Big plans for this year's African American Festival

Arts and CultureHealthFitnessEntertainmentMusicMichelle ObamaBeyonce

Shelonda Stokes has a vision for this year's African American Festival — and it's a whopper.

In her second year producing the festival, she's already excited about one of its new features: a fitness-craving flashmob, with enough people to earn a place in the Guinness Book of World Records, bopping and gyrating to the tune of Beyonce singing "Move Your Body." That part's all planned and ready to go.

Now here's the dream part: One of those dancers leading the way is first lady Michelle Obama.

"We've asked everybody see what they can do to get her here," she said. "We haven't gotten a yes, but haven't gotten a no, either."

Yes, getting the first lady to bring her campaign against childhood obesity to Baltimore would be huge. But even without her, this year's musical lineup, which includes Musiq Soulchild, Chante Moore, Salt-N-Pepa and Kurtis Blow, should be enough to energize the hundreds of thousands expected to make their way to the 16-acre fairgrounds, set up on the parking lot between M&T Bank Stadium and Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Fire Department officials estimated last year's crowd at 540,000, Stokes said.

"For this community, this festival is truly a celebration of our life, our music and our culture," she said. And the diverse nature of that culture, with so many groups adding something to the mix, makes a festival like this even more of a cause for celebration.

"Within the African-American community, quite often you have people who will say, 'We're Africans in America,' or people who will say, 'We're Africans.' There are so many different aspects of the African-American people — to have a celebration of them means that we're kind of pulling all of those strands together. This is an opportunity for all of us to really show and celebrate together."

The African-American Festival, a successor to the fabled City Fair of old, has been a Baltimore mainstay for 34 years. This year's edition continues its latter-day tradition of strong musical lineups, with Saturday devoted to R&B and Sunday to "The Legends of Hip-Hop."

Saturday's headliners include Musiq Soulchild, Chante Moore and Elle Varner, while Sunday's lineup features Salt-N-Pepa, MC Lyte, Big Daddy Kane, Slick Rick and Kurtis Blow. Other acts will be taking to the festival's three stages throughout the weekend, Stokes promises.

"Everybody wants to perform at this festival," she said. "Everybody wants to get in, and there's only so much space."

But as powerful as the music promises to be, Stokes said she's most excited by several new features of this year's festival, including areas devoted to fashion, fitness and even a Ferris wheel.

The festival's Fashion Alley will feature boutiques devoted to hair and skin care, with experts on hand to offer tips — "a chance for people to come down and learn how," Stokes said. For those who like to look and dream, the festival's first-ever fashion show is set for 6 p.m. Saturday on the main stage.

Also new this year is the "Get Moving" complex. Even if Stokes' dream fizzles and the first lady doesn't make an appearance, plenty of other people will. And with activities that include rock climbing and basketball, they should all get quite a workout.

The festival will also feature a Morgan State University-sponsored "Be What I Want To Be" section, with career guidance and interviews with prospective employers, as well as health testing.

Stokes sounds especially excited about the expanded kids' area, which will include a bobsled ride and that 50-foot Ferris wheel.

"We want to bring back all of those rides that we think about from the days of the old City Fair," she said.

Of course, there's exciting, and then there's exciting. Sure, the Ferris wheel is cool, but Stokes really becomes animated at the prospect of Michelle Obama showing up. In the deluxe version of Stokes' dream, even Beyonce herself makes an appearance.

"Oh man, then we'd shut down Baltimore," she said with a hearty laugh. "Then we probably couldn't produce the festival anymore, because there's no way we could ever top that."

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

If you go

Baltimore's African American Festival runs Saturday and Sunday in the parking lot between M&T Bank Stadium and Oriole Park at Camden Yards, at 1101 Russell St. Hours are noon to 10 p.m. Saturday, noon to 9 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free. Information: africanamericanfestival.net.

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