Hosted by Chance the Rapper and his close friend and collaborator Vic Mensa, the inaugural Black Star Line Festival — a week of talks, parties, skating, and music in Accra, Ghana — was dreamt of and designed to catalyze physical connectivity, understanding, and eventually, radical movement-making among Black people globally.
“I think this is kind of what they call a pilot in TV, where this is an example of what it could be like yearly or biyearly to have something that we all just go to that’s free, that you bring your kids to, that you bring your elders to, that you come out and experience a safe space where we can all be in confidence together,” Chance said when we spoke a month before the festival.
Reportedly, about 50,000 people gathered in Accra’s historic Black Star Square for the music festival that bookended the week of activities. Chance, Vic, Erykah Badu, T-Pain, Tobe Nwigwe, Asakaa Boys, and more headlined. “[It] was a night that delivered an unforgettable experience to patrons,” Okayplayer declared a few days later.
Still, the Black Star Line Festival garnered its share of criticism. When it was revealed that the “special guest” Chance was to hold a conversation with at the University of Ghana would be comedian Dave Chappelle, red flags shot up for some. In light of Chappelle’s bevy of stand-up punching down at trans people, particularly since 2018, and the pain and controversy caused by it, the comedian appeared an insensitive addition at best or an antagonistic one at worst. There is currently a vehemently anti-LGBTQ bill that criminalizes queer and intersex identity and allyship being championed by a cross-party coalition of parliamentarians in Ghana. “The measure would also criminalize cross-dressing, public affection between two people of the same sex, marriage among same-sex couples, or the intent to marry someone who is the same sex,” reported the Los Angeles Blade, an American LGBTQ newspaper. Allies would be punished with even more time in prison: up to 10 years.
While in Accra for the festival, Chappelle also spent time with Talib Kweli, the Black Star rapper he co-hosts a podcast with. Critics pointed out the fact that in 2020, well before Musk’s takeover, Twitter confirmed that it permanently suspended Kweli for violating the platform’s rules, following several weeks over which he used Twitter and other mediums to continuously admonish a young Black woman who posted a critique about Black men in hip-hop and colorism. Kweli later doubled down on his behavior by suing a publication that covered the controversy.
Just a few weeks before the Black Star Line Festival, Dave Chappelle performed in San Francisco — and made headlines for inviting Elon Musk on stage, where was booed. Kweli was present as well. After the booing subsided, Chappelle asked that Musk unban his friend from Twitter, to which Musk agreed (Kweli has not appeared on Twitter since, and his former account remains suspended). Though Chance talked to me in depth about Dave Chappelle’s participation in the festival, when approached days later for comment on Kweli’s appearance, a representative relayed he’d be unavailable before publishing due to travel.
The broader critique asked how or if the Black Star Line Festival should have happened at all. Some people concerned with Ghana’s economic conditions assert that the poverty, economic inequality, and quality of life issues native Ghanaians experience are exacerbated by the influx of people visiting, relocating to, or investing in the West African nation as a haven. Some have implied that the Black Star Line Festival would add to the problem.
“It’s only going to get worse with the Black Star Line festival coming up,” tweeted Fernanda Meier in November. Born in Ghana, Meier lives in the U.S. and frequently travels internationally. “Like, Ghanaians cannot afford to eat and go to work, but American artists are still boosting the country’s image?” she went on. In October, Bloomberg declared that Ghana’s currency, the cedi, was the world’s worst-performing tender to the US dollar.
In 2020, the United Nation Development Program, or UNDP, reported 46% of Ghanaians — 14 million people — were “multidimensionally poor.” This signifies not only monetary deprivation but deprivation across health, education, and living standards: “In terms of living standards, indicators used are electricity, water, sanitation, cooking fuel, assets, overcrowding, and housing,” wrote the UNDP. However, per a 2016 analysis, Accra —the nation’s capital, largest city, and popular tourist draw — sits in a region with the smallest population of poor people in the country.
“Accra is uninhabitable for regular Ghanaians,” tweeted Adwoa Fofie, a writer and photographer based in Ghana whose public work focuses on food. “The only people thriving are the diaspora and the wealthy and I think honestly that is their plan,” she continued, in a thread on the failures perpetuated by the country’s political and economic leaders.
