Reproducing Festac ‘77: a Secret Among a Family of Millions



In this interview, Ntone Edjabe discusses with journalist Kwanele Sosibo about Chimurenga’s latest editorial project on one of the largest cultural and political events of Pan-African history: the second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture, aka Festac’ 77. 

Edjabe Funambulist (6)
Festac ‘77 by Chimurenga (2020). / Courtesy of Chimurenga.

KWANELE SOSIBO: Can you talk about the timing of this project? Festac took place at the beginning of 1977, after a difficult planning period. What is its continued relevance to the diaspora, in particular now? 

NTONE EDJABE: In the first decade of the 2000s we experienced a wave of gruesome attacks across the continent on what I’d call “the Familiar Other,” we saw this in Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, Nigeria, Sudan, Kenya, across the Great Lakes and, of course, during the Afrophobic violence in South Africa of May 2008. It is a depressingly long list and the reasons are specific to each context but it seems what is continuously and violently contested is, who belongs where, the perennial question of the nation-state in Africa since the independence period. And, by extension, the question of the circulation of Black people in our world. These questions have been at the center of our work since the first issue of Chimurenga. But I think the most immediate trigger for this project was the failure of South Africa’s World Cup in 2010 — we knew Bafana Bafana [South Africa’s national team] were not going to win it and that it wouldn’t deliver all the jobs-jobs-jobs promised. The developmental logic was unsustainable. The justification for the megalomaniac spending for an event of that scale had to be cultural — to alter, fundamentally, the way Africans see themselves and how the world sees us. Instead we produced that waka-waka nonsense. But it wasn’t enough to point to the failure of the imagination: we began to research global cultural events that the continent had hosted in the 20th century, that were not restricted by the instrumental logic that guided South Africa’s World Cup. 

Like Pan Africanism, it is a story that begins in the diaspora and moves to the continent with the wave of independence of the 1960s — first in Nkrumah’s Ghana in 1958 with the All African Peoples Conference. These gatherings take a cultural slant with the First World Festival of Negro Arts (Fesman) in 1966 in Dakar, and eight years later at the Pan-African Cultural Festival (Panaf) in Algiers. Festac ’77 in Lagos marked the closing of this festival decade. And perhaps the end of Pan Africanism as a state project — so we wanted to look into that. 

But the importance of Festac ’77 goes beyond chronology. Each of these festivals is remembered as a singular moment in the history of the country in which it took place. Always the first of its kind and ideologically dissonant — whereas Dakar ’66 manifested as a platform for Negritude’s ideals of Black culture, Panaf ’69, mandated by the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), looked to culture as a tool of liberation and development. However, individually and as a cluster, they functioned as laboratories for the development of new, worldwide politics and cultures. Their shared aim was to look beyond the binaries established by the cold and hot wars (East-West, North-South), and give form to universalisms that had emerged since the Haitian revolution. In other words, to institutionalize the Black World. 

I think the specificity of Festac ’77 is in its attempt to reconcile what Tẹjumọla Ọlaniyan called the political and cultural paradigms in Pan Africanist thought and practice. This is also the tension I see between Africans on the continent and those from its diaspora, in which “African” has come to mean the former and “Black” the latter. These divisions were of course amplified by the invention of fields such as African Studies and Black Studies in the realm of knowledge production. Anyway, following Ọlaniyan’s logic, Dakar ‘66 would have been “cultural” (Black), and Algiers ’69 “political” (African) — Festac ’77, according to this logic, would be both Black and African, hence the renaming of the festival. 

To circumvent the limits of nativism and Afro-radicalism, Festac ’77 imagined Black solidarity as inclusive. So, people and communities from the Black diaspora as well as postcolonial African states would be represented. The tension between these modes of affiliation, Black/African (and plenty others), is what the festival is all about — it simultaneously presents and celebrates the art of statelessness and state-art, while putting all forms of political representation under pressure. 

For example, members of the AfriCOBRA arts collective are part of the United States delegation — except the U.S. isn’t invited, only Black Americans. They’re not there as members of AfriCOBRA either, because artists are invited as individual members of a recognised political community. They end up representing a country that exists only in the Black radical imagination: Black America. But it gets better. The only state symbol at their disposal is a flag: Marcus Garvey’s flag of Pan Africanism, which is itself a challenge to the idea of the nation-state. On the other hand, the South African born Miriam Makeba was a citizen of nine countries (excluding South Africa at that time) and represented them all at Festac ‘77. The poet Mário Pinto de Andrade, one of the founders of Angola’s MPLA, appeared at the festival instead as Guinea-Bissau’s minister of culture. That’s the beauty and depth of the mess that Festac ’77 makes visible. 

