October 6, 2012 10:02:21 PM
Kamal Karriem was wearing the official shirt for the Seventh Avenue Heritage Festival on Saturday, the last day of the biggest free festival in Mississippi. It read, "Commemorating 30 Years...not just an event, but a tradition."
"Well actually," Karriem said, "we really just started continuing the tradition 30 years ago.
"What we are doing has been done here for longer than that."
In a previous life, the area that is North Seventh Avenue and the surrounding blocks was the home of one of the most prominent black entertainment and business districts in a staunchly segregated state. The Queen City Hotel, located on Seventh Avenue, played host to the likes of B.B. King, Fats Domino, Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday, a few from the long list of music royalty.
Many of these entertainers had to come to the area, not only to perform, but also to sleep, since most of the hotels at the time allowed whites only.
Karriem said that often times, in between set breaks, many of the world- renowned artists would perform for free outside the hotel for those who could not afford to buy a ticket.
Thirty years ago, the then 24-year-old Karriem, along with several friends and family members, including current Ward 5 Councilman Kabir Karriem, decided to rejuvenate that act.
"We just were trying to improve the quality of life in the area," Karriem said. "We saw it as a way to express culture and advocate unity through music."
It started in the back of a pick-up truck, with only about 75 people showing up, but today, the Seventh Avenue Heritage Festival has grown.
Rated by the Southeastern Tourism Society as one of the top 20 events to attend in the region, the festival now draws in excess of 18,000 according to Karriem, a staggering number considering the three or four two- lane roads that serve as the patron venue.
"Certain elements have to be involved. The sun has to set, there is just something about the warmth of the neighborhoods, the stage lights and the sound that carries through the air that just draws people," Karriem said.
No official estimates for attendance are available, but even with the scattered showers, the roads were packed, leaving little room to navigate, but apparently enough room to have a good time.
Grammy Award-winning acts are staples on the festival's lineup, and this year's headliners included Zapp, Tre Williams and Shirley Brown.
Zapp is best known for it's hit "Computer Love," and for their collaboration with Tupac on the 1990's chart-topper, "California."
Karriem credits his brother for lining up the big-name entertainment, which he says has dramatically increased attendance.
"I have to give my brother props," Karriem said. "He has developed a reputation in the entertainment industry for wanting quality acts and treating those acts right."
Funding for the festival comes from several sources, including from the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau as well as donations from both local businesses and private individuals.
But Karriem said the festival is looking to get some corporate sponsorship, too, something he thinks the festival has earned.
"We don't have the type of sponsorship the festival deserves," he said. "We hope to get more of that soon, because funding is uncertain the way we get it now. So many festivals have been duplicated in this area."
Despite funding challenges, Karriem said the festival will keep coming back, and will continue to be "the ultimate in Southern hospitality. Southern soul at its finest."