I Went To The First Well-Read Black Girl Festival and Remembered I Was Born to Write—And Read

A personal essay from OkayAfrica contributor Alisha Acquaye on the imapct the first WRBG Festival had on her as a writer.

It took several years for me to call myself a writer, and two decades to actually believe it. I once wrote that sometimes black women have a harder time claiming this identity (that of a writer) because we aren't exposed to many black women writers in school. We know the classics, womanly wordsmiths who weave sentences into tapestries depicting a vivid fabric of the black female experience. Maya Angelou. Toni Morrison. Alice Walker. But I wasn’t taught about these women in public school. No, I was force-fed the realities and imaginations of white male authors, and although I found some notable, most felt superficial, politely racist and bland. But most importantly, they made me feel lonely. I wanted to write, but there weren’t many black women to show me the way. To make me feel at home.

Although claiming the title as writer was a journey, identifying as a reader required no thought or restraint. I was that girl who went to the library during my lunch breaks. I saved up my coins for book fairs, that magical time of year when the gym or auditorium transformed into a playground of chapter books, pencils, glitter pens, silly-shaped erasers, bedtime book lights and bookmarks. As an adult, I still love a good book store: the sweet, nutty scent of weathered literature or the fresh laundry aroma of unopened books, tall shelves closing in like hallways heavy with the weight of words, the way book covers are like the faces of friends we haven’t made yet.

No doubt, there is a joy about book fairs, book stores and especially book clubs, where small communities of people can dive head and heart first into a book, together. I knew all of this while walking into the very first Well Read Black Girl Festival last Saturday. For the past few years, more prominently than before, black women have been building spaces that celebrate our natural hair, our complexions and our self care methods, but WRBG celebrates our love of literature, and the black women who continue to write our truths. WRBG is revolutionary: it invites black women who identify as both readers and writers to geek out over a new book, to feel empowered through storytelling, and to recognize our magic and influence in the literary world.

Photo courtesy of Well Read Black Girl.

Photo courtesy of Well Read Black Girl.

The bubbly and friendly Glory Edim floated through the festival like a book fairy. In wide framed glasses, a curly tapered fro and a lacey pink maxi dress cloaked by a classic denim jacket, she seemed exactly in her element. Edim has been organizing the Well Read Black Girl book club since 2015, and I’ve had the pleasure of attending and moderating some of her monthly meetups. In only two short years, she and her team managed to not only leave an impression on the hearts of the women who attend her club, but an imprint in social media and the web, where the WRBG Instagram and Twitter have over 50,000 followers combined. The Kickstarter campaign for the WRBG conference and festival garnered close to $40,000—three times their goal of $15,000. It shows that black women have the power to make any dream possible, and that, when something that is missing is finally found, we listen, we support and we help it flourish into something grand.

Edim teared up during her opening remarks, expressing that this festival, this community, has helped her find her purpose and her people. Like Edim, I found myself tearing up at several moments throughout the event, especially during Naomi Jackson’s stunning speech on inclusion, writing with the women in her family in mind and finding her ground as a writer. At one point, I looked around the auditorium, taking in the many shades of brown, the many textures of tresses, and the collective expression of peace and comfort on everyone’s face. It was where I needed to be.

Glory Edim. Photo courtesy of Well Read Black Girl.

Photo courtesy of Well Read Black Girl.

The festival was composed of panel discussions led by some of the rising and seasoned stars of literature and online writing. Jacqueline Woodson, Jenna Wortham, Morgan Jerkins and Ashley C. Ford were just a few names on the impressive roster. I ferociously took notes during their discussions, as if tattooing their advice and mantras onto my brain. The self care panel was, itself, a healthy dose of medicine: Ford said she “doesn’t enjoy writing, but having written,” revealed that she keeps an away message in her email to have more control over her inbox and to reply to messages in a healthier fashion; Jerkins said that “black suffering is profitable” and realizes that online outlets often seek black writers to express their anger and pain about the state of America, but that we need more stories on black joy and happiness; and when Bassey Ikpi said that writing that she doesn’t like makes her write better, I realized that, yes! Writing that I deem trash is just as instrumental for me as writing that I love.