“The [current] government has heavily invested in tourism,” Fofie went on to write in a blog post about gentrification in Accra. “It has become their balm to soothe the gaping hole that decades of corruption, mismanagement, bad policies, sheer negligence, wickedness, and greed has left inside this country. This is not unique to just Accra. Almost all of the other African countries are experiencing this same issue. You can’t fix decades of corruption and mismanagement with tourism.”
Here, Chance discusses the intentions and outcomes of the Black Star Line Festival, weighing its power and disappointments.
I want to talk about what you feel like the successes of the festival were. You had over 50,000 people in one place and had it go smoothly per all the reports that I’ve read. I think that people had a good time. And then eventually you opened the festival up to people without tickets, is that correct?
Probably closer to five or six in the morning is when that started happening. So basically the event started, it was originally slated to started 2:00 PM We pushed back to 5:00 because of the builds, the build time just ended up taking longer than we anticipated and there were a few equipment pieces that had to get switched out, whether you’re on the production side or on just the audience side. And so music started at seven o’clock, there were about nine acts plus a few special guests. And so it ended up being that my set wasn’t until about, I didn’t get on stage until about 5:00 AM and crazily enough about 1500 people stayed, including some children.
So, I felt the responsibility but I also felt a certain level of energy in that there were people that wanted to see me so bad that they would stay up that late. I had never performed that late in my life and it provided me with the space and energy to still perform my full set for them. And it was a really intimate, very real moment to me. And a few celebrities stayed too, people that I definitely would’ve thought would’ve went home, Erykah Badu was still out there. Letitia Wright, the new Black Panther was still out there. A bunch of my family members but also a whole bunch of Ghanaians that had never gotten to see my performance before.
It was a really dope and deep moment. And by that time, obviously the crowd going from 50,000 to 1,500 — it’s a lot of space. I think by that time the guards and everybody are like…there’s no real reason to keep people out at that point. I think they let a few hundred people in that had stayed all night because the video towers also allowed you to see the show from outside of the square. I’m still processing the whole thing, everything. It didn’t go all as planned, but it went perfectly.
Would you say the overwhelming response that you encountered has been positive?
Yeah, I think a lot of us there, including myself, had never seen anything like it.
I’ve thrown five festivals and this is the second or third free one that I’ve done. But none of them have been to the scale of 50,000 plus people. Then for it to be overwhelmingly black and for it to be on the continent. And for a lot of people that was their first time in Ghana, whether they were American or of the diaspora. It was completely organized and put together by black folks on the continent. I think everybody was just very happy. I think that it was safe in that there wasn’t a big security fiasco or people being stampeded. The fact that it was majority safe was something that a lot of people have congratulated me on. And, that they got to see so many acts that they hadn’t seen before. I think everybody’s still in shock a little bit.
Since we had our first conversation, I’ve encountered different critiques of the festival. It’s very evident to me that something important happened, but I know it’s also very important to you, based on our previous conversation, that black people feel seen, heard, connected. So, a conversation that I see happening online is positing that the influx of folks from the diaspora into Ghana as a tourism destination, as a place to travel to get away, to learn of themselves, to understand a culture is also having negative economic ramifications. They’re concerned that the influx of tourism in Ghana propelled by things like big festivals is linked to the rising of costs there.
I have had conversations with different people on the ground there about what December is typically for Ghana because it does hold so many concerts and festivals. They call it Detty December.
Most of those festivals are native to Ghana. There’s only myself and Vic’s Black Star Line Festival and Afro Nation are the only two that I know of that aren’t actually posited by people that are from Ghana. But that was something that was on my mind from the jump when we made it. I always wanted this festival to be something that, for one, provided access to people that don’t typically get to go to these concerts because a lot of the events around that time do price people out.
I also wanted to work with a 100% Ghanaian team in terms of not even just the production managers or directors, but also all the stagehands, all the equipment coming from production companies in Ghana. I can’t speak for all the festivals, but our festival created a whole lot of jobs and put a lot of people to work.
But I also do understand that Ghana’s economic infrastructure is very different from America’s. When you bring events like that to spaces where the dollars or their currency is volatile, that you can create a disruption that’s even if it’s not intentional can be negative. When you are intentional about working with and talking to people on the ground and make sure they are making the right decisions, you can circumvent certain issues.
