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

Charlotte's 1st AfroFuturism Fest Aims To Expand Minds

Zhiyu Feng and his father, Tinghao Feng, hold up Zhiyu's championship belt after he came in first in his age group for a 21-day reading challenge that ended on the first day of the AfroFuturism Festival.
Zhiyu Feng and his father, Tinghao Feng, hold up Zhiyu's championship belt after he came in first in his age group for a 21-day reading challenge that ended on the first day of the AfroFuturism Festival.

Charlotte’s got a lot of festivals — food festivals, music festivals, car festivals, you name it.

And as of this week, there’s one more: the AfroFuturism Festival. The free event, which ends Saturday, was created as a way to bring people of all ages together to stoke inspiration and imagination. It’s based on the broad literary and pop culture movement of Afrofuturism, which explores science fiction and generally futuristic concepts through a Black cultural lens.

For a quick example, think “Black Panther” — the 2018 film based on the Marvel comic superhero of the same name. Most of the movie is set in Wakanda, a fictional African country teeming with futuristic technology far beyond the rest of the world.

“Black Panther would probably be the most recent and relevant, between the imagery, the science of the healing, the use of technology and the intermingling of all that to solve for solutions,” said Rashaan Peek, who directs Black Tech Interactive/BLKTECHCLT.

The festival’s goal is to attract a wide variety of people: “Entrepreneurs, potential entrepreneurs, thinkers, makers, scientists or if you just pontificate — everyone is welcome.”

BLKTECHCLT was a startup community and consulting firm that was bought earlier this year by City Startup Labs, an incubator and accelerator program that was started to build human, social and economic capital in the Charlotte area with a focus on Black millennial entrepreneurs.

“What we want to do is a studio approach of high-tech entrepreneurs looking to develop marketing, customer acquisition and skills of fundraising in the Charlotte area first, and then around the country and throughout the world,” Peek said.

Part of the plan after City Startup Labs bought BLKTECHCLT was to create a community opportunity to discuss technology and futurism, Peek said.

Enter the AfroFuturism Fest. Peek says the idea is for people to come together to “work on this ideation approach to doing things that haven’t been solved yet.”

Author Ytasha Womack is the keynote speaker of the inaugural AfroFuturism Festival in Charlotte.
Author Ytasha Womack is the keynote speaker of the inaugural AfroFuturism Festival in Charlotte.

The four-day event kicked off Wednesday with a block party in Charlotte’s University City neighborhood. But it was more than just a party. The festivities marked the end of a 21-day reading challenge for local students. Parents were encouraged to get their kids to read for as many days as possible and share photos on social media.

The challenge was meant to boost reading proficiency. Reading levels statistics showed that from 2014-19,no more than 37% of Black and Hispanic third-graders at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools were reading at grade level.

The winners — aka those who posted the most in each age group — got professional wrestling-style championship belts to celebrate their victory.

“Despite the fact that we are a tech-focused entity, we still understand that we are community-centered first and will do an all-hands-on-deck approach to whatever the main problem is — especially when it comes to our kids,” Peek said.

For the record, Peek says elementary school students participated more than high-schoolers.

Thursday evening included “Libations and Liberation” at Camp North End with tech entrepreneur Suni West from Washington, D.C., and former Charlotte City Council member LaWana Mayfield discussing Afrofuturism. On Friday evening, starting at 6, there will be a Black Food Truck Friday in Historic West End, with an art walk and Black Classics outdoor cinema series showing short Black sci-fi films.

The festival’s big day is its “(un)conference” on Saturday. Ytasha Womack, one of the authors of “Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture,” will deliver the festival’s keynote speech at the main Central Piedmont Community College campus near uptown. There will be a session in which participants can think about using new technology to solve problems in Charlotte, a panel nominated by PLUG founder Sherrell Dorsey and an LED station for children and other attendees to design their own light-up superheroes.

There will be dozens of pieces of Afrofuturism-inspired art, and even a comic book workshop. As Peek puts it, plenty to see, hear and taste.

And art’s a big part of Afrofuturism and how it’s viewed in popular culture.

“Art is so important. You use all of the parts of your brain — you see in color,” Peek said. “We can’t manifest anything that wasn’t already talked about. Using that thinking, you don’t have to think you’re an artist to be an artist. We’re all artists.

“Using our creative sense to create what we see and work together to create the beauty that is us and the uniqueness and bringing in the uniqueness whatever skills, whether it’s visual, performing or ‘just being,’ art is important.”

And then things will end with a bang with the AfroPOP Party at Roy’s Kitchen & Patio in Charlotte’s NoDa neighborhood. But things aren’t really over. Afrofuturism, after all, has a significant focus on the future. And Peek says she hopes this year’s festival is just the first of many.

“The goal is bigger, bigger, better,” Peek said. “The hope is that it will grow to be something that people look forward to.”

WFAE's weekly arts and entertainment email newsletter, Tapestry, will keep you in the loop on arts and culture in the Charlotte region.

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Dash joined WFAE as a digital editor for news and engagement in 2019. Before that, he was a reporter for the Savannah Morning News in Georgia, where he covered public safety and the military, among other topics. He also covered county government in Gaston County, North Carolina, for its local newspaper, the Gazette.