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Posted under: Culture News

'They Forgot That Quickly': Durag Fest Founders Say Interest In Annual Celebration Came And Went After BLM Protests Subsided

Nicknamed the Met Gala of Durags, the annual Charlotte, North Carolina, festival features live music, art shows and a deep wave day party.

Charlotte, North Carolina, is a city of appearances according to visual artist and Durag Fest co-founder Dammit Wesley -- and this Juneteenth, he intends to call the city’s bluff. 

“From outside the city, Charlotte looks like a very white place. It looks like a place for soccer moms. It seems like a city where you would like to raise your kids and stuff, but then you get here and you realize it's n***as everywhere,” Dammit, who asked we refer to him by his first name, told Blavity.

“This is a very Black city. And it has a facade of whiteness that it refuses to give up," he continued, noting that the Kings of Comedy was famously filmed in the city of Charlotte.

The annual Durag Fest will be held at BLK MRKT CLT art gallery in Charlotte this Juneteenth, for the third time since its 2018 inception. Co-founder of the festival and part owner of the gallery, Dammit explains that the collective began thinking of ways to commemorate Black Freedom Day a few years back.

“We've always tried to create events and Black experiences that not only speak to our culture, but make us feel comfortable and highlight us in positive ways. So when it came to Juneteenth, I figured what's blacker than a durag, right?” Dammit posited. “What's the one cultural artifact that the pilgrims have tried to take for themselves time and time again, and have failed? A durag.”

While 2021 marks the first year that the U.S. will recognize Juneteenth as a federal holiday, Dammit and his co-founder Lica Mishelle told Blavity that much of the support they received at the height of last summer’s racial reckoning quickly waned with the fleeting moment.

“After all that hype last year around Black Lives Matter, and the holiday --  I remember my employer was really engaged in conversations around Black people in America and recognizing Juneteenth -- but post 2020, disappointingly, it’s not cool or trendy to have those conversation now,” Mishelle told Blavity, explaining that the very donors eager to “stand with the Black community” last summer, were dragging their feet this June.

As a result, Dammit added, funding for this year's celebration is not what would have been expected given the enthusiasm he heard from allies last summer. 

The festival co-founders' struggles to raise support is indicative of a larger national trend. The fiery white allyship that illuminated the Black Lives Matter movement last summer, quickly cooled beneath the chill of autumn. Data published by the New York Times shows that, by 2021, white Americans' support for the movement had flattened from its 2020 peak, noting that white attitudes towards Black Lives Matter are actually less supportive than they were even prior to George Floyd's murder.

“Funding or not, Durag Fest is happening," Mishelle continued. "But it's insane that we're in the same cycle of trying to prove why this festival needs to happen. If there’s not a tragedy happening -- and even then --  we still have to pull teeth.”

Mishelle maintains that Black issues remain “in sight,” in Charlotte. Still, Dammit chimes in, they appear “out of mind” for the city. 

“It was all a scam. It was all a lie. That's what it feels like. They forgot that quickly that Juneteenth was a holiday,” Dammit said. “And I can't really say that I'm surprised. This is the same city that got national attention for having this customized Black Lives Matter mural, and they just let it wash away underneath the traffic of the city.”

With the faded hue of Charlotte's Black Lives Matter mural, Dammit also recalls the memory of his childhood Juneteenth celebrations -- revivals that, he said, never quite felt like home. He cites them, in part, for his inspiration for Durag Fest.

“With any other holiday, there are behaviors and costumes attached to it, so other people can participate in it. And Juneteenth always kind of had that missing,” he told Blavity. “Going to Juneteenth festivals as a kid, I always felt there was a disconnect because those Juneteenth festivals were more rooted in African history and literature than African American history and culture.”

The visual artist and graphic designer says Durag Fest aims to bridge the gap between Juneteenth and its misrepresentations. This Independence Day in Charlotte, every freedman in a durag is a star. 

“I don’t mind wearing my kente cloth, but we can't deny that our emancipation created this creative cultural force in the Western world that has been unrivaled for decades,” Dammit said. “And that should really be celebrated. When people show up to our event, they show up with the intent of the attention being on them. Celebrity culture does not exist here. Niggas around here do not give a fuck about no follow count, status, none of that. So while we have great performers and great DJs, this event is truly celebrating you, that individual with way too much sauce for your own good. This is your moment to become the celebrity that you know you really are.”

The event will feature musical performances, a Durag Hall of Fame, fashion show, deep wave day party and, of course, Black art on exhibition. 

As Dammit explains that Durag Fest is about “framing us and our culture as art,” it naturally follows that the event was born out of the BLK MRKT CLT art collective. Indeed, Dammit's journey towards Durag Fest seems to insist that life does, in fact, imitate art: he and his roommate only founded the art gallery to move the sometimes-sleeping artists and their sprawling creations out of his apartment, Dammit told Blavity. Now, they’re curating their third Durag Fest. 

“It was a flop house for the arts,” he said. “Unknowingly we had laid the foundation for not only a stronger community, but a powerful art collective. Some of the same people that were on our couch have grown up to shoot projects for Puma, J.Cole. … The festival exists because of those same people who were able to turn Black people into the art that we are.”

Durag Fest, nicknamed the Met Gala of Durags, casts Black people in the light of high art and avant garde fashion -- whether Charlotte’s local business patrons share the perspective, or not. 

“The first time we did the festival, there was a lot of white traffic that had to walk through our Black event to get to a luau on the other side of the property. And that was intentional,” the artist admitted. “It forced a lot of white families to be in close proximity to actual living, breathing African-Americans and experience us being unapologetic. The Black Panther movie had just come out, and kids were looking up to their parents, referring to us as Wakanda. There were a lot of women that had full length durags and little white girls were asking them if they were princesses, naturally, because they looked like royalty.”

But while the creators of Durag Fest encourage Black people to come as they are, comedian Mo’Nique took to Instagram earlier this month with a different message. The notorious performer implored Black women to represent themselves more respectably in public places like airports. 

“We need to continue to celebrate our identity in unapologetic ways publicly, no matter what Mo'Nique says,” Dammit told Blavity. “Whether you’re on a bus, a train, an airplane, you should not be ashamed of how you preserve your hair yourself. We in the south, so I see white women walking in and out of Walmart wearing bonnets all day. It's never really a problem, but when it comes to us, especially Black women, it's very easy to turn them into  jokes and hold them to an unfair standard that really doesn't exist. We all need to do our job to help to dismantle that.”

One hundred years from now, Dammit says, the founders of Durag Fest want the celebration to live on -- with the ode to Black culture and high art riding the waves of eternity as if they were a velvet durag, oiled-stained and infallible. 

“Throughout time, artists have always preserved history in the way that it happened. Because everybody couldn't read --  hell, even now, people still can't read all that good -- so pictures are important. It's good that we’re remembered in a light that is not only positive, but regal,” the artist told Blavity. “With these avant garde, artistic images and interpretation of Blackness comes a story. We are always pushing the envelope of what's acceptable, of what’s cool, of what is America. That's why it's important for us to document these things. That's why it’s important for us to encourage our guests to go all out.”

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