The African Descent Festival has a new home this year, and that thrills executive director Yasin Kiraga for a couple of reasons. One is the setting, with the August 12 to 13 event having moved from Thornton Park on Main Street to the Vancouver’s fabled English Bay.
But even more than its scenic beauty, what really has him excited about the site is its historical importance. Hogan’s Alley in Strathcona has long been considered the first heart of Vancouver’s Black community, but Kiraga notes that English Bay also looms large when you look back over time—that having everything to do with one of its most famous personalities.
In 1885, Trinidad-born Joseph Seraphim Fortes arrived in Vancouver by boat from Liverpool. The son of a father who had full African blood, the 22-year-old quickly gravitated to English Bay, living on the beach in a tent during his early summers on the coast, and later moving to a shore-side cottage. A decorated swimmer, Fortes became Vancouver’s first official lifeguard, making him a fixture on the site where this year’s African Descent Festival will take place.
“He became the supervisor of all the lifeguards, and the swimming trainer,” Kiraga says. “He was loved by everybody, including families in Vancouver. When kids went to the beach they were told, ‘Make sure that you are standing with Joe.’ Joe Fortes was there for each and every person in Vancouver. His legacy was that he knew that people needed to gather and have fun.”
Now in its ninth year, the African Descent Festival was started with a mission to celebrate African arts and culture in Vancouver. While the festival aims to attract new Lower Mainland immigrants and refugees of African heritage, everyone is welcome, with the goal of promoting unity and inclusivity.
This year’s fest features performances by headliners Eddy Kenzo and the Ghetto Kids, as well as workshops, cultural exhibits, speeches, a fashion show, and food vendors.
Hailing from Masaka, Uganda, Kenzo is a Grammy-nominated Afropop singer who’s released four albums over the course of his career, including his latest Made In Africa.
Ghetto Kids started out in 2014 as a dance troupe and musical project of children from the slums of Katwe in Kampala, Uganda. Over the past decade the group has been championed by the likes of P. Diddy and Nicki Minaj, featured in videos by multi-platinum artists such as French Montana, and crashed the mainstream with appearances on Britain’s Got Talent and at the World Cup 2022 in Qatar.
The African Descent Festival is free to the public, but donations are welcome. Kiraga hopes there are takeaways from the multi-day celebration, starting with a deepened understanding of the Black community and a rejuvenation of its history.
“So many people think that the African community in Vancouver is new,” he offers. “As you can see, Joe Fortes arrived in Vancouver when, really, the city didn’t exist at all—back when it was known simply as Granville. We want people to know the great heritage and history of the Black community in Vancouver through music and dance and food.”
The event has also been on the frontlines, he continues: “A pioneer of working to have a Black culture centre in Vancouver. That has been a major call each year. We need a space for gathering. We have come back to our home of English Bay this year, but we didn’t do it alone. English Bay has a history for the Black people. We’ve been welcomed back by the city. And this is only the beginning.”
When: August 12 to 13
Where: English Bay