Dixwell Celebrates “Our” Community

Ifeanyi Awachie PhotoMichael Bethune and Kejuan Simmons, a.k.a. young rap duo N-Finity Muzik, paced energetically back and forth in the grass in front of the stage, closing the distance between them and their audience. Multicolored dashikis, hanging in a vendor’s tent, flapped in the breeze. Community members and staff in purple T-shirts circled the sunny park.

That was the scene at “Celebrate Our Dixwell,” the pop-up festival presented by the International Festival of Arts & Ideas on Saturday.

The festival offered non-stop activity, especially for young children and families, at tents featuring free art making, guided cooking with Kidz Kook, tennis demos by New HYTEs, and face painting with the Fun Bus. For young adults, the stage may have been the place to post up. At first, as native New Haven rapper Teake followed N-Finity Muzik’s set, it may have seemed that the lineup was a repeat of last year’s; both acts had performed at the Dixwell pop-up in 2015. But with lyrics like “black lives still matter / like water is wet” from Teake’s “Om Poem,” it was clear that the event veteran’s words were still relevant. And after Teake’s set, one dynamic new act after another brought their own art into the mix.

Singer-songwriter Ashley Hamel announced a move into “the Harry Potter section” before launching into her brand of “wizard rock,” featuring retro pop vocalizations, Potter-inspired lyrics, and guitar accompaniment. In a flowing black dress, Taylor Burns gave a stunning performance of modern contemporary dance. Visual and spoken word artist Zulynette Morales of Hartford boomed powerful, fluid, and socially conscious poetry. J.V. Smooth, a singer and member of anti-violence youth organization Ice the Beef, sang an original love song that had this reporter wondering if he was R&B’s next crooner or future frontman of the next One Direction.

Bethune and Simmons were happy to see that between this year and last, the crowd at the Dixwell pop-up had grown bigger. But though the turnout may have increased this year, it did seem that the park could have been more full. A few members of the sparse audience camped out in front of the stage ended up also being performers or participants in the day’s acts. Camelle Mujahid-Scott, an associate program officer at the Perrin Family Foundation, came to the park with her two young daughters and was surprised to find an event taking place.

But Dixwell community members’ attendance and help in producing the pop-up — poet J-Sun hosted the stage events — was one of the event’s key strengths. The pop-up “represents the community because the community is the ones putting it on,” said production staff member Terrence Dowdye. It boasted a number of coordinators and an army of volunteers and staff like Dowdye. But it was unclear who had provided the link between the community and the opportunity to perform at Arts and Ideas — until Hanan Hameen stepped out of the green room behind the stage.

The head of the Artsucation Academy Network and a range of related programs including Uptown Dance Academy and Africa Is Me, Hameen was born and raised in New York. But her family — including her father, local jazz legend Jesse Hameen II — has deep roots in the Elm City. Recently diagnosed with lupus, Hanan decided to relocate to New Haven. Following a recent operation, she was given clearance to stop resting and move normally just two days before Celebrate Our Dixwell. Next thing you know, she was performing high-impact West African dance in 80-degree weather to celebrate the arts in her community.

Hameen explained that Arts & Ideas approached her about planning cultural programming for the Dixwell pop-up.

“When they think culture and drums, they think of me,” Hameen said. “When they think of students who want to dance seriously, they think of me.”

Hameen pulled together nearly all of the groups featured at the pop-up from her network of New Haven youth artists and arts programs, including N-Finity Muzik, an African drumming group, and more.

These groups are in contact but conduct their work in separate spaces. For Hameen, that made the Arts & Ideas pop-up “very important.” The event gave the groups a chance to come together and share their work with a broader audience.

When asked to have her photo taken, Hameen grabbed one of her students, Journi Le Pere, to join her. “I train them to be teachers because I want this to go on after me. If something happens to me,” she said, in words that rang with gravitas in light of her illness, “I want this to go on.”

Hameen said that the Arts & Ideas pop-ups are meant to be run by the festival in a certain neighborhood for three years before being handed over entirely to the community. The Dixwell pop-up can still use the support of Arts & Ideas staff, so the festival continues to facilitate it. Though as the electronic beat of “My Name Is Prince” burst through the speakers, a trio of young dancers stomped a routine in tribute, and the June sun began to set, it was clear that the community, rather than Arts & Ideas, set the tone.

Click here for more photos and info about Saturday’s event.

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