FESTAC 77: The Revival of Black and African Cultural Values

By Oluwatosin Attah

‘For the first time since the Slave Trade, for the first time in 500 years, the black family was together again, was whole again, was one again.’ – May 1977 Edition of Ebony Magazine

This article highlights the cultural importance of the Second World Black Festival of Arts and Culture whilst underlining the effects it had on the unity of Black people all over the world. The festival itself took place in Lagos, Nigeria from January 15th – February 12th in the year 1977, as the name suggests. The festival was a celebration of African art, African music and Afro-inspired theatrical performances. The festivities consisted of about 50 plays, 150 concerts, 80 film screenings, 40 art exhibitions and around 200 poetry performances.  It was a celebration to be remembered not just for its appreciation of Black people but also for the ramifications faced by Afrobeat’s legend and founder, Fela Kuti, for boycotting FESTAC ’77 – which this article also touches on briefly. 

‘Ethnocide’ was coined and defined by Raphael Lemkin in 1944 as the destruction of the culture and  identity of a people, though Lemkin was talking about the atrocities happening to Jewish people in Nazi Germany, this was an effect of colonialism and the transatlantic enslavement trade on the global Black community. The First World Black Festival of Arts set out to repair the damage that was already done. The festival was largely influenced by the political context of post-independence Africa and through this served as a symbol for the decolonisation of the mind that needed to occur alongside the political decolonisation taking place on the continent. Though the First World Black Festival of Arts and Culture was a success this article will focus on the Second Festival [a.k.a. FESTAC ‘77] as it was the largest congregation of Black people from every continent in one place in the entire history of the Black man at the time. The timing was said to have a major role in its extravagance, as 50 of the once colonised African countries had gained their independence by 1977 and the celebration was amplifying Black pride in the face of adversity. 

Outside of Africa, Black people in Europe and the Americas were also making breakthroughs in their fight against racist oppression and segregation, so they too were keen on visiting Nigeria to partake in this celebration of Black talent and identity. Lidge Daily, an American attendee wrote,  ‘I shared a feeling with my people. I looked into their faces and saw mine. Our smiles and laughter needed not a common language to be understood. To be appreciated. Welcome brother, they said to me. Welcome Home!’ 

The streets of Lagos, Nigeria were crowded with around 17000 natives, fellow Nigerians, visiting Africans, members of the diaspora and all appreciators of Black art and culture for about a month. The crowd was so huge that the Lagos State Government constructed a new housing estate for festival participants. The campus was once filled with the sounds of laughter and feet stomping on the ground as groups were dancing together in the one language understood by all the global participants – music. The estate still stands today, but the government has failed at maintaining its initial glory. 

The displays of unity, cultural enrichment and captivating entertainment that occurred over the 5 weeks, earned Nigeria the title of ‘a crucial nexus for Pan-African alliance building.’ The Guardian claims that Stevie Wonder’s headlining performance was what consolidated his ‘affinity with the continent.’ Communities within the continent also amplified their voice through the festival – with the logo being the Benin mask of Queen Idia it put the question of whether the Western world would return the artefacts they stole to their rightful owners and homes. Some say this was a bold move from Nigeria but it was necessary to show that Black people will not let the West get away with their crimes. 

The first President of Senegal, Leopold Sedar Senghor aka ‘the prime poet of Négritude’, declared that ‘Nigeria is to Africa what Greece was and still is to the history of Europe.’ The many Black people that were struggling with identity crises and feelings of belonging were said to have felt at home on the various stages when singing, dancing, acting or citing their poetry to the masses. The response from the crowd was a reassurance of the unity that existed between Black people and the festival was applauded for being the place where this reassurance was received. Though there was so much international praise for Nigeria’s contribution to the ‘revival, resurgence, propagation, and protection of Black and African cultural values and civilization’ there was some condemnation coming from within the nation – namely by renowned musician Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Many Africanists and jazz enthusiasts know that Fela’s music was a form of activism against the military government in Nigeria. When FESTAC ’77 went live, Fela boycotted it by hosting shows at Kalakuta Republic at the same time for the whole month. His shows enticed some of the major artistes that were to perform at the festivals and led them to boycott their own performances as well. Ikonne notes that Chyke Madu of ‘The Funkees’ said ‘What Fela was doing at the Shrine was more exciting and more raw than any other programs at the festival. So, everybody started to go there instead. And of course, the government didn’t like that.’ 

The festival served as a sanctuary for the unification of Black people all over the world, that inspired many to go back to their countries of residence and preach the message of bravery and freedom in the second verse of the Festival anthem – ‘Let a second generation // Full of courage issue forth // Let a people loving freedom //Come to growth’ – the residents of Nigeria themselves were still being silenced and oppressed by military rule to a degree. The first and third celebrations of Black creativity were held in Senegal, in 1966 and 2010, but couldn’t compare to the extravagance of FESTAC’77. The pressure to deliver another festival like FESTAC’77 shouldn’t mean the 2010 Festival should be the last. The Pan-African ideology is not dying anytime soon, and neither is the appreciation of Black art on a global scale, so who knows, maybe the 50-year anniversary of FESTAC ’77 will be acknowledged and celebrated once again in Nigeria. The rising need for havens, that are specifically for Black people, is expected to go on for many years and it is important that these safe spaces are made as they allow the Black community to not only find a sense of family in their identity but also be comfortable enough to just live freely. The Afronation Music Festival, by SMADE Entertainment and others, was said to have this impact as a review by Sosa Sharon said ‘Afro Nation felt like something for us, by us.’ The freedom that comes from being surrounded by ‘your people’ is said to be relieving and the Black community is due for that relief and has been for centuries. Hopefully, more events by Black people for Black people will take place for many generations to come.

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