When you create a festival that’s specifically designed to celebrate and empower black British women and girls, you just know that some people are going to take umbrage.
“We’ve been criticised so many times by people saying, ‘Oh, how would you like it if someone made a White Man’s Fest?’” says Paula Akpan, one of Black Girl Fest’s co-founders and directors. “And it’s like, that is literally the world.” She laughs. “The world is a white man’s festival, so being able to carve out our own space is so important.”
Launched in 2017, the second Black Girl Fest is set to take place in Shoreditch on Saturday 27 October. The event’s schedule is strikingly varied, encompassing everything from a keynote speech by Jamelia to a coding workshop sponsored by Microsoft and a conversation with Stella Dadzie, an activist who played a key role in the Black Women’s Movement of the Eighties.
The event sold out weeks before it was due to take place, something that Akpan’s co-founder and co-director, Nicole Crentsil, attributes in part to their innovative ticketing system. Guests could buy differently-priced tickets depending on their financial situation, and many bought extra tickets to pass on to women and girls who might want to attend but couldn’t afford it.
“People went out of their way to do that,” Crentsil says. “That was really, really inspiring to see people coming together.”
But Crentsil also credits Black Girl Fest’s success to the fact that nothing like this – an event designed explicitly by and for black British women and girls – has existed before in the UK. She and Akpan first got the idea for the event after Crentsil attended a talk between the author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and the American activist Angela Davis at the Women of the World Festival at London’s Southbank Centre in 2017.
Crentsil was “blown away”, and immediately called Akpan – who she first met on Twitter, before they became friends in real life – to discuss. After a long conversation, Akpan suggested they launch their own festival, one that would create an enriching cultural space for black women and girls in the same way.
“We’ve never had anything like this [in the UK],” Akpan says. “And it’s so important to know that there is somewhere you can go to connect and network with black women; where you can buy things that are made for your hair type, or books that feature little girls and princesses who actually look like you.”
Both women take pride in the fact that Black Girl Fest is designed to appeal to both girls and women. A workshop on ‘developing transferable skills’ is specifically for girls aged 12-18, for example, while a screening on black women filmmakers is only for women over 18. Workshops and talks on coding, social media strategy, app development, illustration, arts education and media careers are open to all ages.
“We want to create a space of learning and access, where we can bring rich knowledge to black women and girls,” Crentsil says. Before launching the festival last year, both she and Akpan had built successful and varied creative careers: Akpan as a writer, speaker and podcast host, and Crentsil as a curator, researcher, speaker and arts programmer. Crentsil says she was keen to equip other black women and girls “with the right kind of understanding and power” that would enable them to pursue their own career goals.
The theme of last year’s Black Girl Fest was ‘Celebration’, whereas this year’s is ‘Growth’. Akpan says the themes speaks to what they hope women and girls will get out of the event.
“Last year was about black women coming together and basking in each other’s energy,” she says. “And celebration is important – but if you don’t know how to take the next step on a particular career path, or if you don’t know the first thing around managing your finances, or if you want to get into publishing but you don’t know how to do that, celebration can sometimes feel limited.
“So we are really hoping that this year’s event leaves black women and girls feeling that they have learned something, or that they can now take the next step towards their career goals.”
Given the double bind of racism and sexism that black women still face as they move through the world, it’s immeasurably powerful for black women and girls to have a space where they “feel like they belong,” Akpan continues. “That’s not to segregate ourselves from other communities, but to celebrate ourselves for once in the year.”
As for the future of Black Girl Fest, Crentsil and Akpan are shooting for the stars. Their dream guests, they say, are Diane Abbott, Viola Davis, Issa Rae and Rihanna.
“If Rihanna would do a make-up tutorial, I would die,” Crentsil laughs. “That would be amazing. Let Rihanna come and do her face, she can sell her lingerie line… She can do whatever she wants.” Given what Akpan and Crentsil have achieved in just two years, we think getting RiRi on board for a future Black Girl Fest sounds entirely possible.
The Woman of the Week series is part of Stylist’s Visible Women campaign, dedicated to raising the profiles of women who are making a difference to society and to celebrate their success. See more Visible Women stories here.
Main image: Krystal Neuvill