Arts & CultureArts Features

Durag Fest Serves as a Different Type of Juneteenth Celebration

Annual event serves as space for Black Charlotteans to be unapologetically themselves

a photo of people attending the Durag Fest at Camp North End in Charlotte, NC
Durag Fest attendees at Camp North End (Photo by Terry Suave)

Black people often lack spaces created by and for them. When they try to include themselves in existing spaces, society tells them to make their own, and often when they make their own, they’re accused of gatekeeping or exclusivity for not being more welcoming to whites. 

It is in this context that Charlotte artist Dammit Wesley has over the years cultivated the Durag Festival into a true Black space for Charlotteans.

The Durag Festival, an annual celebration that helps commemorate Juneteenth in a way that not many other observations of the holiday do, will be held June 21-22 at BlkMrktCLT in Camp North End, where Wesley and other artists such as Will Jenkins and Carla Aaron-Lopez hold space for Black artists year-round. 

Wesley launched the festival with the help of co-founder and CEO Lisa Michelle, with a team of 13 people that commit to roles outside of their 9-to-5 jobs to make Durag Fest happen, including stage director DreQuan Carter, who secures the lineup of local performers; and programming director Briell McCoy, who oversees the festival’s unique programs, including this year’s addition of a Durag Fest Expo to be held on June 21 at Goodyear Arts.

It’s a festival where all types of people can attend and rock their respective cultural headwear, but Black people in particular can revel in their culture without judgment. Attendees can expect food, music, wave checks and other challenges adding to the good vibes at Camp North End in late June. 

Wesley said he settled on the durag as a representation of Black culture because of its ubiquitousness in Black peoples’ lives. Many, if not all, Black people have owned or come into contact with a durag at some point in their lives.

As he’s been known to do with his art, Wesley aimed to switch the narrative around the stigmatized symbol the durag had become. 

“The durag was chosen specifically as one of the relics for this festival because of the negative connotations that it has against it,” he said. “People are free to wear whatever they want, and they’re also heavily encouraged to make something new.”

Attendees are spotted each year wearing a range of headpieces ranging from durags to wave caps to bonnets to head wraps. Not only do they wear these garments, they often take them to the next level. 

“Everything from full-body durags, trains, bedazzled bonnets, we have seen LED headwraps in the past few years,” he said. “The tagline is the ‘Met Gala of Durags,’ and some people take that as a personal challenge.”

a portrait of girls smiling while attending Durag Fest
Durag Fest is entering its sixth year. (Photo by CNCooper Photography)

Headwear is not limited to durags, headwraps, or the like. In the past, there have been other cultural additions, such as South Asian attendees who wore their traditional headwear. They’re all welcome because of what all of these represent from a cultural perspective: protest and preservation.

“We call it a festival, but I view it more as a protest,” Wesley said. “Any opportunity I have to create a space where Black joy can exist in opposition to white supremacy, I’m always here for it.”

What started as a smallish festival (/protest) that hosted around 1,200 people in 2018 has over time blown up into the festival folks know today, with upwards of 20,000 people expected to show up, sometimes traveling long distances to be a part of the experience. 

“I just wanted to have a really wild art exhibit based around Black culture,” he said. “That was essentially the first Durag Fest in 2018. It was just an art exhibition that really got out of hand.”

Going viral

Wesley hosted smaller, infrequent Juneteenth celebrations prior to the Durag Festival, but none of them were near the caliber of this event, which has made national headlines and gone viral countless times, as the creative nature of the custom-made durags lends itself to social media sharing. 

The event has appeared in national publications such as Essence, Blavity, and Travel Noire.

Wesley said he often attended Juneteenth celebrations beyond the ones he hosted, but always felt something was missing.

“I was always disappointed when I went to more West African-focused Juneteenth festivals and traditions and celebrations,” he said. “It never really felt like a celebration. It just never felt right to me.”

With his vision to create an experience better aimed at Black American culture, the Durag Festival was born. Wesley said he didn’t plan too intensely for the first event in 2018.

Prior to the festival, he had been doing other art events, but head count for those often topped out at 300 people. He took his experience planning the smaller events and put it toward the Durag Festival, putting everything together within five weeks.

a portrait of an attendee wearing a red durag while holding a durag pokémon card
Durag Pokémon card (Photo by Sancho Smalls)

In that short time, the anticipated number of 300 people, considering that was what his events were used to, grew to 1,200 people.

“[That] was a lot for us, considering we didn’t have the infrastructure to host that many people,” he said. “But social media caught wind of it, and it just grew from there into its own thing. I feel like we just realized that there was a necessity for more culturally relevant events like this that actually celebrate you just being Black and free. That’s really what it came down to.”

Wesley has noticed how, over the years, people have begun showing up from different cities along the East Coast. 

“In six years, it’s grown a lot, actually,” he said. “This is still very much a Charlotte event. It still feels very Charlotte. [But we’ve had] people from New Jersey, DC, Florida, Canada. So, slowly but surely, we are reaching a more national audience with the event.”

