Sights and sounds of the AFRAM festival at Druid Hill Park. (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun video)
Since it’s become too dangerous to sit outside on her front porch, Beverly Johnson attends Baltimore’s AFRAM Festival to visit with neighbors and friends. And she prefers to park her lawn chair on a grassy bank in Druid Hill Park — the event’s new location — rather than downtown near the sports stadiums where the outdoor celebration was held through 2016.
“I come to the festivals to meet people and have a good time,” said Johnson, 62, who lives in East Baltimore and has been attending AFRAM for the past decade, along with Artscape and other city festivals.
“My neighborhood is so filled with drugs that if you sit out on your porch you’re likely to get shot,” she said. “Here, you can hang out on the lawn and listen to some good music and you don’t have to worry about getting hit by a stray bullet.”
For the second year in a row, a slimmed-down version of the 42-year-old festival is being held in Druid Hill Park. Mayor Catherine Pugh moved the festival away from downtown in 2017 as a cost-saving measure, cut the event temporarily from two days to one and featured exclusively local acts instead of the national headliners AFRAM had showcased in the past.
Though the family-oriented cultural and musical event had drawn as many as 200,000 people some years the 2017 festival attracted just 4,000 visitors. But Pugh said it would have been fiscally irresponsible to continue the festival at its previous scale. Instead of the previous $1.2 million budget, the 2018 AFRAM Fest will cost less than $400,000, she said.
“We’re not trying to throw anybody under the bus,” she said, “but when I got into office I found out that the bills weren’t being paid.”
The mayor opened the festival at 11:45 a.m. Saturday. She led a small procession through the park’s winding roadway and behind the Baltimore Christian Warriors, a youth marching band that sashayed energetically in their red and black spangled costumes despite the 90-degree heat.
Not everyone has applauded the festival’s relocation. City Councilman Brandon Scott held a hearing July 23 to protest Pugh’s decision. He charged then that “black people … are getting the short end of the stick.”
That’s nonsense, Pugh said.
“Were the Latinos getting the short end of the stick when they held their festival in Patterson Park?” she asked. “Were the Greeks getting the short end of the stick when they held their festival in Greektown? Philadelphia and New York hold festivals in their parks, and they’ve always been great events.”
Pugh announced in June that the AFRAM Festival would be restored to two days but would remain in Druid Hill Park. This year’s lineup features such well-known headliners as the British R&B singer Ella Mai (best known for her song, “Boo’d Up”) and Cash Money Records singer and rapper Jacquees. Such popular local musicians as Dru Hill and gospel singer VaShawn Mitchell also are on the lineup.
Whitney Brown, a public information officer for the city Department of Recreation & Parks said city officials hope for a total attendance of 50,000.
When it comes to festivals, people tend to vote with their feet. Those who think Druid Hill had much to offer as a festival site — free parking, a more open layout that discourages congestion, a beautiful setting with mature trees and shade, the opportunity to walk barefoot across grassy lawns — will, as Johnson did, flock to AFRAM. Those disappointed by the changes will stay away and thus won’t be available to be quoted.
Artist Aaron Maybin, a former NFL player from Mount Hebron High School, set up a booth with his friend Megan Lewis and offered items for sale ranging from T-shirts to celebrity portraits to an activist coloring book. Maybin said he thought AFRAM was more cohesive when it was held downtown. For Maybin, the stadium location generated an energy level and feeling of excitement that he misses in the more bucolic Druid Hill Park.
By 2 p.m., AFRAM had been open for just two hours. Yet, the streets leading to and from the festival grounds were lined with parked cars and more were turning onto Swann Drive every time the traffic lights changed. Not all had Maryland tags.
Kathy Caldwell drove from Philadelphia on the weekend of her 54th birthday to attend the Anita Baker concert at the Modell Performing Arts Center on Friday night. Rather than driving back home immediately, she decided to stay overnight and check out the AFRAM Fest.
“I love outings in the parks,” she said.
“It’s not as crowded or overwhelming as it can be downtown. There’s a cool breeze and everywhere you go; there’s green space. I’m going to listen to some music and get something to eat and if the weather stays good, I might possibly purchase one or two little things for myself.”