Dana Manyothane was in high school when her uncles, Perry Ayers and Oye Oginga, created the Colorado Black Arts Festival 29 years ago. It was a family affair. Her mother, Florence Ayers, helped. Manyothane even helped to coordinate some of the performance stages in the early years. She eventually left for college, earned a biology degree, married and started a family, moved out of state and maintained a teaching career.

A week prior to the 2010 festival she returned to Denver and picked up where she left off, filling in where needed. In 2013 she stepped in as acting executive director. Now, her four children – ages 12, 10, nine and eight – are watching her as she carries on the legacy that she hopes they will also carry on someday.

The 29th Annual Colorado Black Arts Festival takes place at Denver’s City Park West on July 10-12, and is the fifth largest event of its kind in the United States, attracting more than 54,000 people. It is open to the entire Colorado community and admission is free.

This year’s theme, “Rock Steady,” was chosen to capture the essence of the festival, which has withstood the test of time to ensure that the preservation of rich cultural history is passed on from generation to generation.

Manyothane said, “Sometimes it’s overwhelming – so much to do.” She handles the nuts and bolts of organizing a festival, for example getting the city permits, scheduling the toilet deliveries, and developing and maintaining working relationships with sponsors.

Tying up administrative loose ends is worth it for her to see the end result. “I’m out there looking at family, stages everywhere, and people having a good time with smiles on their face,” she added.

But there are hurdles that she and the rest of the festival core have been working to overcome as it relates to recapturing the spirit of the yesteryears. They want to find the answer to the question: “How do we get those who stopped coming to come back?”

She and Ayers can see where some of the glory has been lost and where they need to be more consistent and present a more powerful showing. That includes trading out the four Ts for the four Fs. “We’re getting away from the trinkets, turkey legs, tents and t-shirts and adding more fun, fine art, food and festivities,” said Ayers, who doesn’t want it to become just a festival.

“Anybody can do a festival. It’s just another event,” said Ayers. “But if there is no heart there, you’re just going through the motions. As an art festival, we have to get back to the real deal.” The real deal includes drum and drill teams, themed floats in the parade, cultural exchange activities with the African community. “This year, we are paying more attention to detail.”

One detail is making sure festival participants understand the mission — to raise the level of appreciation for the role that Black arts and culture play in the development and well-being of the community. It means providing a medium for local Black talent in the areas of visual and performing arts, educating to stimulate cultural awareness and cultivating harmony, pride and self-esteem and unity.

Singer Sheryl Renee, part of the festival since its third year, understands the mission. She has participated as an artist and co-producer, but mostly she’s come to just experience the festival. This year she kicks off her Rocky Mountain Love tour at the festival.

“Honestly, the older I get the more I appreciate and embrace my Black culture,” said Sheryl Renee, the festival’s closing act. “People need the education and ethnic offerings that come with this type of community event.”

In recent years, Ayers has said that he wants to pass the baton to a younger generation of leaders. His niece is a start, but she believes the chances of him stepping away are slim. “Perry’s the glue. He can’t pull back. He’s still our creative force. He is the reason I get to my computer every day and work.”

She concurred with him on how best to move forward. “We really want to pull up from younger ranks and include people with passion for the arts,” she said.

Festival organizers also want to expand beyond the festival. In 2009, the Denver Black Arts Festival changed its name to Colorado Celebration of African American Arts and Culture, dba Colorado Black Arts Festival, an appropriate name in light of the state-wide reach of the event. 

“In the near future, we want to develop so that festival is only one of the many projects under our banner,” said Manyothane.

Festival Attractions Feature Something for Everyone

The 2015 Colorado Black Arts Festival staff and volunteers are prepared to present a visual feast of color, movement and pageantry. Two dynamic stages will present music that includes jazz, blues, soul, gospel, hip-hop, reggae, world beat, and traditional African. Dance performances will include African drum and dance, modern, praise and interpretive dance. Noted African American visual artists as well as emerging artists will showcase their work. Attractions include:

The African American Visual Arts Avenue will be most prominent for festival attendees to enjoy and purchase artwork of professional and rising artists. Noted elite and seasoned African American visual artists will exhibit their finest original works. An all media show will include paintings, oils, acrylics and watercolors, drawings, etchings, pen, ink, charcoal and silk screen. Other media includes collage, photography, glass, fiber, wood carvings, jewelry, ceramics and sculpture.  

The Art Garden will be throughout the festival grounds this year. 

The Boogaloo Celebration Parade’s theme for 2015 is “Rock-Step-Steady.” This year’s parade will feature the Las Vegas High Steppers form Nevada and a drum and drill team from Omaha, Nebraska. The parade route spans 22nd Avenue between Downing and York Streets. Parade participants include celebrity guests, local politicians, sports and media personalities.

A vintage Car Show will feature community car clubs displaying their treasured and well-preserved hot-rods and cars for festival goers to enjoy and discuss with the owners.

The F. Cosmo Harris Gospel Stage is a popular festival venue that allows the audience to witness the tradition and art of gospel music. Saturday’s stage will feature a tribute to Denver’s media legend, F. Cosmo Harris, for whom the Gospel Stage is named, musical education on gospel music through history, and a Gospel Theatre presentation. 

The Food Court will feature delicious foods from the American South, the African continent, the Caribbean, Asia and European nation’s at affordable prices.

The Health Highway Pavilion, features healthcare professionals.

The House II House: “Time to Feel the Rhythm” program features nine of the most soulful House Deejays in the Denver area.

The Joda Village Compound is a setting reminiscent of a small Nigerian village. This venue was named in honor of Adetunji Joda, a teacher, master drummer and dancer who taught traditional Nigerian African Dance and Drum in Denver for more than 40 years. The Joda Village showcases creative interpretations of capoeira, Caribbean and African dance, spoken word, African roots music, and African drumming.

The Kuumba Stage is the main creativity performing arts stage that features blues, and rhythm and blues on Saturday and jazz on Sunday. Many talented local bands and vocalist will also grace the stage to make this a dynamic weekend of performing arts. 

The Louise Duncan Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in the Arts is a community service based award presented to African-Americans in the Colorado community, whose talents and contributions have made a great impression and difference. Named for the first recipient, the award has become a treasured tradition of the CBAF. This year’s honoree is Bennie L. Williams, a musician, educator and founder of Spiritual Voices. The award ceremony is Sunday, July 12, at 5:30 p.m. on the Kuumba stage.