“We don’t have no movies about Marcus Garvey and the Black Star Line,” Chance the Rapper tells me about the influential Pan-Africanist leader and his short-lived steamship company designed to facilitate travel and commerce across the Black diaspora. “I think it’d be really powerful for Black people to see and envision themselves on boats, like on top of them, not underneath, as chattel, but to be the voyagers and the directors of our future.”
Though Garvey’s Black Star Line crumbled under the weight of sabotage by the U.S. Government and its own mismanagement, it symbolized the potential for political and economic connection and success among Black people around the world. The legacy of Garvey’s maritime dreams inspired Chance’s most recent music video, his upcoming album, and a festival he and the rapper Vic Mensa are hosting in Ghana for the first time in January. Their inaugural Black Star Line Festival will boast a week of events and panels to culminate in a concert in Accra’s historic Black Star Square. Erykah Badu, T-Pain, Sarkodie, Chance, Mensa, and more will headline.
Since first traveling to Ghana with Vic Mensa last winter, Chance has been back three more times this year, growing more curious and committed to fostering connections between Black people globally. “I went for my first time in January, not really knowing what I was going to get into or what was in store for me there. I made a lot of great — I hope to be lifelong — friends in the art scene and the organizing community,” he says. “Then, I came back in July with a group of kids with me and Vic’s organizations.” He announced the festival from Ghana on that trip, then returned in September “to do a little reconnaissance” at another festival held on the same grounds where he’ll host his. When we talked over Zoom, he had just returned to Chicago from another excursion, this time in preparation for his own.
For Chance, accessibility has been a priority for the all-ages festival. He says after having conversations with United Airlines about the limits of their flights to Ghana, the company is offering a year of discounted fares to the country. Plans for the grounds include a kid-friendly exhibit on revolutions against imperialism in Ghana, Haiti, and Algeria, and an elders’ area inspired by African griot tradition. Tickets are being released in batches, with the first sets made available to Ghanaians yesterday and more set to drop worldwide next week.
Chance, who has dove into filmmaking as of late, has made sure to document the process and film the actual concert. However, he’s not yet sure when he’ll release any footage. “I think one of the strongest parts about this festival is that people know that it exists, but there’s still some small secrecy around it,” he says. “The fact that you know that it exists, but you don’t know everything about it is kind of a strength of the whole thing. And I think the longer we can keep organizing in confidence, the better.”
Here, Chance offers a glimpse at his vision for the Black Star Festival, the skepticism he’s encountered, and the logistics of making it a reality.
The idea for the festival, did it first come to you and Vic during your trip to Ghana in January?
It did, yeah. Basically, I got out there with just having a good time in mind, trying to get away from life in Chicago. Me and Vic really connected harder than we’ve ever connected.
I spent a lot of time with Vic, but I spent a lot of time with Vic’s family and with some of the [new] people I met. I was introduced to the story and the legacy of Kwame Nkrumah, how he freed Ghana from British colonialism and kind of brought this idea of global Blackness to the forefront in the sixties. Just in that time, being so inspired by him and his teachings and his inspirations, which are W.E.B Du Bois and Marcus Garvey, we just started having conversations about how to bring more and more people together.
The last night that we were in Ghana, we went to this spot, Laboma Beach, and just talked about the fact that me and Vic had played so many places in the world, but we never played in West Africa. Just being honest, I hope this doesn’t sound cocky, but it’s a lot of love for us there, and a lot of people that know not just our famous songs, but the album cuts. So, the appetite for that interaction and that live music experience was there. And the infrastructure exists, too. There’s plenty of successful homebred concerts and festivals in Ghana, but one that was a specifically Pan-African event that links arts and culture along with the music was something that we felt like we would be good to put together.
Right after we left, we connected with some of the people that we knew in the events organizing space in Ghana, and just started working on it from basically February. Right after we left, we were like, “We’re going to come back. And we want to give back to the people here, and bring some people with us.”
Why did you feel a sense of urgency to make it happen in a year?
I just think that the groundwork has already been laid for us, in terms of creating these connections. Ghana is, in a lot of ways, the center for global Blackness and has, over the years, become just this destination for Black folks, not just in the US, but in the islands and in the UK, to spend time and to create relationships.
I think just with everything that’s going on, the information that’s becoming more and more readily available to people, the amount of communication that we are able to have — you could really be friends with somebody on the other side of the world via Twitter, via text, via WhatsApp. I just think we’re in that space and in that time as a people to start having those physical connections.
I think also, that’s kind of just how we move. I feel like a lot of times, myself and Vic, we kind of put pressure on ourselves to get stuff done in the now, and with immediacy and urgency. I felt like this was an opportunity to create or to add onto a movement. And there’s no time like the present.
What aspects of organizing this festival have you valued most?
