Venerable Black Arts Festival Seeks To Empower Community

Aug 1, 2019

George Hogan first learned about the Harambee Ujima Black Arts Festival about 50 years ago. The festival, Pittsburgh’s first to celebrate African-American arts, was then only a couple years old. Hogan, then a high school junior, was recruited to help make posters advertising the event. 

Harambee Ujima Black Arts Festival: Fri., Aug. 2-Sun., Aug. 4. Kelly Street and North Homewood Avenue, Homewood

Today, Hogan is the festival’s long-time chair. He says the Homewood-based event’s mission remains the same: to promote economic empowerment in the black community through the arts.

In Swahili, “Harambee Ujima” translates roughly as “coming together collectively and taking responsibility for our lives,” he said.

“We’re trying to build an economy here,” said Hogan. “And that’s the major role of the whole festival, besides providing the entertainment, which is the culture.”

This year's incarnation of the festival takes place this week. The theme is "Breathing Life Into The Community."

Hogan himself is an artist and graphic designer. He’s in his seventh year as chair for the three-day street festival, which features a community parade, vendors, live entertainment and more.

The festival is presented by the nonprofit Harambee Ujima Black Art and Culture Association. It is centered at the intersection of Kelly Street and North Homewood Avenue, right around the corner from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s Homewood branch. Friday’s opening-day attractions include the parade, which features marching bands, drill teams -- and anyone else who wants to participate. “They say, ‘Come out and dress up!’” he said. “Dress up in your Caribbean or your African [outfits], and bring a tambourine!” There’s also a talent showcase for seniors.

On Saturday and Sunday, Harambee Ujima runs all day, with a fashion show, children’s activities, traditional dance and drumming performances, and more.

Admission is free, but economically, said Hogan, the heart of the festival is its vendors, offering everything from jewelry to handmade soap. “This is a trade show,” he said. “You want to buy black, you come to the black arts festival. Because we use art as an economic generator.”

He cites the long history of economic disenfranchisement of African Americans, including the burgeoning gentrification in Homewood and in nearby communities like East Liberty, where, rising property values are forcing out many longtime residents. (Hogan said his own family lost its home to eminent domain several years ago, forcing his move to Penn Hills.)

Hogan said he is preparing to step down as chair and make way for younger leaders. But he said the Harambee idea is spreading locally. In July came the Wilkinsburg Black Arts Festival. On Aug. 23 and 24, look for the Black Arts & Cultural Festival in East Liberty, organized by merchants in the community.

“When you say ‘Harambee,’ everybody says, ‘Yeah! Harambee!’ because that’s black people working collectively, taking responsibility, and people get excited about that, because we’re actually doing it,” he said.