Philadelphia’s Odunde Festival returns after two-year hiatus

Thousands packed the west end of South Street and Grays Ferry Avenue Sunday afternoon for the annual Odunde Festival.

File photo: Thousands packed the west end of South Street and Grays Ferry Avenue in June 2019 for the annual Odunde Festival. (Brad Larrison/WHYY)

After a two-year hiatus due to COVID-19, the Odunde Festival — one of America’s biggest street festivals celebrating African American culture — is returning to South Philadelphia for a week of festivities.

“Odunde will cover 15 city blocks, have two stages of live entertainment, and up to a half-million people come to Odunde,” said festival CEO Oshunbumi Fernandez-West at a press conference on Tuesday announcing the event’s return. “Everyone is invited to Odunde. Odunde is for everyone.”

Fernandez-West’s mother, activist Lois Fernandez, helped found Odunde Festival in 1975, drawing from the new year’s traditions of Nigeria’s Yoruba people. The first Odunde Festival was carried out with $100 in neighborhood donations.

Now — nearly 50 years later — Odunde has become a cultural fixture for Philadelphia, drawing upwards of 400,000 people, and boasting an economic impact of $28 million.

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“On June 12th, visitors and residents of all ages will be able to enjoy hundreds of arts and crafts activities, food vendors and live entertainment,” said Mayor Jim Kenney, a long-time supporter of Odunde. “This festival also continues to support our city’s diverse small business community who offer everything from handwoven baskets to T-shirts, jewelry, and wonderful artwork.”

Festivities will begin on June 8 with an evening poetry slam, followed over the next days by an “African head-wrapping and food-tasting soiree,” an African business roundtable, and a Caribbean business roundtable.

The main event kicks off on June 12 with a procession from 23rd St. and South St. to the Schuylkill River, where offerings of fruit and flowers are made to Oshun, the Yoruba goddess of the river. The festival itself will stretch across 15 city blocks, surrounding 23rd and South streets, and feature a mix of food, live entertainment, and arts-and-crafts vendors.

“It’s a very culturally diverse event, people from all across the city of Philadelphia,” said City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, who grew up attending Odunde. “We’ve never had any acts of violence, of any type of crazy-type nonsense. It’s always just a good time.”

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Sheriff Rochelle Bilal echoed Johnson’s confidence.

“Bring your family, bring your children, bring everybody — just have a good time,” she said. “Just note it’ll be the safest place in the city when you come down here that week.”

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