I know there’s a big issue with people spending US currency in Ghana as opposed to using the cedi. So we were very particular about that and all our transactions, not even just the ones dealing with the festival, but just while I was on the ground there throughout the year.
I also know that a big issue with the pricing or people being priced out of Accra is a real estate issue. So, until I can find out a way to responsibly invest in terms of moving or owning property in Ghana, I’m not going to take part in it because I don’t believe in displacing people. I’ve been upfront about that and most of my conversations about the festival.
The goal overall is to just create community. I think that within this trip. I think a lot of the people that came from the diaspora, most of the people, if not all of them, were very respectful of the space and a lot of relationships were built, a lot of people created substantial relationships and connections that I think will live long after this festival. I think it’s something that we just have to remain in conversation about. I think it’s important that those issues are raised, and those conversations are had.
I funded the entire festival and made sure that there was an opportunity for people to link up and feel safe and feel protected and be introduced to artists that they might typically not get to see and just feel proud to be Black regardless of what nation you’re from or your religion or sexuality or gender or age. And I think the people that were there felt that.
So I think the more connection that we have and the more that people know about what’s going on in Ghana, because there’s a lot more important things going on in Ghana than obviously the festival or whatever Meek Mill does or any shit like that. There’s things that I think the people of Ghana have already platformed and feel like are the most important things going on, but we don’t really talk about Ghana or have tangible relationships as much as we could, I think.
In thinking about things that are going on in Ghana, one of the things that I’ve become aware of is anti-LGBTQ policy in Ghana. I’m also sure you’re aware that right now consensual same-sex relationships in Ghana are prohibited and can potentially have people imprisoned. I’m also sure because you’re there and keeping up with what’s happening there, that there’s a [more extreme] bill [in contention]. That makes me think of a critique that I had read of somebody who came to see you and Dave Chappelle speak. This person posted a thread which said that they left early. They described some of the conversation as Chappelle “bashing queer and trans people unprovoked.”
The critique that the person is raising in the thread is connected to threat to LGBTQ people in Ghana. What do you make of the criticism that there were transphobic or homophobic elements to the conversation that you had?
So I would say firstly, I am aware of the anti-gay bill in Ghana. I think it’s probably one of the most destructive things that I see in the future of Ghana as a country. It gives police license to target anybody, especially LGBTQIA+ people based on something as simple as the clothes that they wear, how they self-identify, or how that officer identifies them. And it’s antithetical to what I’m trying to do.
The reason why we came to Ghana was because […] probably the most famous pan-African African president is Kwame Nkrumah. The idea that we could be one homogenous power in the world comes from the idea that we must all be Black. So, you can’t not be Black enough because of how you identify, whether that’s your sexuality or your gender, or again, your religion or your age or what nation you’re from. Black people are Black people.
I think that it’s partly, it’s not a Ghana problem, it’s a West African problem, but I think all of West Africa is dealing with this issue of intolerance and violence, whether it’s at the hands of the people or of the state towards our brothers and sisters of the LGBTQ community.
I think it’s something that Dave was actually shining a light on. That’s where that conversation came from. Dave was making a comment about the comedy scene in Ghana when he said, “I bet gay jokes go over so well here,” to which everybody laughed about. And he was making a point to say that in Ghana, you can make jokes about things that are about gay people, about trans people, about a lot of social constructs, just about anything in the world. But you can’t make a comment about the government there. That’s not funny and that’s not respected, and it can be dangerous. It’s the complete opposite where we come from, where we can speak about the government all we want.
That quickly transitioned over to me asking Dave about what he thought about identity. And I was using that as a segue to talk about identity. Because me and Dave have had many conversations about some of the misperceptions about how he feels, how he feels about the trans community, about the LGBTQ community as a whole, and whether or not he supports and believes in protecting who would identify as trans.
He took that opportunity because he is a comedian, to ask me if I was trans, to which I took the opportunity to say, “Would you hate me for it if I was?” And I feel bad that the person in the audience felt singled out or that the violence against the trans community or LGBTQ community in Ghana wasn’t being respected.
But I think it was an honest dialogue, where I was giving Dave the opportunity to speak about who we are as a community, because he was taking so much pride in the fact that he was respected as a Black man in Ghana, but I don’t know that he would be respected that much if he was a gay Black man in Ghana or if he was trans in Ghana. And just like I’ve been saying the past year, that we’re all over the world as Black people, we’re all over the world as gay Black people too.
