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Arts & Culture
These articles were excerpted from Tapestry, a weekly newsletter that examines the arts and entertainment world in Charlotte and North Carolina.

Durag Fest Founder Has Dreams Of Bigger Future For Juneteenth Celebration Of Black Culture

durag1.jpg
Courtesy Sancho Smalls
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People wear durags proudly at a previous Durag Festival.

Charlotte artist Dammit Wesley had an epiphany he didn’t expect during the first Durag Fest in 2018. As people gathered outside his BLKMRKT gallery in Camp North End to celebrate, crowds of mostly white people were attending a nearby Friday night luau.

The movie “Black Panther” had just come out, which was both good and bad. It was good because everyone who passed by was interested, inspired by the movie to examine Black culture.

But bad because it soon became clear that many of those people associated the Black men and women they saw wearing durags with the characters they’d seen on the big screen. People shouted “Wakanda forever!” Children asked if women in impeccable makeup and durags flowing like gowns were princesses.

They thought of “Black Panther” as Black culture, Wesley realized.

“And that was kind of the moment I realized that it’s important to share these cultural aspects with each other to normalize how people look, especially when they’re just being their authentic selves,” Dammit Wesley said.

Durag Fest has grown each year since, becoming an annual celebration to coincide with Juneteenth, the holiday celebrating the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States. This year, it will be at multiple sites and includes a marketplace for Black vendors and the popular street fashion show that was at that first event

Someday, Wesley and his event partner Lica Mishelle dream of Durag Fest becoming like Charlotte’s version of Coachella, which is the annual multi-day music and arts festival in California. They envision multiple stages and multiple events. Someday.

durag-wave-check.jpg
Courtesy Sancho Smalls
Participants in the annual "wave check" show off curls beneath their durags.

But for now, Wesley is still hoping to find financial sponsorship and support. There are no corporate sponsors for this year’s event.

“I know a portion of the issue was being exacerbated due to COVID,” he said. “Nobody knew where we would be in six months, which I find understandable.

“But also, at the same time, there was so much noise around people being supportive of Black creatives and businesses, and so many people were saying that they were going to recognize Juneteenth as a paid holiday. You saw the black squares (on social media). And that momentum has not been met for what we're trying to do.”

After blasting on social media the lack of big-time sponsorship, Wesley worked out deals with both Blumenthal Performing Arts and the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority to use space in uptown for parts of this year’s festival.

Durag Festival
Courtesy Sancho Smalls
Durags are on full display at the Durag Festival, which this year will be held in uptown Charlotte and Camp North End.

Events will be held throughout the day on Saturday, June 19th, at three separate locations: Victoria Yards, the NASCAR Hall of Fame Plaza and back at its original Camp North End location.

The fact that part of the festival will be right outside the NASCAR Hall of Fame building that celebrates the history of one of the least diverse professional sports is not lost on Wesley.

"Sometimes just 'being' is a revolutionary and defiant act," Dammit Wesley said. "And I find the beauty in my people and I want everybody in Charlotte to understand that, you know, just because somebody wears their hair a certain way doesn't dictate how you should treat me."

Festivities will begin at noon Saturday, June 19 at Victoria Yards, at the corner of North Tryon and Seventh streets, with Deep Wave Day Party and a Black vendor marketplace. At 2 p.m., the NASCAR Hall of Fame Plaza will be transformed to the “Durag Hall of Fame,” featuring portraits of Charlotte citizens, dance performances and a B-Boy cypher.

The celebration concludes with “DU After Dark,” or “Adult Swim,” at Camp North End from 7-11 p.m. where DJs, live bands and more will perform.

The conclusion at Camp North End will showcase the two most popular events: the wave check — where hairstyles hidden beneath durags are revealed and judged — and the street fashion show, where Black men and women are encouraged to express themselves through clothing.

Those are the events that inspired the questions and lingering looks at that very first Durag Fest. And those are the kinds of appearances Wesley wants to normalize.

“Whatever I can do to try to demystify and take away the negative connotations attached to durags, bonnets, dreads, braids — whatever you want — I'll do it,” he said. “And one of the first steps is to create great art. Once you become accustomed to seeing something, it's not all that scary.”

And when we’re no longer afraid, Wesley says, we can celebrate all our differences.

Do you want to know more about arts and culture in the Charlotte region? WFAE's weekly arts and entertainment email newsletter, Tapestry, will keep you in the loop. Sign up here to have Tapestry delivered straight to your inbox.

Corrected: June 15, 2021 at 8:13 AM EDT
This story was updated to list the name of Dammit Wesley's Durag Fest's event partner.