought intellectuals and artists face to face with the state.  

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o was detained in Kenya during Festac, even though his and Micere Mugo’s play, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, was presented at the festival by the very government that imprisoned him. Togolese writer Yves Dogbé was jailed and tortured for a speech he planned to give at the Festac Symposium. The Ugandan playwright Byron Kawadwa was killed by Idi Amin’s goons for his piece at Festac. Sadly, there are many more examples. 

Typically, Fela Kuti took this opportunity to organise a “counter-Festac” at his club, the Shrine, in which everyone was invited to berate the Nigerian military government at will, as well as their own. A week after the festival, Obasanjo’s government responded with full force, destroying his home and killing his mother.

By using the famous Benin ivory mask “Head of Queen Idia” as the festival emblem, and making an official request for his return from the British Museum, Festac helped politicise the question of restitution of African artefacts held in Western institutions.

The impact of Festac is felt most powerfully in the artistic collaborations it generated — really too many to list here. Please listen in the book.

To purchase a copy of the Festac ’77 book, please visit this website

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.
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