Creating the partnerships has been a really, really dope thing. A big part of it is being able to work with different people and figure out how we can come together to create something that’s for the people. Specifically, just being able to be on the phone and advocate for different things, and being able to also work with the artists. A lot of the artists on the bill have never played a show on the continent. I mean, even for me, I’ve been four times this year, but before this year, I’d only been to South Africa, and when I went there, I went there for like two days. It’s a very foreign concept for a lot of Black Americans.
There just seems to be a great barrier for us when it comes [to traveling to Africa]. Whether it’s financial or the lack of information or whatever it is, it just seems like it is difficult. Working through that fear with different people, working through the disconnect with different people; and also just working from a place of joy and purity, in terms of putting together the concepts, the aesthetic for it, design on the festival plot; creating access for all people, so we’re not leaving out people with disabilities or people who are gender nonconforming or anything; just trying to create something for Black folks is just a dope starting point.
The tickets for this big concert you’re putting on are free. How are you able to fund everything?
God. It was definitely not super easy, but I like to do stuff without financial sponsors. I like to be able to say what we want to say and have the messaging that we want. It was on my heart to make it that way. There’s no title sponsor giving us millions of dollars or anything, there’re out-of-pocket expenses for something that’s going to be historic. And it’s hopefully the start of something more. There are a lot of Black entertainers, also, that I’ve talked to, that had interest in helping me fund it, and they just couldn’t get the money together in time or they wanted to see the first one’s success, I guess. I don’t know.
[The festival is] something that I envision that rolls on for years to come. It’s not necessarily always going to be contained to Ghana. In the future, I hope to bring it definitely to Jamaica, eventually to Haiti, to the US, to all places where Black people live, which is the whole world. So I think trying to put it together in its first year, there was some confusion, just because I’ve produced three festivals, but I’ve never produced one in another country, yet alone another continent. So, there were some growing pains and shit, but also the team in Ghana, the people that are the on ground producers, they have done a lot of events and have experience in and just pulling together large scale events like this and specifically in that space. So they made it a lot easier.
What have been the most challenging aspects of pulling the festival together?
Trying to convince people to come play a show just outside of the country is already tough. To say it’s in West Africa, it’s tough again. A lot of our big artists have never played over there. Trying to bring in people to see the vision when there hasn’t been an example of it yet is really probably always the toughest thing. There’s really not something that I could say this is modeled after that’s in recent history, you know what I mean? Or to the scale of something everyone knows. Honestly, I was inspired by what’s called the Festival of Algiers, which most people aren’t familiar with. Are you familiar with that festival?
I’m not, but you could definitely tell me about it.
It was held after Algeria won their independence. They had a bloody revolution against the French, which they won. It was a pan-African conference where all these Black intellectuals, authors, scholars, teachers, musicians, and organizers came and had a series of confidential meetings as well as panels, small concerts — just this meeting of the minds of all these different Black folks and Black folks obviously already on the continent.
There’s a documentary on it, but basically it was just all these Black people that were radical thinkers that met in confidence and got to take the information that they got from all these other Black people that were living different experiences in different spaces. They got to take that information and that experience back to wherever they call home. It’s just something that I thought was uniquely powerful.
That’s what the goal of this is. It’s going to culminate in a big concert at the end of the week. But there’s also a lot of really intelligent Black folks from the islands and from the U.S. and from the U.K. and from Ghana that are all going to be doing different talks and panels. There’s some awesome artists that are coming out to do a presentation at the National Museum of Ghana. But it’s kind of just like — do you remember that word they used to always say in social studies? They used to say cultural diffusion. That’s the goal here, to be able to bring our experiences from different parts of the world to one space, and obviously relish and celebrate in our differences and in our similarities, but also to be able to have conversations and figure out where it is that we all meet.
Looking at the letter you and Vic wrote on the festival website, you raise the idea of connection and solidarity, especially between artists, relating to the idea of Black people globally being more free. The example of the Festival of Algiers speaks to the historical basis for that line of thinking. How do you see what you hope to facilitate at this festival branching out to people who can’t be there — to Black people globally? How do you see it impacting us on a larger scale?
I think this is kind of what they call a pilot in TV, where this is an example of what it could be like yearly or biyearly to have something that we all just go to that’s free, that you bring your kids to, that you bring your elders to, that you come out and experience a safe space where we can all be in confidence together. And I think in this initial thing, there is no live stream or because it’s almost not even really just about the music. It’s about how safely we can gather and organize.
Me and Vic did an event this past summer in Chicago on the south side, it was a Juneteenth barbecue where we had art presentations, concert, different food cultures from around the world and kind of used that as the pilot for this one where we tried to get 15,000 Black folks on the south side to come together and have a party without incident. We were successful in it.
I think that this specific event will have an effect, just in that we don’t get to really see things like this very often. And so just seeing it from the outside and knowing that it was dope and knowing that it was successfully safe, I think will be a beacon in itself. Then, I also think every person that goes to one of these panels or goes to the concert or travels to Ghana for their first time to be a part of the festivities will leave changed and come back and be a catalyst in their own spaces.