Behind the Scenes with Africa Oye

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Africa Oye 2014 - copyright Mark McNulty

We are always looking for new projects for our Student Ambassadors to work on. And this is what our Ambassador, and this week's guest blogger, Laila Waraich has been working on most recently:

As part of my participation in the Ambassadors programme at the International Slavery Museum, I recently had the opportunity to meet with Dave McTague, part of the team at the Africa Oyé festival. Although originally I had wanted to meet Dave to find out about the impact of Africa Oyé for a feature in an educational card game we are producing, 'Civil Rights and Freedom Fights,' I ended up discovering much more than I expected about the intricacies of producing an event like this, and it's great cultural importance in Liverpool.

Africa Oyé is an annual African music and culture event held in Sefton Park, Liverpool. The festival started in 1992 as a series of gigs spread out over several venues. Legend has it that the founder, Kenny Murray, chose Liverpool for his festival at random, by sticking a pin in a map. Liverpool is an incredibly appropriate city to host a celebration of African culture, with the oldest Black community in Europe as well as the shadow of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, which funded the growth of the city. Dave also stressed the popularity of the festival amongst locals:

"No event is loved in the way Oyé is loved,"

This is making us hungry! Oye food - copyright Mark McNulty

The main field that has been used in Sefton Park since the early 2000s is nearing capacity. . Another of the founders' aims was to present a more positive representation of Africa than that of poverty and war which is common in mainstream media. Instead the event gives us an inspiring taste of the richness of African culture.

Dave McTague describes himself as one of Oye’s core team working closely with Paul Duhaney, the artistic director of the festival. Working within a small team, his title is ‘Head of Marketing and Partnerships’, but his role is varied; encompassing funding bids, planning of the event, marketing, data collection and social media management. I was specifically interested in the work Dave has been doing recently to increase the accessibility of the festival. Through audience analysis the team can work out which demographics are attending, and which aren't. The data can then be used to make positive changes, or receive funding from a certain group. For example increasing accessibility for members of the disabled community by BSL signing the performances on the main stage, and creating specific viewing platforms and an access tent. Audience analysis has also helped the festival adapt to change. In the last fifteen years, the PR strategies needed to attract young people and students have moved on, with social media now playing a vital role. I hadn't realised the amount of behind-the-scenes social planning required to keep an event like this diverse and effective.

Music is also central to Dave's work. As well as running his own record label, Mellowtone, he attends the WOMEX Conference to aid in sourcing acts for the festival. Oyé's appeal has widened recently as music from across the African diaspora, especially Afrobeat, has come to the forefront of modern pop. As well as a range of global acts performing a mixture of traditional and current music, there is a diverse selection of carefully-curated stalls and activities on offer every year. Dave was really passionate about the family friendly atmosphere at the festival, noting that unusually for a festival of this size, people are generally well-behaved, and the community tends to ‘self-police’. Local businesses like Movema provide dance workshops in the Oyé Active Zone, while there are children's events like the LFC skills classes as well as a range of African and world food stalls.

There is also an opportunity for education; the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine ran a workshop where children were encouraged to make pipe-cleaner mosquitoes to spread malaria awareness. Even the fun fair is local, with multiple generations of the same family often working together. Through the music, dance, food and other stalls available, the organisers have created a space that attracts a diverse mix of locals and visitors from every part of society. Oyé is an event that it is fun to be at, but I think it can also increase cultural understanding in the community. Rather than formal education, it is an interactive, enjoyable experience that can still challenge stereotypes of Africa and African people and have a positive impact on race relations in the city.