Tiphanie Yanique, Jacqueline Woodson and Jamia Wilson. Photo courtesy of Well Read Black Girl.

Writing is such a solitary, singular path. The act itself begs us to sit still, to be silent, to somehow extract our thoughts from brain to fingers to pen or laptop. It is a process we must execute alone. Reading asks us to exercise this similar discipline of oneness and patience. When we finally share our writing, or converse about the book we adore, we have to undo all of that loneliness and be vulnerable with another, without knowing if they will approve our writing or worse, hate the same book that undid the knots in our soul. It fascinates me that writing and reading require such solo movements, while the act of sharing it is public, unpredictable and nerve wracking.

And yet, the energy at the WRBG fest was open, willing, excited: whether the emotions were similar or the opinions different. Writing doesn’t have to be lonely, nor reading: it can be another place for us to build connections, to slowly lessen the insecurity or discomfort of sharing our deepest selves and most personal projects. After all, we are all storytellers—we have all the tools to share a great story within us, we just need to get it out there—remnants of the Fireside Chat between Rebecca Carroll and Tayari Jones that I will remind myself whenever I am stuck on a sentence, hesitate to send a story to a friend, or feeling trapped between the creases of a book.

Photo courtesy of Well Read Black Girl.

Photo courtesy of Well Read Black Girl.

We were meant to be there, to surrender to the graceful intensity of words, to remember that stories are within us: whether we write them down or reminisce on the persistence of a memory. Reader or writer, black woman, black daughter, black aunt—we carry generations of narratives within us. We are the most magical storytellers, were there to witness the first sentences the world scribbled like cracks in the earth. We write the past, the present and the future into one never ending novel.

At the vendor table, while I held an arm full of books to my chest, unsure of which to purchase, I started asking some women for advice—“Did you read this one?” “What did you think?” and I greedily offered my opinions as well, when I saw someone’s hand gloss over a novel or their eyes linger on a book cover with that familiar expression of hesitance and curiosity. It was like my elementary school book clubs all over again, but this time more mature and just as colorful.


This Is What Rotimi's 'Walk With Me' EP Listening Party Looked Like

The Nigerian singer held an intimate listening party on the eve of the release of his new EP, 'Walk With Me,' at Brooklyn's Okay Space.

Walk With Me, Rotimi's new and highly anticipated EP, dropped Friday—giving us a seven-track peek into who the singer and actor truly is sonically.

The night before, the Nigerian-American crooner gathered over 100 tastemakers and day-one supporters to Brooklyn's Okay Space—the shared gallery space between Okayplayer and OkayAfrica—for an intimate listening party celebrating the release, as well as his music video for "Love Riddim" which also dropped this week.

The night was simply a vibe—folks enjoyed libations and bites from The Suya Guy, with sounds by DJ Tunez. Rotimi opened the gathering up with a thoughtful prayer, with the music video reveal to follow. The singer then walked the audience through each track from Walk With Me, opening up about the creative process of how each track came to life.

Following, Rotimi engaged in an even more in-depth Q+A session with OkayAfrica's arts and culture editor, Antoinette Isama, where he touched on his experience touring with Wizkid back in 2011, his thoughts on the continued rise in popularity afrobeats is having in mainstream music, his hopes for the future and more. Tunez then ran the EP back when the party ensued, as the project is full of tracks that are worthy of being on repeat.

Listen to Walk With Me below, and be sure to take a look at photos from the listening party by Nerdscarf Photography.

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CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 16: Director Ladj Ly and Almamy Kanoute attend the photocall for "Les Miserables" during the 72nd annual Cannes Film Festival on May 16, 2019 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

How To Survive Cannes Film Festival As a Black Filmmaker

A film festival is intense by nature, but Cannes is a whirlwind.

Cannes Film Festival is one of the world's most prestigious gatherings bringing celebrities, filmmakers and actors claiming to celebrate the world's best film. Although the festival is way behind Sundance or the London Film Festival regarding diversity efforts, it remains the place to be if you're a filmmaker—especially a Black one.

