Durag Fest Makes Waves in Charlotte and Beyond
Published on June 29, 2023
Cities throughout the country have become home to festivals headlined by top music acts and performers. Bonnaroo in Manchester, Tennessee. Dreamville Music Festival, in Raleigh. And the Roots Picnic in Philadelphia. But now Charlotte has a festival that’s making waves of its own.
Durag Festival, held annually at Camp North End, is both an observance of Juneteenth and celebration of the impact and evolution of Black culture. From its inception in 2018, the festival has attracted national attention, and has only gotten bigger since, now being recognized as the ‘Met Gala of durags’.
Festival co-creators and Charlotte natives, Lisa Michelle and Dammit Wesley, have their sights set on growing Durag Fest to the size and scale of other well-known festivals. But they won't do it by highlighting global headliners, but by celebrating the people in attendance.
We spoke with Michelle shortly after the 2023 Durag Fest to talk about the success of this year's event and what’s to come. Interview edited for brevity and clarity.
City of Charlotte: Durag Fest 2023 is in the books. How’d it go?
Lisa Michelle: It went great. This was the first time we really tried to activate different experiences throughout the week. We had a party and brunch. We partnered with different organizations like the Harvey Gantt Center and Mad Miles Run Club for events leading up to the big day. We wanted to find as many ways as possible to partner with local talent in Charlotte — particularly Black-owned businesses and Black creators. But outside of those events, the festival was great.
City: When I think of festivals, Coachella, the Governors Ball and other major music festivals come to mind. But Durag Fest feels different. For anyone not familiar, what happens at Durag Fest?
Lisa: Me and my co-founder, Dammit Wesley, always talk about how Durag Fest is different because we’re not focused on a celebrity lineup. We're really focused on the people who come to Durag Fest. They are the focal point. We highlight Black culture, and we do that by elevating as many Black creatives as possible.
We have our main stage with DJs and most of them are here in Charlotte or neighboring cities, and they get the opportunity to illustrate their talent. We also have an art exhibit which features 20 to 30 artists in different mediums. We have a fashion element where our guests come out in the most creative outfits featuring durags, other head gear, or Black hairstyles in general. But again, it's all centered around the people. Nothing focuses on a specific celebrity or anything like that. It's about the people having an amazing time and celebrating each other.
Photo courtesy of Durag Fest
City: What reactions have you seen from this year’s event?
Lisa: I think that people for the first time really saw how big Durag Fest is and is continuing to become. Last year we had a few people from Canada, D.C., and Texas come out. This year we saw even more people traveling across country. We had someone come in from Amsterdam and someone from the UK. People from different parts of the world are coming to experience this because it’s a space where you see Blackness being celebrated without being stifled or put into a negative connotation. People really love that freedom to come to a space and not be judged but be celebrated.
City: You mentioned that the event has gotten bigger. How many people came to this year’s event?
Lisa: We’re still looking at the numbers, but I'm pretty sure the final count will be about 2,500 ticketed attendees. But because Camp North End is this big, open campus, we want to make sure that anyone can experience some portions of Durag Fest. We have a kids art event which is free. And the vendor market is also free to walk through. The elevated experiences like the main stage party or some of our other activations are ticketed. But from the public track alone, at minimum, another 1,000 people experienced Durag Fest just from walking through.
City: What’s the one thing you would want to bring to Durag Fest that it doesn’t have now?
Lisa: When we think of larger festivals, like Coachella and Dreamville, they already have a pool with big artists and names, so it's much easier to bring in sponsorship dollars. But the connection we're trying to make is with partners who see the value in elevating Black creators and the Black community. For example, this year we experimented with an activation called the Black Suitcase. Anyone who bought a certain ticket would have free access to this activation where you could get a free nail set, free tooth gems — just this really cool experience highlighting the impact of Black culture, specifically on the Y2K era. We partnered with local nail techs and Black-owned businesses to power this activation. We want to make that connection with partners to say you don't only have to spend your dollars with big name artists to make an impact. You can do the same, if not more, by partnering with local creators, Black creators, to elevate their business while creating a great experience.
City: What are you most proud of when you think about the evolution of Durag Fest?
Lisa: I would say that it's when I look at the different Instagram Stories and posts of people saying, “I can't wait to go to Durag Fest and just be myself.” There was literally one post where someone said, “My job didn't give us time off for Juneteenth, so I'm going to make sure that I have my best time at Durag Fest.”
I’m proud to be a small part of people creating these amazing memories around something so important. People are starting to recognize Juneteenth as a holiday, as it should have always been. It marks a time in which Black people were able to start anew and begin creating their own futures and writing their own stories. We invite anyone of any community, ethnicity, or background to partake in this event and understand the full beauty of Black culture.
City: You’re wrapping up year five. What does the tenth anniversary for Durag Fest look like?
Lisa: Three thousand attendees is great, but we do want to be Coachella status, right? Because we feel the mission and the meaning behind Durag Fest is just as powerful if not more powerful. It's not just a good time. It's a good time with a very specific purpose which makes us unique. I think that's what people love about us. And so, 10 years out, we want to bring out 50,000 people in Charlotte. We want to add to the bottom line of Charlotte’s economy. We want people to see how amazing the creatives and the businesses are here in Charlotte. We want to make different partnerships and really elevate the community by bringing out people at that scale.
City: Why is Durag Fest important for Charlotte?
Lisa: Wes and I are Charlotte natives. We are on a mission to put Charlotte on the map. But for the creatives and the businesses here, especially the Black community, to get their due. It’s no secret that Charlotte is continuing to grow and is one of the hottest places to move. But we want to make sure that there's a safe space for the Black community, Black creatives, and for their stories to be told in a way that does our community justice. We see Durag Fest as an integral part of what Charlotte has to offer, Charlotte’s story and Charlotte's growth.
You can learn more about Durag Festival at duragfestival.com.
The City Supports Cultural Events Like Durag Fest Through Arts & Culture Funding
The Infusion Fund, which is a partnership of the City of Charlotte, Foundation For The Carolinas and private donors, has supported Charlotte-area arts and culture for three years. A portion of the Infusion Fund, known as the Opportunity Fund, supports local arts and culture projects, programs and initiatives that may fall outside of existing grant cycles or structures in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg area, or that need supplemental support.
While the Infusion Fund partners focus on stabilizing the sector in the short term, the city is also developing the Charlotte Arts and Culture Plan to guide and sustain the long-term future of arts and culture in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg area. The plan is scheduled to be released later this year. Learn more about the City of Charlotte Arts & Culture initiative.