Bringing good energy and family fun, the popular corridors around South Street overflowed with a Black Philly tradition that is almost 50 years old.
The real heart of Philadelphia peaked through heavy clouds on early Sunday morning. Gatherers, many of them dressed in various textiles of white with hints of orange and yellow, walked in a procession to the Schuylkill River. A festive, yet intense parade with drums and masqueraders, community members carried various colors of flowers, to make their treasured offerings to the Yoruba deity, Ọṣun.
From a careful, but close distance, the Fruit of Islam security, though Muslim, provided protection for the parade-goers. The gesture showed the spiritual biodiversity of Philadelphia’s Black community, and even more, an amplified safety protocol from both private contractors and local law enforcement. Between the consistent drizzle and the solemnity of the participants, the forecast seemed uncertain, but became clearer with each moment.
“It rained all morning until everyone went to the water to pray . . . after that, not a raindrop for the rest of the day,” reported local artist Nomorepicz. His assessment was on point.
After ongoing prayers, songs and customary solemn rites, attendees began tossing flowers, fruits, honey, even gin and notes of prayers and requests into the major Philly waterway. Gradually, the bilious clouds were replaced by a luminous sun. Moreover, the mass ritual set off the largest African American street festival held in the country.
Even more so, the attributes symbolizing Ọṣun (pronounced Oh-shun in English), a West African goddess from a pantheon older than Greek mythology, are love, joy, health and abundance. If there was a time Philadelphians needed to channel good vibes, it is now.
An African American community member walking to the festival told Ark Republic. “I have been waiting for Odunde, it’s been two years,” said Frank. The festival, like many other activities, put its annual fete on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Walking with a pep in his step, all the while smiling and pointing out different historical markers in the city, Frank said that “all of Philadelphia needed Odunde this year.”
Most importantly, the community tradition shook off the feelings of anxiety from the previous week where violence rocked the famed South Street. “Initially I didn’t want to [go] to the Odunde Festival in Philadelphia yesterday because of all of the shooting in Philadelphia recently[.] I ended up going. There was great energy, multi-racial and a lot of joy and happiness,” posted local photographer Raymond W Holman Jr.
Strong Philly roots
A late spring, early summer staple in the city, the Odunde Festival was started by Loiz Fernandez in 1975. The word, Odunde means the New Year celebration in Yoruba. In their spiritual tradition, Ifa, the New Year is observed in June. Over the years, the annual gathering turned into year-round programming that magnifies during the two weeks leading up to the event.
The festival CEO, Oshunbumi Fernandez-West, said that they “kept the tradition alive” during the quarantine through virtual events, but expressed gratitude that it finally went back to an in-person experience that centers family fun.
From water ice to fried fish to BBQ pits, the 15 blocks of Odunde gradually filled with festival attendees bouncing from vendor to vendor then rocking out to one of the multiple musical and dance performances of the day. The innovative clothes and accessories using vibrant colors and African prints courted the thousands of passersby who found one-of-a-kind pottery, carvings and clothes. Ending the street party was renowned hip hop veteran, Doug E. Fresh. In all, it turned out to be a fun, safe and sunny Philly day.
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