And I think the point that he made about there needing to be more infrastructure, more comedy clubs, more space for comedians, he was making a point about comedy as a political platform and a space to speak about social issues, and the fact that comedians in Ghana don’t have as much space to talk openly about their government.
I think that even the simple fact that Dave Chappelle was a part of the festival, to some people that was a signal to them that queerness and transness was being taken lightly. It sounds like you’re saying the opposite is what came out of that conversation. Would you say that that’s true?
Again, I wanted everyone to feel as welcome and communal as possible. And so if having Dave there made people feel like they weren’t, that they didn’t have space or that they weren’t welcome, that was not my intention. And I can assure you there are a lot of people at the festival and at the talk from a lot of different backgrounds.
I can’t really all the way speak for Dave. I don’t want to say what he thinks or what he feels, but what I think I know about him is that he loves everybody, especially his people, meaning Black people, meaning Black people that are trans, Black people that are gay, Black people that are gender non-conforming, people period. And I think that in that space, I would say I don’t believe that he bashed trans people or gay people at all throughout the entire conversation.
The one time that I heard him say trans was when we were talking about identity. I probably shouldn’t repeat this but I’m going to just say it anyway. We were talking about identity, and I was explaining that a lot of the divisions beyond language and religion that came between us, some of them came through religion, i.e. the Black church being so intolerant towards people from the LGBT community was something that was taught to us and something that was enforced to try and push us up on the spectrum of whiteness and is a remnant of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. And he goes, “Ah, you said trans!”
You know what I’m saying? So please, if you write that down, you have to write down that you giggled! But he wasn’t bashing trans people. That’s how Dave talks. I don’t think that he intended to alienate anybody. I didn’t even know that anybody felt alienated. And again, I think to that person’s point, it’s a critical time for Ghana’s future. If it wants to continue to be a place of refuge for Black folks and a place of pride for Black folks, then it has to accept all Black folks.
I think that it’s important to highlight that, one, the bill, you know what I’m saying, that still hasn’t been passed, and to recognize that people on the ground there don’t necessarily always have the same luxuries of having a voice as we do.
Thank you for being forthright and thorough in addressing this.
You’re so good at interviewing.
Trying to come to the conversations from a place of empathy and good faith, I think it’s just challenging. I don’t think people are good or bad a lot of the time. I think people just care a lot and I don’t think that the mediums that we have right now — like social media, celebrity culture — are conducive to everybody understanding the way that we care about each other and ourselves. Does that make sense?
No, totally. I mean, if you think about it, the celebrity or the pop star; the idea of that identity isn’t really even that old. It’s not even 100 years old. The ’50s and ’60s is when people started becoming world renowned. The Elvises and Beatles and Jackson 5s and stuff like that is a sort of new thing. And then I would say 2018 or 2019, and probably definitely COVID was the first time that we democratized blackballing. Before, the tabloids had to hate you before a celebrity could be done for. And now it’s kind of just you can ramp up a viral moment to the point that it defines someone and you can campaign to basically de-platform them — which I’m not saying I agree with or disagree with. I’m just saying both things are fairly new. I find myself guilty of it too, I just happen to have a little bit more restraint because I realize the reach of my voice.
I think we — and when I say we, I mean Black folks from around the world — need a through line to be able to communicate and resonate with each other on a human level and understanding the difficulties that we face because we are the same people, but we don’t have all the same problems, even if we have the same roots of issues.
Figuring out how to strengthen one another and figuring out how to talk to one another and how to be one another, I think is the biggest thing. That was what I was proud about with the festival. I saw a lot of people helping each other and meeting each other. I think the remnants of that are something that we’re going to see over the next 100 years. We don’t know exactly what’s going to come from it — and maybe nothing, who knows — but I think the more that we can have dialogues and also the more space that we give our creatives to learn from mistakes and learn how to create space for everyone to feel heard and seen and respected and acknowledged, the better off we’ll be eventually.
So this is the first Black Star Line Fest. The goal of it was to help strengthen the global Black identity. And what I’m leaving with is, for one, a profound sense of urgency to remind us that all our people are all our people. I think we have to have healthy, respectful interactions with the spaces we come into, so that we can strengthen those communities and not just take from them.