Nkechi Ajanaku is a small woman with a powerful presence, and that presence is what truly keeps the Kuumba Festival returning to Knoxville each year—even if it didn't draw performers like Erykah Badu, Bobby Womack, Floetry, or Cee-Lo Green to headline.
The annual festival, whose name means "creative" in Ki-swahili, has been held in Knoxville for 23 years, and celebrates African and African American culture, promoting the work of African American artists.
"We're trying to create images our children can be proud of," Ajanaku says. "We desperately need self-affirmation."
The weekend-long event is organized by African American Appalachian Arts, Inc., a nonprofit organization, and starts Thursday at noon in the East Tennessee History Center with an opening luncheon. On Friday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., the festival will take over Market Square, where young artists will display their work, followed by the festival's annual parade on Gay Street at 6 p.m. An African American marketplace will be set up in Chilhowee Park from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturday, and reopens on Sunday at noon. Musicians will take the stage on Saturday and Sunday nights at the park. Headlining this year's shows are Josh Gates, who's on the same record label as Nicki Minaj, and Andre Delano, a jazz singer and saxophonist who has worked with Maxwell, Usher, and Christina Aguilera. Tickets to the various stage shows range in price from $5-$10, and young children are admitted free of charge.
Ajanaku, the executive director of the African American Appalachian Arts, Inc., says there will be gospel singers and groups performing on Sunday. She says planning the event every year is a struggle. The organization is short-staffed and underfunded, but as the economy slumped in the past few years, so too did the funds for the Kuumba Festival, which come from community sponsors like Green Mountain Coffee Roasters and from the city.
Hawa Ware-Johnson, a longtime vendor and a featured artist at this year's festival, said Ajanaku takes planning the community event very seriously.
"I can tell she puts a lot of thought into bringing the festival to life," she says. "When she talks about the festival… I can feel the emotion coming from her."
For Kimberly Leffall Coney, a longtime supporter and volunteer at the festival,keeping the festival going is essential to maintaining an inclusive environment in the area. But for the festival to continue to grow and attract the top-caliber musicians like those who have performed in the past, Coney says there needs to be more support from the city.
Ajanaku praises Mayor Madeline Rogero's support for the festival, and singled out former mayor Bill Haslam and his family as great friends to the event.
"People are committed to this festival throughout the city of Knoxville," Ajanaku says.
At the end of the day, Ajanaku says the event is meant to give African Americans in Knoxville a place to celebrate their culture.
"I'm taking my energy back from that," Ajanaku says.