2013 Festival Sundiata promotional poster

(The Root) — As Seattle emerges from the rains of winter and spring and heads into the somewhat less rainy months of summer, we citizens of Rain City shed the fleeces, roll down the windows and try to remember where we put the sunscreen.

It's festival weather, and one staple of the season is Festival Sundiata, the signature celebration of African-American arts and culture in this city, the largest black enclave in the Pacific Northwest. The 2013 edition is June 15 and 16 at the Seattle Center.

It's always a feast for the senses: the lively food court where people can sample the best of Creole and Caribbean cuisine; dancers taking the stage performing a variety of styles, combining African dance rhythms with their own riotous improvisations; quilters and other artisans showcasing work rife with the vibrant colors common to black expression; and music, from gospel to R&B to funk, hitting the air as you walk through a veritable jukebox of modern musical culture.

Festival Sundiata, now in its 33rd year, has assumed its place as an almost stubbornly enduring source of African-American arts in the Pacific Northwest, a region of the country with relatively few African Americans, and a city whose black population — the largest in the region — has declined even as other minorities have gained in numbers.

Incorporated in 1980, the festival takes its name from Sundiata Keita, the 13th-century king and founder of the Mali Empire in West Africa, whose celebrated exploits as empire builder and "King of Kings" are memorialized in "The Epic of Sundiata," a poem passed down by generations of griots.


The Sundiata African American Cultural Association, which presents the festival, has employed a combination of corporate sponsorships, community involvement and the input of everyday people. As in past years, this year's event, part of the center's ongoing Festal World-Culture series, will summon artists, musicians and the city's black residents for gospel, hip-hop, art, dance and the spoken word.

This year a Father's Day event on June 16 will gather 1,000 black fathers for a group photograph. A car show will showcase vintage autos on June 15. At the Black History & Education Expo, festivalgoers can avail themselves of drill-team performances, hip-hop storytelling and the opportunity to meet members of the Seattle-based Sam Bruce Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen.

A juried art competition for high school-age artists will be held, with five $100 awards to the top finishers in art, design new media and photography categories.


For Terry Morgan, the festival's co-creator, the black arts experience, thriving as it does in a city whose black population is about 8 percent of its 620,000 residents, is ubiquitous, a universal experience in ways some people don't expect.

"The African-American arts, the black arts, are something that everyone participates in on a daily basis, whether they recognize it or not," said Morgan in an April interview. "Listening to Jay-Z, listening to Beyoncé, listening to Prince, listening to Michael Jackson, or you watch some Michael Jordan films — these are all African-American artists. These are all people who are contributing their essence to contemporary culture."

The 2013 festival will be at the Armory, a 74-acre park at the heart of the Seattle Center, home of the Experience Music Project and the Pacific Science Center, and within spitting distance of the Space Needle, Seattle's reigning architectural landmark. A monorail runs every 10 minutes between Seattle Center (the site of the 1962 World's Fair) and Westlake Center, a major downtown shopping district.


There's more to do and see in Seattle outside of the festival. The Northwest African American Museum (2300 S. Massachusetts Ave.) is a great place to start. Opened in 2008, the museum has become the definitive repository for artifacts and information related to the black experience in Seattle. Current exhibitions include a photo history of James Baldwin's sojourn in Turkey (through Sept. 29) and "Book of the Bound," Carletta Carrington Wilson's mixed-media series "to honor the unheard voices of the enslaved."

If the festival food has whetted your appetite, try the Kingfish Café (602 19th Ave.), just a short two miles away, on surface streets across Capitol Hill. The Kingfish is an oasis for those looking for seriously Southern fare in this Pacific Northwest city. Standouts include a wholly decadent mac 'n' cheese, fine buttermilk fried chicken and fried green tomatoes with hush puppies on the side.

If you're eager for a glimpse of Seattle's multicultural present and its future, take the monorail from Seattle Center to Westlake Center, and from there a short light-rail train ride to Columbia City, one of the city's hottest neighborhoods. The South Seattle area has fully come into its own in recent years, with a diversity that distills the new America. Ethiopian restaurants vie with Caribbean eateries among others in this small, spicy slice of the fifth-whitest city in America. Hot spots include the Royal Room (5000 Rainier Ave. South), a near-new nightclub with great sight lines and a mix of local and national talents on any given night, and Island Soul (4869 Rainier Ave. South), a restaurant that deftly combines Southern and Caribbean fare.


Click here for The Root's ultimate summer festival guide, and find out where to eat, sleep and party while you're attending some of the season's hottest events.

Michael E. Ross is a regular contributor to The Root and the author of American Bandwidth, on the 2008 Obama campaign and the first days of his presidency.

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