The work of producing Pan Africanism as a political reality is ongoing and, sadly, what we currently celebrate as “Africa Day” is the reduction of that project into a manageable bureaucracy in the OAU — now the African Union (AU). But the questions Who is Black? What is Africa? are very much alive in the cultural realm. One of the questions we ask through this project is, can a past that the present has not yet caught up with be summoned to haunt the present as an alternative? 

Edjabe Funambulist (7)
Excerpts of the book Festac ‘77 by Chimurenga (2020). / Courtesy of Chimurenga.

KS: How did you approach the research for this? Was there a central source that provided much of the material or were you calling on existing networks across the Black worlds for material? 

NE: The Centre for Black and African Art and Civilisation in Lagos is an important resource to understand Nigeria’s investment in Festac ‘77 — three successive military governments carried the project. It was founded by Olusegun Obasanjo in 1979, to act as custodian of the Festac archive and it holds many important planning documents and recordings of performances. But no central archive can contain the enormity of this event. Like the map in Jorge Luis Borges’s famous parable, it would need to be as big as the territory. 

And my colleagues and I are generally more interested in inserting ghosts into the archive than merely reproducing it. Today, the National Theatre in Lagos, which hosted many of the Festac performances, feels like a haunted space, like a monument for unrealisable dreams. What is important for us isn’t the reiteration of the actual past, but the persistence of what never happened, but might have. My main collaborators at Chimurenga and on this project, Stacy Hardy, Bongani Kona, Graeme Arendse, Duduetsang Lamola, Ben Verghese, Dominique Malaquais, and Akin Adesokan, are writers, artists, designers, DJs. So music, speculative cartography, fiction are all valid tools to advance research work. The other thing is that long-term research such as this, we have to integrate it in our everyday activities — for instance we published an edition of the Chronic in 2015 that examines divisions between North and sub-Saharan Africa, which was a central and divisive issue at Festac ’77. 

This is the paradox of Festac ‘77. Some of our most important writers, artists, thinkers participated — 17 000 at official count. Many of them speak of it as a paradigm shift, one of the most important events they’ve attended. The impact of the event is somewhat visible in their artistic and political choices, yet it seldom appears as a full story. Audre Lorde and Jayne Cortez published poems, Wole Soyinka wrote an essay, and the event appears in a few memoirs. This intrigued me — the people who experienced Festac ‘77 seemed unwilling to write it, as if bound by an unspoken nondisclosure agreement. And so its stories circulated in the manner of a family secret — a family of millions of people. 

On the other hand, there are at least 40 music albums about Festac ‘77. It refuses to be written, it resists analysis, but it is spoken, sung and performed on record more widely than any other event I’ve researched. So our primary archive was never hidden, it was the dispersed recordings produced by the likes of Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou, Gilberto Gil, Tabu Ley Rochereau, Syli Orchestre National, King Sunny Adé, and many more. Together, these LPs constitute a sound-world in which the memory of Festac is as active as it is missing in print. 

Working through sound requires an embrace of opacity: there is always too much information — and never enough. I think it helps to feel surrounded by the sound, to surrender, when attempting to write stories too big, too personal, to be perceived in their fullness. Indeed, some stories are bigger than storytelling. Black music is not only the largest and most sophisticated archive at our disposal, it is also an efficient laboratory for the rebuilding of archives that are primarily inscribed in bodies. 

We wanted to tell stories of Festac ’77 through those who participated. But it is practically impossible to determine who was there from official records. For example, a group of South African artists and activists led by the writer Molefe Pheto travelled to Nigeria uninvited and without visas. At the Lagos airport they were welcomed as “Soweto revolutionaries” and let into the country — in fact, escorted to the festival village as VIPs. Their names do not appear in official documents, but everyone else saw and envied them! Fortunately, Pheto likes to tell this story and it reached my ears via the curator Khwezi Gule. 

Edjabe Funambulist (5)
Excerpts of the book Festac ‘77 by Chimurenga (2020). / Courtesy of Chimurenga.