I, myself, am a Black French filmmaker who was invited to Cannes as part of their scheme for young film lovers—3 Days in Cannes—open to anyone between the ages of 18 and 28. The scheme, which launched in 2018, requires young hopefuls to write a cover letter showing their passion for film. It ultimately gives young people the opportunity to discover the international selection of films showed at Cannes.

READ: Black Women Are the Future of French Cinema—When Will Cannes Catch Up?

Being in Cannes for the first time was a wonderful experience, but it can be tough to navigate as a Black filmmaker if you're not prepared for it. So, here are top tips.

1) Don't be a person of color—especially if you're Black (Just kidding. But still.)

Cannes is a beautiful, posh city in the south of France. It is part of the Provence Alpes Côte d'Azur, an administrative region where the far right party Rassemblement National (formally known as the National Front) hits record-breaking highs. Despite the fact that the festival is incredibly international, at times it can feel pretty racist, like a sunny, idyllic version of 1960s Alabama, where a party of more than one Black person gets routinely rejected from some clubs/bars/restaurants. On top of that, the staff and some of the security working at the festival can be incredibly aggressive and rude to you and in French. If you don't understand it, it's even more confusing.

To avoid it, try to stick to the official Cannes parties, or hang out in international hotels like the Miramar or the Radisson Blu Hotel—which are used to an international crowd. You can also stick to parties at the various country pavilions near the Film Market.

2) Stick to the African Pavilion

At the festival, most countries have their own pavilion. But because the festival believes Africa is a country, all 54 countries are gathered in one pavilion. This pavilion also includes the Caribbean, since Jamaica, as life would have it, is also an African country. In the African Pavilion, there was even talk on how to submit films if you're a filmmaker of Indian descent (despite the fact that India had its own pavilion).

You're not African? That's okay, no one cares. Pan-Africanism is still alive, I guess? Thankfully, out of the many pavilions, I did find the African Pavilion was the best one the most welcoming and whose schedule was the most open and clear. Because Cannes is such an exclusive festival, most of the parties and talks won't be communicated outside of those who are supposed to attend.

The African Pavilion, however, requires you to sign up to their newsletter. You then access their app where you can see the schedule, the talks to attend and the party they planned. The only downside is that they were understaffed, so some talks and events were cancelled last minute and with limited communication.

If you're a Black French filmmaker, speaking English is a must to get the most out of the pavilion. If you're an English-speaking filmmaker, try to make friends or meet people who speak French, as some of the talks/discussions might not have professional interpreters.

Also, go to the events organized by diversity in Cannes. Now, if you're a Black filmmaker who would rather not stay in the community for fear of being pigeonholed? Unless you're part of a talent scheme run by the festival...good luck getting others to support you.

3) Be ready to WAIT to see films and to party

On average, I waited 1 hour 40 minutes for each film I wanted to see in the official selection program. And I purposely chose not to see the famous ones like the Pedro Almodóvar or Quintin Tarantino's films. I also waited almost two hours to see a film from the Un certain regard selection and didn't get in—despite my pass. Now, Un certain regard has the most highly sought after films, even more so than the Competition, because they tend to select the best among indie international films. To get in for sure, you need a "Un certain regard" pass, so they need to invite you themselves. Even if you have a ticket at the counter, you might not get in unless you wait two hours (standing) or choose to attend the early screening or the late ones (and still, you should be ready to wait 1 hour for these).

You need a pass AND a ticket to see the films from the official selection and walk the red carpet up to the Grand Théatre Debussy. For the ACID, Director's fortnight, Semaine de la critique, and the Official selection's films not shown on the red carpet, you just need a pass—and to be ready to queue for at least 45 minutes.

I wouldn't recommend getting the Cannes cinephile pass as it has a low priority. I saw people waiting 2 hours to see a film and not getting in, while people with professional Black passes arriving 10 minutes before the screening walking past them. Because the Cannes festival is for professionals, they have, unfortunately, priority over members of the public.

Now, with the parties at Cannes, word on the street is that they are not as legendary as they used to be. Even if you get invited to one, you still need to wait an hour. It's not because they are over capacity, but rather they feel the need to pretend that they are. Unless you're a VVIP. And if you're one, why are you reading my article?

