Little Africa launched its first in a series of arts events Wednesday January 20th at Snelling Café. The Where are my roots? Open Mic and dialogue attracted a crowd of around 50-60 people. The purpose of the event—- and the Little Africa arts series, is to utilize creative placemaking tools to raise awareness of the cultural and artistic footprint of African communities within the Twin Cities, specifically those in Little Africa.
Organized and curated by African Economic Development Solutions’ (AEDS) Arts Organizer and poet/singer-songwriter/artist Lula Saleh, the Where are my roots? Open mic explored themes of identity and place. Serving as the event’s emcee, Saleh introduced the event with words describing her nostalgia for home and breaking stereotypes with her multifaceted identities as a multiethnic African Minnesotan and black woman. Saleh was also the first performer of the open mic, reading from an essay she wrote which unpacked the complexities surround place and identity. After her performance Saleh opened up the floor with questions from the audience; after each open mic performance attendees had the opportunity to engage with the performing open mic artists.
“The purpose of these events is to enhance the economic vitality of African and black-owned businesses in the Little Africa business district.” said Saleh about the series. “Especially with being small businesses, you can’t succeed without a cultural footprint. So that’s the purpose of these bimonthly arts events; its to bring more attention to this community of African immigrant businesses and entrepreneurs, to support and celebrate them, while having much-needed conversations through the arts about culture, identity and race in the black and African Midway-St. Paul community.” she said.
During Wednesday’s event, established artists like Abdi Phenomenal and Ifrah Mansour participated during the open mic along side emerging artists who recited poems and speeches. State Representative Rena Moran was also in attendance, and spoke briefly about the importance of “telling our stories” and encouraged folks to increase their involvement with political processes outside of voting day. Tracey Kinney from the Saint Paul Riverfront Corporation also spoke during the event to discuss Little Africa’s and Riverfronts collaboration to improve the exterior facades of Little Africa businesses. Kinney also took the time to gather feedback from the audience on what could be done to improve the neighborhood’s vitality and visibility.
“I think the night went really well!” Said Saleh about the open mic, “ It was our first official kickoff for the Little Africa arts and dialogue series, and it took place at Snelling Cafe, an Eritrean-owned coffee shop and restaurant in the heart of Little Africa. In terms of having a full house, a full lineup, a diversity of voices, of cultural and ethnic identities present and even in artistic mediums that were presented, it was amazing. It was a family-friendly event so we had diversity in age range; our audience members were from children to people who I would identify as elders in our communities.”
The Little Africa Arts series is comprised of seven community arts and dialogue events taking place every other month during 2016. The series will be held within different Little Africa businesses and restaurants in St. Paul’s Hamline-Midway neighborhood. The next Little Africa Arts series will take place on March 8th. The series is made possible in part due to funding provided by Twin Cities’ Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC).