In Liverpool, Africa Oyé festival is beloved. “It’s been called Christmas for scousers,” says Sonia Bassey, the current chair of the charity behind the event. The biggest festival of African and African diaspora music in the country, attracting a crowd of 80,000 to Sefton Park in south Liverpool, this summer’s edition will mark its 30th anniversary – after two years of pandemic-enforced cancellations. “The response was off the scale,” Bassey says.
Over the past three decades, Oyé has brought some of the world’s biggest African artists to Liverpool, and often on a shoestring budget: now-massive names such as Tinariwen and Songhoy Blues played some of their first British shows there. This year, chart-topping Ghanaian artist Fuse ODG will play alongside the likes of Oumou Sangaré. But just as important, especially in a city whose musical identity is synonymous with white rock groups, is its focus on showcasing local Black talent.
“I’ve been going to Africa Oyé since I was a kid,” says the rapper MC Nelson, who is from nearby Aigburth. “Seeing all kinds of amazing Black artists on stage, just down the road from my house, had a profound effect on me growing up. When I started taking music seriously my aim was Oyé, not Glastonbury or Coachella. I saw it as a way to inspire the next generation of Black scouse musicians.”
That sense of community spirit is as integral to Oyé as the performers. Entry is free and always has been. Bassey comes from a family of activists, who were “heavily involved” in the community response to the 1981 Toxteth riots, and “the way Black people are oppressed by the structures that constantly kept them marginalized.” She is proud that by removing financial barriers, Oyé boasts a genuinely diverse crowd.
“The festival takes place on the edge of some of the most deprived wards in the city,” says Bassey. “Families can bring a picnic and enjoy themselves for the day without it costing anything more than the food. To take that away would fundamentally change who we are as an organisation.” A registered charity, they get by instead on grants, public donations, and revenue from food vendors.
Today, more than anything, it feels like the world’s biggest family reunion: it’s a running joke in Liverpool that you’ll only see your loved ones at “weddings, funerals and Oyé”. “I feel like a nodding dog, saying hello to so many people,” says David McTague, Oyé’s marketing director who has been at the festival since 2002. “Bringing people together who are Black, white, old, young, rich, poor and everything in between creates a unique friendly atmosphere and ambience, something I’ve not witnessed anywhere else.” It also put a focus on accessibility long before many of its contemporaries – employing onstage sign language interpreters, for example, long before this was considered a mainstream proposition.
Oyé has come a long way since 1992, when it began as a cluster of gigs in the city center booked by Glaswegian pirate radio broadcaster Kenny Murray. Now a recluse figure since stepping away from the festival in 2013, back then he was a firebrand: legend has it he chose Liverpool for the festival by closing his eyes and sticking a pin on a map at random.
Paul Duhaney, who had until then been operating in the London rave scene, was placed with him in a training scheme in 1998. “Kenny and I were like Fawlty Towers. We were basically doing everything between us,” he recalls. “At the time people’s education on African music was pretty much just Neneh Cherry on Youssou N’Dour’s 7 Seconds and the Heinz Beans adverts, but Kenny had so much passion to get people to listen.”
At the turn of the millennium Oyé was piggybacking as the musical programming of a hot air balloon festival in Birkenhead, but by 2002 “we’d got so big we’d effectively taken it over without getting any of the credit”, Duhaney says. They took over a space in Sefton Park, but by 2008 they had outgrown that too, moving to a larger field.
Growth has to be incremental. “We just don’t have the money to take risks,” says Duhaney. “Everything’s got to be done in the right way to make sure that we’re going to be here the following year.” It’s still expanding now – this year they’ll host a number of additional shows across Merseyside, and plans are in place for a film festival – but the more Oyé grows, the harder it is to maintain its ethos as a festival of the people. “We’ve been hit by growing infrastructure costs over the years, with no uplift in grants,” says Bassey.
The enforced downtime of the pandemic was an opportunity to regroup and consider the festival’s future. It’s telling that Oyé emerged more ambitious than ever. As well as a strategy that should keep entry free for at least another half a decade, they now have their sights set on a long-term plan to establish a permanent Black music hub in Liverpool. Though she’s wary of being “too prescriptive” about which artists it would include at this point, the focus would be “local and regional talent” across jazz, soul, hip-hop, reggae and grime. “We all know about the Beatles,” Bassey says, “but our history of music isn’t as well told.”