Baltimore City

Baltimore African American Festival celebrates its 35th year

Rose Harris smoked her Jamaican-style jerk chicken Saturday at Baltimore's African American Festival amid the thumping of African drummers, the sounds of a jazz musician and a steady stream of revelers.

Adding a mix of curry and Old Bay to her cabbage as she prepared it for sale at her Innocent Cuisine booth, the Woodlawn woman said she's sold her food for the last five years at the annual festival not just to make a payday, but to feel a sense of community.

"Baltimore is number-one for jerk chicken, outside of Jamaica," she said. "People here love to buy it. And I love to serve them."

In its 35th year, the event is billed as the largest African-American festival in the country, attracting 500,000 visitors to the parking lot of M&T Bank Stadium over its two-day run with a host of musical acts, health and wellness information, and vendors hawking everything from jewelry to funnel cakes. For the first time, the African American Festival will feature Radio One's Stone Soul Picnic, combining two signature African-American cultural events in one weekend.

"Uncle" Charlie Wilson and Chrisette Michele were announced as musical headliners.

This year also marked some challenges for the annual event, after allegations of mismanagement led the city to hire a new company to produce the two-day festival, and resulted in a name tweaking — from the African American Heritage Festival to the African American Festival.

"I wanted to make sure we were able to continue the great tradition of the African American Festival," said Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake as she addressed attendees at the event's ribbon cutting. "And I wanted to make sure it remained free for the community."

The city hired greiBO Entertainment to produce the event this year following vendors' complaints that they had not been paid after the 2010 event. A Baltimore Circuit Court judge granted three vendors a $103,000 judgment for nonpayment against the AAHF Foundation and LaRian Finney, CEO of Visionary Marketing Group, a marketing and event planning company that had planned the festival since 2001.

In an affidavit, Finney claims that Conder Inc., a company that provided stage equipment, lighting and sound for the event, failed to use working equipment. Finney also said that BD Management, a company contracted to provide booking services, breached its contract in 2010 because Patti Labelle "arrived late and intoxicated" and "could not perform due to her inebriation."

J. Wyndal Gordon, an attorney representing Finney, said Friday that while his client dealt with hundreds of vendors in the time he produced the event, he only had problems with "a few."

"There were some misunderstandings along the way that have either resolved themselves or are resolving themselves," said Gordon. "Mr. Finney wishes the best to Baltimore's African American Festival. When he was doing it, it was a labor of love and he made many great sacrifices for the betterment of that festival and he hopes that Baltimore City enjoys it as much as they did when he was working on it."

Yvonne and Van Elliott, a wife and husband duo who own Ashburton Soul Shack Catering, were among several vendors selling festival fare, including crab cakes and fried chicken. Their first time at the event, they planned big: cooking 200 pounds of each dish they serve and expecting to sell out.

Yvonne Elliott, though, said that while it's a good location with a big crowd, she wasn't sure if she'd be back another year. A lack of organization annoyed her, she said, saying she arrived Saturday morning at the venue and waited an hour and 40 minutes at the entrance to be directed to her booth.

"The city needs to consult with some professional people who are used to event planning," she said. "Do a better job delegating."

Carly Pryor, a student at Stevenson University, paid one vendor $10 for two pairs of sunglasses. It was a sunny day, she was without shades, and her brother, was about to play keyboard for Jeff Majors.

"I saw $5 and I said, 'Yeah, that will work for me,'" said Pryor, 22, of Capitol Heights.

Meanwhile, Shanda Ngere, arrived before noon and by 3 p.m. had won a bag in a raffle and polished off some fried fish and french fries.

"I come for the music and the vendors," said Ngere, 21, of Savage.

Baltimore Sun reporter Steve Kilar contributed to this article.