He also said celebrities like Clay from Netflix’s Love is Blind and nationally renowned comedian Ryan Davis have attended the event in the past. 

“It meant a lot for a lot of those types of people to take time out of the day to come be a part of this thing,” he said. “I really hope that continues. I hope this is a festival where celebrities or influencers or people of a particular stature feel comfortable coming and not having to perform. It should always be a day off for Black people, especially our entertainers. I feel like we have to perform enough at work as is. So anytime you can just come out and just be, I’ll support it.”

The history of Juneteenth

Juneteenth is a commemoration of when the news of emancipation reached those who were believed to be the last Black people still enslaved. 

While the Emancipation Proclamation occurred on Jan. 1, 1863, news didn’t reach enslaved Black people in Texas until June 19, 1865, over two years later. 

Juneteenth became a federal holiday in 2021 and was the first holiday to obtain federal observance since Martin Luther King Jr. Day obtained it in 1983. 

The day wasn’t always nationally recognized as a holiday, federally or otherwise. In fact, it was a holiday that was often pretty obscure, which is almost as ironic as it is tragic. Now that it’s a federally recognized holiday, ways to celebrate and brand it differ, but ultimately there’s no nationally recognized way to celebrate the holiday.

Wesley saw this as an opportunity to fill a void. He pointed out that Christmas, Fourth of July, St. Patrick’s Day, and many other American holidays all have a specific theme, with traditions and regalia that allow people to fully take part and invest in celebrating them, but that’s missing from Juneteenth observations.

Showing out at Durag Fest. (Photo by CNCooper Photography)

“It’s specific things you say, it’s specific ways you act on these days,” he said. “There are legitimate economies built around all of these holidays. When it came to Juneteenth, all those things were missing. No costume, no specific cultural acts, phrases, things that would be done said there’s no real economy that benefits African-Americans during their one holiday.”

“I just viewed it as an opportunity to attach some costumes and some practice behaviors for the holiday that hasn’t been observed nationally in this way,” he continued. 

He added that there are festivals in places like Galveston, Texas, where Juneteenth celebrations originated, but he wanted to further add to what already exists.

While celebrations of Black people and culture have a long way to go by many peoples’ standards, the Durag Fest is viewed as a step in the right direction by many, but Wesley thinks more is needed to make that happen. 

“I think there needs to be more events like Durag Fest that push for us to actually benefit from this holiday,” he said. “But pageantry is needed to make that happen.”

It’s hard to ignore the backlash the holiday tends to get from conservatives, but for Wesley, this just further solidifies the need for such a celebration. 

He had always planned it as a protest, after all. 

“The idea of a Durag Fest or just a durag in general is essentially like you preserving your hair,” he said. “For us, our hair is our culture. It’s our history, and it’s very important to us. For me, the durag is just like a symbol of preservation. That’s what we’re trying to maintain and keep. Being a Black person in America, African-American, in general, there’s so many things that we come up with and we create. As soon as we put those ideas out into the world, they’re no longer ours. The durag stands for a lot of things. Reclamation is one of them.

“The Durag is just Black,” he continued. “It’s just the Blackest thing. When you think of Black culture, you think of things that have been stolen, right? Time again, people try to claim that durag and they fail miserably. The durag just feels like the one Black artifact that white people haven’t figured out how to steal or how to properly assimilate into their culture. It’s one of the few things that we still have standing.”

Wesley said he hopes that, in addition to a good time and having a space to be unequivocally Black, people leave Durag Fest with some new piece of education. 

a portrait of people smiling while taking a selfie
Enjoying the vibes at Durag Fest (Photo by CNCOoper Photography)

“I feel that the best learning experience is a lived one,” he said. “We are trying different things with expos, having lineups of speakers come in and talk about the importance of DEI in the workplace and social media, and a plethora of skills and buzzwords that will essentially help you to elevate yourself up in the culture ladder. 

“But for me, personally, culturally, I just think it’s important that we see ourselves as valuable, we see ourselves as beautiful, we see ourselves as artists at heart,” Wesley continued. “Being able to put yourself in a space where there are like-minded people like you, being able to build community and make friends with others and share ideas is what’s most important for me.”

Another important narrative that Wesley wants to push through Durag Fest is that Black people are not a monolith. Black people of all walks of life come to the festival, and Wesley said it would be a great opportunity for people to see how different Black people are. Black people from the elderly to children enjoy a good time at the festival.

Read more: Durag Fest Is Black People’s Chance to Capitalize on Culture (2019)

“Everything from the video vixen to the all-natural Manuka Honey sister,” he said. “We have seen the cowboys, basketball players, brothers with gold teeth, and our blerds from the Hidden Leaf village who have on their Naruto headbands. It’s all here.”

From goth to gay people, Wesley has seen them all pass through Durag Fest and enjoy themselves, and that’s what it’s all about. 

“None of these things matter because we’re all Black and we’re all celebrating each other,” he said. “People’s divisions don’t matter at this festival, okay? We’re all Black. We’re all here to celebrate each other. I think that’s the one thing that people can learn from each other: We’re all different.” 

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