Backed by local arts and social justice-oriented nonprofit Intelligent Mischief, Fete Forward—a two-week long arts festival with West Indian roots that is kicking off this Saturday—is pushing far beyond any boundaries of the typical cultural party experience in Boston. Defying the Hub’s trend toward bolstering traditional arts, and adding contemporary twists on long-held celebrations like Carnival, Fete Forward fills a cultural void by serving and supporting various marginalized communities.
The fest kicks off with LIME—a traditional West Indian gala complete with a family-style dinner plus music and a performance by the Dominican-born, Boston-bred vocalist, rapper, and producer REC-less. Organizers say the event is rooted in the ideas of connection and creativity for people of color, and to that end the remainder of the lineup includes a poetry and visual arts night, a daytime dance party, and a movie screening—all of which explore with themes of home, distance, change, and freedom.
According to planners, since planting its flag on Boston’s cultural map three years ago, Intelligent Mischief has used Fete Forward as a “cultural arm” to connect with a broader “Black Renaissance” that’s happening in tandem with protests against police brutality. They point out that while there has been much attention focused on the use of technology and social media as political armor, cultural forms of resistance are additionally powerful vehicles through which to voice resistance. For more about the festival and movement, I spoke with Fete Forward front man Terry Marshall:
MK: You maintain that there’s a larger local cultural movement to represent marginalized folks in the city. How does Fete Forward connect itself to this call?
TM: Being from Boston, there’s no other way to put this: there’s a suppression of [some] hip-hop and other events put on by people of color and those on the margins that has always gone on … there’s some internal conversations that go on among these folks and other artists who are like, “Yo, why this is so hard?” One of the things is that getting [an event] permit is very difficult. A lot of different organizations have discussed how there is this weird process in the city to obtain one … We have come to the conclusion that there’s a certain block that happens that prevents people of color [from] obtaining cultural capital. [The permit department] is another realm of power. Like with the AfrikCan festival that got cancelled last year—that scandal was really about permit policies that crush opportunities and block cultural capital.
MK: While Boston is certainly supportive of traditional arts, the Hub is not typically regarded for backing its contemporary, “cutting edge” culture. How might Fete Forward speak to this lack?
TM: Part of problem with the creative arts plan for Boston is that there is too much emphasis on traditional art. The city isn’t thinking too much of social practice art; they aren’t thinking of nightlife as part of art or indie festivals. There is still so much on the margins that doesn’t get voice or support. Like the Caribbean festival in Boston is one of the biggest festivals here but it’s hidden. We wanted to do something else to shift our images and amplify our identity in Boston so therefore we can redefine who Boston is and who Boston belongs to. A lot of communities of color feel like they aren’t a part of Boston—like Boston doesn’t love them, and that has to do with how Boston sees them. It’s also not just about images, but locking people [out of] economic opportunities too. So part of what we are doing is helping expand our voices of resistance … We want to make sure there are more opportunities to speak up as well as more economic opportunities … There are so few [cultural] spaces available for people of color, like there are so few business owners from communities of color that have liquor licenses. In turn, this serves to choke off culture and halt economic opportunities.
MK: In addition to local politics, you also see Fete Forward as connected to larger social causes like the recent protests resisting police brutality against black bodies. How does the festival align itself with these issues?
TM: We are explicitly connected to national movements against police brutality and discrimination through creative action, arts, and culture … there’s a lot of people using culture as resistance who are not getting a lot of attention, but it is happening …
Hashtags are shifting the national conversation and narrative around police brutality and black bodies. But culture, things like film festivals, online magazines, and indie fests are also part of this cultural arm … in-house we are calling this a cultural renaissance.
When people have been asleep for so long, there’s a cultural awakening that can happen (and is happening). Carnival has always represented that through dance and showing people how to embody freedom. Fete Forward is connecting that same thing back to the protests. We are creating new styles and events that are still connected to Carnival to show a vision of where we want to be—so we termed that Black Renaissance.
MK: Fete Forward celebrates West Indian cultural traditions—not just for art, but for society’s sake. How might West Indian cultural traditions serve as vehicles of social change or resistance today?
TM: Through carnival, people express what true freedom is like. There is this whole long history connected to social justice with Carnival … Most of it comes from French masquerade balls where slaves imitated colonialists and how they dressed up. This became a part of the celebration and tradition of slaves getting freedom. [The idea was that] if you give people one day of freedom, they can use that opportunity to organize and resist … this planted the seeds for other resistances down the line like gender-bending. It was a way to tell stories and shift narratives and embody what true freedom would look like,a place where there were no boundaries and people get to rewrite rules—that’s what Carnival really is. On the outside, it may look or seem like the West Indian version of spring break, but it’s really a lot deeper.