Gathering these stories had to be collective and public work — this kind of crowd-sourcing also served as a peer-review system. We would organise events and invite people who were rumored to have been at Festac ’77 to help to identify companions in the images we collected. It didn’t always go well — in one instance some of his colleagues “identified” the bass player William Parker in Marilyn Nance’s extensive photographic documentation of the U.S. delegation. I hurriedly wrote to Parker to request an interview, only to learn it wasn’t him. But we thought he should have been at Festac and so he was! 

Learning about who was there (or wasn’t) became a way of producing an alternative history of our world, a way to learn about the influence of Cheikh Anta Diop in the shaping of cultural policy in post-independence Gabon; or the struggles by the likes of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Micere Mugo to produce a national theater in Kenya; or to wonder how on earth the Sun Ra Arkestra found themselves on a plane bound for Lagos, alongside the feminist poet and warrior Audre Lorde, the modernist painter Beauford Delaney, and Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam. Just imagine! Mind-boggling stuff! 

KS: Why, and what point, did Toni Morrison’s The Black Book become the inspiration in terms of method of presentation? 

NE: Initially we imagined the book as a collection of essays to be edited by Akin Adesokan and myself. We produced a few drafts of this book, but none felt right. There was no music, and the people were left out. 

Another project had begun to take form in our minds — a publication that could be heard as well as read. A book that would represent the array of verbal and visual texts we’d received from our elders — the spoken anecdotes, newspaper reports, essays, advertisements, music sheets, posters, diary pages, artworks — and the stuff we’d made up. 

Stories would have no beginning or end; everyone would be speaking at the same time and in their language. It would be polyvocal, polyglot, polyrhythmic, and many more plurals; it would demand close listening. It would have no chapters or sections; it would begin wherever the eye falls. It would have many contradictions. It wouldn’t distinguish between new writing and older material. It would present each story as an invitation to produce more stories. Some stories would include a byline, others not; some pages would be numbered, others not. There would be a system, but it would be as unpredictable as the cataloguing of a private jazz collection, or read in all directions like Dumile Feni’s scroll. 

It should not feel precious but everyone should want to keep it — it should rest on the kitchen table with the family photo album. Every Black person should recognize something in it, anything — and read from there. Everyone else can join in too, but they must know when to leave. It should be read in groups. No one should be able to read it entirely — unless they speak at least nine languages. This book could only be made by many hands, page by page. Encountering Toni Morisson’s Black Book was a revelation. It was a blessing. She had produced it in 1974 to tell the story of African Americans over three centuries. The Black Book is a mystery, so perfectly choreographed everything feels random. All the cues are buried in the reader’s own mind. 

Edjabe Funambulist (4)
Excerpts of the book Festac ‘77 by Chimurenga
(2020). / Courtesy of Chimurenga.

We sat by her feet and learned to play jazz. We had to give up on the possibility of all connections being meaningful and understood, some just had to be felt: where would we feature Jayne Cortez’s poem on Nigerian-American relations? Would it go with the report on the 1973 oil crisis in The Black Panther Intercommunal News Service — a crisis that enriched Nigeria and made Festac ’77 possible? Or would it sit near Ama Ata Aidoo’s story of meeting Cortez at the food queue in the Festac Village? 

KS: How far do you see Festac’s tentacles stretch, both in terms of how it shaped ways in which the arts could be mobilised towards liberation (with particular reference to South Africa) and in how it reshaped diasporic connections, years into its future? 

NE: Nigeria’s involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle is well documented — the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) had an office in Lagos since the 1960s. And in the aftermath of the June 16, 1976 uprisings, Tsietsi Mashinini and his Soweto Students Representative Council comrades were hosted by the Obasanjo government. Thabo Mbeki was then deployed to Lagos to woo the Nigerians, with his first task being to lead the ANC delegation at Festac ‘77. The South African liberation movement was there in its fullness — PAC chief diplomat David Sibeko was there. Oliver Tambo dropped in for the closing ceremony. 

The festival took place in the middle of the war some historians describe as “cold,” but which was very hot in these parts. The Chimurenga was intensifying in Zimbabwe and civil war was ongoing across the white redoubt in Southern Africa, instigated, of course, by the apartheid regime. The inauguration of Jimmy Carter as U.S. president took place a week into Festac ‘77, and he immediately dispatched Andrew Young to Lagos, who did his best there to avoid Agostinho Neto, the leader of socialist Angola. There are photographs in which the VIP section looks like a seating of OAU general assembly. Festac ’77 was definitely a space for palace-political work. 

But major political moves also took place on the performance stage. For instance, Mbeki managed to unite a cross-generational group of South African artists and ANC activists behind a single project led by the composer and trombonist Jonas Gwangwa — a dramatisation of the recent June 16 events featuring music, dance, poetry and popular theatre. The success of this performance led to the formation of the Amandla Cultural Ensemble, a powerful, roving organ for mobilising international support for the struggle the following decade. The Medu Art Ensemble was also founded by Festac ’77 alumni, and the Culture and Resistance Conference which they organized in 1982, was modelled on the Lagos festival. All of this led to the establishment of the ANC’s department of arts culture — this is just a brief outline to indicate the immediate repercussions of Festac ’77 on the South African liberation movement. One could argue that the event was similarly influential for many participating groups and countries. 

By declaring itself a “Black” country in its constitution of 1804, Haiti changed the rules — a republic could be Black, just as Western liberal democracies assume their whiteness. The emergence of continentalism at the Pan African Conference of Manchester in 1945, which culminated with the founding of the OAU (“Seek ye first the political kingdom,” as Nkrumah famously put it), allowed many African leaders to sidestep this issue. Post-Biafra Nigeria reimagined itself as a Black State for the time of a festival — the experience of Black people from all over the world gathered in Lagos for a month, without White approval or supervision cannot be underestimated. Consider this: Festac ’77 facilitated the symbolic and temporary return of the largest number of Black people to the continent. And so the burning question was: is this a festival of people or a festival of states? In other words, is it the 2nd Fesman (Dakar) or the 2nd Panaf (Algiers)? Senegal, for example, threatened to boycott the festival if North African countries, “Arabs,” were invited. A conundrum that Wole Soyinka characterised as “saline consciousness” — the belief that everything which is bounded by sea water on the continent is necessarily African, and that everything which is outside it is not. As a compromise, the festival had to be renamed “World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture”, to include the North Africans. 

But the issue simply would not go away. Brazilian activists confronted their government — why were there so few Black artists, intellectuals and organisations in their country’s delegation? Sudanese intellectuals asked, what of “Black and Arab”? Indigenous Australians claimed they were neither Black nor African and departed shortly after the opening ceremony. People took these questions home to reshape cultural politics and, in cases like Brazil, Cuba, Australia and others, to initiate a national debate on race. 

The question of “national culture”, anticipated by Fanon, also raised its head at Festac ’77. Before the festival, only a few African states had established national cultural institutions beyond what was inherited from the colonial state. Gabon’s National Theatre, Zaire’s National Ballet and Cameroon’s National Orchestra, for example, were founded in preparation for Festa ‘77. This brought intellectuals and artists face to face with the state in irreversible ways. Festac ’77 became the platform on which the old confrontation between poets and politicians would take place — and between both groups and “the people”. 

Edjabe Funambulist (3)
Excerpts of the book Festac ‘77 by Chimurenga
(2020). / Courtesy of Chimurenga.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o was detained in Kenya during Festac ‘77, even though his and Micere Mugo’s play, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, was presented at the festival by the very government that imprisoned him. Togolese writer Yves Dogbé was jailed and tortured for a speech he planned to give at the Festac Symposium. The Ugandan playwright Byron Kawadwa was killed by Idi Amin’s goons for his piece at Festac ‘77. Sadly, there are many more examples. Typically, Fela Kuti took this opportunity to organize a “counter-Festac” at his club, the Shrine, in which everyone was invited to berate the Nigerian military government at will, as well as their own. A week after the festival, the Nigerian police responded with full force, destroying Fela’s home, and killing his mother. 

By using the famous Benin ivory mask “Head of Queen Idia” as the festival emblem, and making an official request for his return from the British Museum, Festac ‘77 politicized the question of restitution of African artefacts held in Western institutions. Faced with British refusal to return the loot, the Nigerian government then commissioned the descendants of the original carvers to produce new versions of the mask, based on photographs of the mask held in Britain. Another wicked twist in the tale of Dr Satan’s Echo Chamber. ■