Kuumba Fest spotlights African-American culture, arts, cuisine and more

Kuumba Fest artistic director Dajahn Blevins (fourth from left) walks his cast through a scene during rehearsal at San Diego Rep.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Theme is “Black2Connected” for the 28th edition of this bustling event


It has been nearly three decades since the first, humble one-day edition of the now-bustling Kuumba Fest unfolded at San Diego Repertory Theatre downtown.

And yet this annual celebration of African-American art and culture — which opens a three-day run Friday at the Rep — might be more timely than ever, in the estimation of Ahmed Dents.

“There’s a collective sense right now in San Diego’s African-American community — whether it’s in business or entertainment or media — of really coming together,” says Dents, the Rep’s development coordinator and a key organizer of the event. “Of showing the rest of San Diego: We’re here, and this is what we do.”

That sense of a renewed push toward unity is reflected in the theme for this 28th edition of Kuumba Fest: “Black2Connected.”

The term reflects a desire “to bring together everybody from every corner of San Diego who identifies as African-American,” says Dents, who’s also a Smooth Jazz KIFM on-air personality. “We want to come back and be connected, not only to ourselves but to San Diego at large.”

The festival, which Dents says is expected to draw upward of 1,000 people, also draws urgency from the recent focus on race in politics.

“I think if you look in the news right now, you see (discussion of), ‘Who’s got the black vote?,’” says Dents. But “I think there has become an understanding that, hey, we’re not a monolith. We’re not all the same. We’re not a community that you can just put in a box and check.”

Some of the programming in the wide-ranging festival — which includes everything from play readings to panel discussions to comedy performances to an ongoing marketplace of African-American crafts — even touches on specific topics in the news.

Dents points to a Saturday screening of a film called “Natural Hair,” with a panel discussion afterward.

“People are actually being fired from work or are not able to graduate (from school) because of the texture of their hair,” says Dents, referring to recent cases involving an anchorwoman in Mississippi and a teen-ager in Texas. “So it’s very timely.”

Dajahn Blevins directs the cast during a Kuumba Fest dress rehearsal.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Kuumba Fest, which takes its name from the Swahili word for creativity, was founded in 1993 by Dajahn Blevins, who remains its artistic director; he’s also now the Fourth District’s representative to the San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture.

The event is run by San Diego Urban Warriors and the Rep’s African American Advisory Council (of which Dents is a member).

Blevins launched the festival, Dents notes, as a way to teach African-American children “to move in the circles of the arts, to teach them how to be actors and professionals. To teach them to come out of whatever bad circumstances they were in or whatever bad behavior they had (engaged in).

“One of the principles he still has is that whatever show they’re in, they have to physically sell tickets. Not get online, but take stacks of tickets and sell them in person.”

The idea is to encourage the youngsters to “work on their presentation, to work on how they sell themselves and present themselves and present a product.

“That’s where this whole thing started. And it’s still that to this day.”

28th Annual Kuumba Fest

When: Feb. 28 to March 1 (see schedule for specific event dates/times)

Where: San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown.

Tickets: Single event tickets, $5-$25; festival pass, $115 plus fees (includes access to all activities and priority seating for all ticketed events)

Phone: (619) 544-1000


Kuumba Fest artistic chief Dajahn Blevins runs through a scene at San Diego Rep.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Zooming in on Kuumba

A sampling of highlights during the 2020 Kuumba Fest:

Night of Positive Images, 5 p.m. Friday: The festival’s first night includes the opening of the African Market Place (which will be in operation all weekend), the traditional Parade of Ancestors, and a presentation of the Ginger Galloway play “The Lynching of a Black Woman,” adapted and directed by the longtime San Diego theater pro Calvin Manson.

Kuumba Kidz, 1 p.m. Saturday: Young performers share African culture, history and heritage in this live production.

Taste of Soul, 5 p.m. Saturday: A “friendly cooking competition” that will spotlight top local chefs and black-owned eateries. (Food will also be available throughout the fest.)

“Natural Hair,” 6 p.m. Saturday. Makena Hayes-Gargonnu hosts a screening of the documentary that explores the relationship between black women in America and their hair. A panel discussion will follow.

“Late Nite Live,” 9 p.m. Saturday: The Rep’s Ahmed Dents calls this talent showcase “the crown jewel” of festival entertainment. It’s patterned after the famous amateur night at the Apollo Theater in Harlem; as Dents puts it, “the crowd will either cheer you into the finals or boo you offstage.”

Gospel Celebration, 4 p.m. Sunday: This event promises “hand-clapping, foot-stomping, spiritually moving music.”