Hotter Than July: The National Black Arts Festival Heats Up Atlanta

Rain and scorching temps didn't stop this five-day orgy of arts and culture from the African diaspora.

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Gudrun Stone/Gudrunstone.com

Temperatures scorching into the '90s, humidity so thick you could slice it and the looming threat of thunderstorms are all typical for a midsummer July day in Atlanta. When the rain fell this past weekend, the National Black Arts Festival (NBAF) continued, undeterred in its celebration of African diaspora art and culture.

As I strolled into Centennial Olympic Park on the third day of the five-day festival, it was so hot I wanted to join the children splashing through fountains, but instead I opted for exploring one of my favorite parts of the festival: the International Marketplace. Throughout the festival, vendors from around the world set up shop to showcase everything from sculptures and paintings to handcrafted jewelry, clothing, books and more. They lured folks in with their awesome displays, many with racks of colorful Afrocentric clothing or intricately framed artwork overflowing from their booths. I was easily reeled in by the sweet smell of aromatherapy and the invitation to have my hands treated to a body scrub by a proud mother helping her daughter push her new skin-care line, Born in Brooklyn Skincare.

Although I was rolling solo, the mom in me had to walk through the Children's Educational Village, always a big draw for the festival. This year the exhibit featured the multimedia project Growing the Dream, boasting a child-size replica of Martin Luther King Jr.'s boyhood home -- a big hit with the kids buzzing around their dedicated area, complete with craft tables and interactive learning activities.

The grills were also going at the park with what else but Southern cuisine monopolizing the menu. When the sun got to be too much, I sought shelter in the Publix Healthy Cooking Pavilion, where Shelley Chapman from Naturi Beauty was teaching the crowd how to whip up jerk salmon cakes, creamy callaloo polenta and tomato-avocado salad. Two words: simply delicious.

This was the second year the NBAF was streamlined into five days, cut back considerably from its former two-week-plus schedule. The first NBAF took place in 1988, after the Fulton County Arts Council commissioned a study to explore the possibilities of creating a festival to showcase the work of artists of African descent. Twenty-two years later, the NBAF is still one of the most celebrated festivals of its kind, drawing in thousands annually from around the globe.

In addition to the modified schedule, the festival is under a new regime after the reigning executive director and founding artistic director, Stephanie Hughley, resigned in 2009. That May, the NBAF board of directors appointed Neil A. Barclay the new CEO and executive producer.

Inevitably, with new leadership comes change, change that includes adding a social media component to the festival via Facebook, Twitter, blogs and live streaming of events.

While the visual arts were scaled back this year as the NBAF shifts to include year-round programming and events that will encompass more fine art, there were still opportunities to take part in the citywide NBAF Gallery Crawl featuring the Hagedorn Gallery Opening Reception. As a music lover, I was drawn to the World Music Stage for the live performances that dominated the festival. While some of the other events worthy of attention, like the film Soundtrack for a Revolution, weren't as heavily populated, Centennial Olympic Park pulled in the people. Dodging raindrops was worth it as we were treated to several soul-stirring performances by the Saturday lineup, including a set by actor-turned-singer Leon, the front man for the group Leon & The Peoples. As the evening headliner, Roy Ayers performed a riveting tribute to Fela Kuti with the Common Ground Collective. Anchoring the NBAF are two of its signature events: the Gala and the Legends Celebration. This year's gala, ''A Gathering of Colors,'' took guests back to the roaring 20s as they enjoyed an evening of entertainment ''supper-club style,'' hosted by honorary gala chair Lynn Whitfield.

''The Legends Celebration: To Curtis with Love,'' honoring the late icon Curtis Mayfield, took guests on a soulful journey through some of R&B's most poignant and classic tracks. The tribute included showstopping performances from The Impressions, Eddie Levert, Van Hunt, Frank McComb, Dionne Farris and Joi Gilliam. The eclectic crowd sang and swayed to some of Mayfield's most celebrated hits, from ''People Get Ready'' to ''Pusherman'' to ''Superfly'' to ''Something He Can Feel.'' Mayfield's widow and children were there to receive the 2010 Legends Award. His son graciously thanked the crowd, smiling and adding that he was sure his father was looking down on everybody, saying keep on movin' up.

Lorraine Sanabria Robertson is an Atlanta-based author, freelance writer and social media enthusiast. She blogs at Ask Wifey. Follow her on Twitter.

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