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Sunny skies, ‘positive vibes’ mark opening of 43rd AFRAM festival

Katina Jenkins has attended AFRAM, Baltimore’s annual outdoor celebration of African American arts and culture, so many times she has lost count, but she remembers one as particularly special.

In 1994, she was nine months pregnant with one of her daughters as she swayed to the R&B and hip-hop music.

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On Saturday, that daughter, 25-year-old Brehona Coleman, sat with Jenkins near the main stage in Druid Hill Park among hundreds of fesitvalgoers who were filing in a full three hours before the big-name musical acts on the bill were to get started.

The pair came early, they said, to soak in the “positive vibes” of the 43rd version of AFRAM, a two-day, family-oriented celebration that officially kicked off at noon Saturday and lasts through Sunday night.

This year’s festival is to feature some of the highest-profile acts in its history, including singer-songwriter Sevyn Streeter and veteran rapper Rick Ross on Saturday and hometown heroes Dru Hill as well as new jack swing pioneer Teddy Riley on Sunday.

But for Jenkins and Coleman, it was just as important simply to have a positive, peaceful day in a city they love.

“With all the negativity that’s been going on in Baltimore, this is such a wonderful environment,” Jenkins, 47, said as she shared a pineapple smoothie with Coleman under a sunny morning sky. "And it’s great for folks of all ages. It’s definitely part of our family.”

Established in 1976 as part of Baltimore’s annual Showcase of Nations, and co-sponsored by the city’s recreation and parks department and its office of promotion and the arts, AFRAM has developed into one of the city’s most anticipated summer events and the biggest that focuses primarily on African American art, culture, entertainment and cuisine.

After years of moving from one location to another, and settling most recently in the parking lots between M&T Bank Stadium and Camden Yards, the festival was moved to its new home, 745-acre Druid Hill Park, in 2017.

Whitney Clemmons Brown, a recreation and parks spokeswoman, said it’s a space long known as a popular site for family reunions, and that’s just the feel the city aims for the festival to exude.

“In our office, we love organizing AFRAM,” she said. “It’s one of those events that showcase what Baltimore really can be. We like to call it the Baltimore family reunion.”

Last year’s event drew about 75,000 people over the two-day span, despite frequent rain, and with Saturday’s weather expected to remain sunny and temperate, and Sunday’s to follow suit, Brown said she expected the numbers to top that figure.

In the festival’s early hours, the family feel was taking root.

As late morning gave way to early afternoon, guests began to fill the roadway leading to the entertainment area, where they sampled foods ranging from fried shrimp and catfish to turkey legs, Italian ice and macaroni-and-cheese balls.

Vendors peddling Afrocentric arts, crafts and clothing grew ever busier. At one booth, T-shirts read “Pretty Brown Thang,” “Black and Magical,” and “The Future Is Female, and Black.”

Kevin Nelson of Laurel, a Baltimore native, stood near one booth, eyeing a display of African-themed jewelry, and wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the words, “Black Man — You’re Not My Enemy.”

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He said that at a time when there’s “too much violence among African Americans,” and he hopes that when people see it, it will send a message that Nelson, who is black, means “nothing but love.”

“I come to AFRAM every year,” he said. “I love my people. I love the love that’s here. And I love the food,” he said, laughing and giving his stomach a pat.

Early arrivers enjoyed the appearance of Mayor Bernard “Jack” Young, who led a small parade through the crowd to open the festivities.

Dressed in a salmon golf shirt, white slacks and a straw fedora, Young stopped frequently to shake hands with friends and strangers alike, including dozens of police officers and security workers.

“This festival brings the community out, people from all over Baltimore and many other jurisdictions, just to have a good time on a beautiful day and feel safe," he said.

"AFRAM is my favorite festival of the year — this and Artscape,” he said.

As the crowd and anticipation began to build, a vendor selling umbrella hats became a popular figure under a sunny sky, and one of his customers, Vonda Hunt of West Baltimore, stood near the stage, gyrating to the recorded music already pounding through towering speakers.

Hunt was with her daughter, Toni Johnson-Hunt, and her niece, Desiree Lloyd, both 15, and said she was looking forward to the performance by Rick Ross, the rap artist and entertainment mogul whose most recent album, “Port of Miami 2,” came out days ago.

“His style — he has this swagger about him,” said Hunt, 54. “His music is so good. I’ll wait all day till he comes.”

More important, Hunt said, was the positivity this version of AFRAM was already delivering hours before her favorite artist took the stage.

“With all the crime in the city, this gives everybody two days of joy, happiness and lots of fun,” she said. “I pray for it to be like that every day.”

The second day of AFRAM officially opens at noon Sunday.

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