Anyway, despite not being as glamorous as they used to be, they remain so exclusive that if your name is not on the list, you might need to sell your first born to attend.

Thankfully, you can avoid it by being smart. When I arrived in Cannes, I was dead set on going to parties to network. Since almost all of them are invite only, I went to the parties at the pavilions, like the UK one, the American one (which costs 20 euros because Americans are always about their money) and the African Pavilion—that were kind enough to facilitate networking by introducing me to fellow filmmakers. God knows how talking to strangers and building new relationships can be difficult, and they made it easier.

4) Make friends with distributors or people working for the Mayor's office

The whole point of the festival is to sell films. Tickets are sparse for most people, so some badge holders wear their Sunday Best and stand outside the grand theater, holding signs asking for tickets. It makes sense that distributors are incredibly powerful, since they have the power to buy and sell films internationally. They are given way too many tickets that should be given to people waiting for hours outside.

So, if you make friends with distributors, they will always have a handful of spare tickets, even for the big ones that everyone wants to see. They also have tickets for the big parties as well. Press badge holders also have priority since they are responsible for a film good or bad media coverage. So they have a handful of tickets too.

People working for the Mayor's office also have tickets because they work closely together since the festival brings so much revenue to the city. Make friends with them, as well as film students and you'll get tickets. Don't know where to find them? Social media is your friend.

There is also another way to get tickets to films: the staff. For example, I couldn't get tickets to see Mati Diop's Atlantiques. I walked to the ticket counter and saw a Black woman with a great hairstyle. My instinct KNEW I had to tag along. I asked her if she needed help. She was looking for the same tickets. We asked someone at the ticket office if they could help. They said they had nothing. But one of the staff members saw us and said she could try to help us. She came back with two tickets and that's how I got to see the film. I got lucky and was cunning. So be nice with the staff, they can help.

5) Be ready for anything

A film festival is intense by nature, but Cannes is a whirlwind. Since you're spending so much time waiting and walking from venues to venues, you won't have time to eat unless you bring food you've made before hand. You're not allowed to eat inside the theaters and if you walk the red carpet, you food is thrown out beforehand. You can try buying food and drinks in the morning and finish it by the time you walk the red carpet. I'd advise buying it at a supermarket like the pricey Monoprix. Or the nearby McDonald's. It's cheap, warm, almost always open and a great way to socialize! Young filmmakers, as well as those from Britain and the States will come to McDonald's to eat since it's one of the places they know best. Why not strike up a convo there?

Also, don't forget your power bank. Your phone will get out of battery for sure, especially if you post content on social media.

Finally, despite its reputation, the festival is incredibly badly organized. You will be told that your badge is not allowed to watch films at other selections, or you would be given the wrong directions and will be lost in the croisette on your way to see an obscure film.

Chill, be ready to walk and use Google Maps. And enjoy!


Julie Adenuga: "There Are Young Artists In Nigeria Who Are Changing the World"

In an exclusive interview, the Beats 1 radio presenter opens up about her Nigerian heritage, documenting Homecoming in Lagos, and London being an important hub for afro-fusion sounds.

Julie Adenuga sits at the intersection of two continents.

As an affable tastemaker who transforms banal interviews into engaging conversations with some of the most famous artists in the world, Julie is leading the global dialogue on new music from her daily radio show, which broadcasts to over 100 countries.

The North London native of Nigerian descent hails from a musical family, her brothers are artists Skepta and JME, and has risen from the underground as a self-taught presenter on former pirate radio station Rinse FM to being one of three lead DJ's with her Beats 1 show on Apple Music.

A champion of homegrown talent in the UK and across the African diaspora, Julie is a purveyor of the afro-fusion genre, as is evident in her recent Homecoming documentary, which captured the fresh innovators from the Lagos music scene, and her DON't @ ME club nights, which has featured Ghetts, Lady Leshurr and The Compozers as residents.

Chosen as one of OkayAfrica's 100 Women celebrating extraordinary women from Africa and the diaspora, we speak with the presenter and broadcaster on owning her Nigerian identity, the responsibility of spreading afrobeats and why London is a key location for the genre.

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