Feminism at the Apollo: Women of the World Festival Debuts Stateside

Yuna
Malaysian pop singer-songwriter Yuna will be one of 128 female performers and presenters at WOW - Women of the World Festival, headed to The Apollo in Harlem, June 11-14. Autumn de Wilde

The Malaysian pop singer-songwriter Yuna can’t help but sigh as she recalls her first brush with gender discrimination.

“When I was starting my career, the head of a record company told me, ‘You might need to take your scarf off,’” the 28-year-old musician, who is Muslim, told Newsweek. “But the scarf is my identity. I was being asked to strip away that part of my life just to do something that I love—and, at the time, I felt like I had to do this sacrifice. I learned slowly to say, ‘No, this is me. This is my identity and I want to keep it.’”

This weekend, Yuna will be one of 128 women to appear at the New York debut of WOW – Women of the World Festival, an international event intended to celebrate women and spark progressive discussion of their rights. Held at the vaunted Apollo Theater in Harlem —and open to everyone—the event runs June 11-14 and includes performances by Macy Gray and Toshi Reagon, workshops on youth leadership and career navigation, and discussion panels with titles like “Stop Telling Women to Smile,” “Organizing and Activism 101” and “Who Owns Our Bodies?”

Wow – Women of the World Festival was founded in 2011 by Jude Kelly, artistic director of the Southbank Centre in London. Since its first iteration, which Kelly timed to celebrate the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day (March 8) and featured Annie Lennox and Kate Nash, the event has been staged annually in London and spread to over a dozen other countries, including Australia, Ethiopia, Egypt and Iceland. Camilla Parker Bowles, the Duchess of Cornwall (Prince Charles’ wife, to the Yanks) signed on as “royal president” of the Southbank Centre event in February.

“I wanted to create a celebration, a festival for girls and women that looked at everything they have achieved in history and are achieving now,” said Kelly, who will speak in the keynote “Feminism Now” panel on the Apollo’s mainstage. “It’s just marvelous to see this global movement based off the fact that women and men together want to feel as if the world could be an equal place. It’s a very inclusive festival; it’s all ages, all backgrounds and hasn’t got one agenda. You haven’t got to call yourself a feminist.”

The New York debut event, on which Kelly collaborated with the Apollo programming staff, shares some similarities with its Southbank progenitor: A marketplace will offer “speed mentoring” services for young women and information on social rights advocacy groups, and panels and concerts are entwined throughout the days. Where it differs, however, is in how the Apollo’s event also sought local community input in Harlem; last year, organizers began a series of roundtable discussions—dubbed “think-ins”—with representatives from Planned Parenthood, domestic violence organizations and the YWCA.

“From that exchange we built this festival. We had about 2,000 ideas from those talks,” said Jamilla Deria, Program Director at Apollo Theater Foundation, Inc. “One idea that kept coming up over and over was [the eventual panel] ‘Stop Telling Women to Smile.’ I can say for myself, before we started this process, it wasn’t in my worldview. It’s about the anti-street harassment movement coming out of Brooklyn, but also taking root in Harlem. ”

Mikki Shepard, executive producer of the Apollo, said the panels aim to be “a look at some of the issues that people are wrestling with today,” she said, citing the recent social movements Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street as examples. Aside from the Apollo, these discussions will also be held at the nearby City College of New York and in local restaurants. “One of the points of the festival is to introduce women to each other who perhaps are from different communities, but dealing with similar issues and don’t know each other. It’s an opportunity to network and create a dialogue.”

The issues of focus at New York’s WOW festival echo those at other international stagings, said Kelly. “At the festival in Alexandria, Egypt, the thing they most wanted to discuss was street harassment—the difficulty of women in Egypt to just have a public life on the streets,” she said. “In Australia, in the aboriginal community, there was a lot of emphasis on women’s health and how to deal with domestic violence in small communities.”

WOW’s musical performances also share political intent. Macy Gray headlines an installment of “Black Women Rock!”—an annual series founded by the poet jessica Care moore that will include her spoken word and sets by the Idle Warship member Res and the R&B singer-songwriter Joi. Gray said she appreciates the “risky” nature of a female-centric festival.

“If you have a festival called a Million Grandmothers Rock, I’m probably not gonna go because I’m not a grandma,” she said dryly. “It gives a specific idea of who’s invited and what it’s about. Some people may not feel like they’re invited.”

At Thursday evening’s kickoff event, the folk and blues singer-songwriter Toshi Reagon will join her mother, the singer/composer and scholar Bernice Johnson Reagon, and her daughter, the student and activist Tashawn Reagon, in a joint concert and discussion of womanhood in their respective generations. A veteran of several female-focused festivals, including Sisterfire in the 1980s, Toshi Reagon said she was pleasantly surprised to learn of the event.

“I think it’s a big deal that the Apollo is having a women’s festival. I don’t think they’ve done this before,” she said. “I hope we look at issues of violence against women. That seems systemic in our culture, so hopefully a lot of great men will attend this festival so we can have these conversations about how to address that issue.”

The Apollo’s programmers project 5,000-8,000 attendees over the four-day stretch, and have not decided yet if the event will be a recurring one. Kelly, however, remains resolute in her goal.  

“I would like to create a global education movement on gender equality, and I would like to connect all these WOWs together so they are able to learn from each other,” she said. “I’m going to spend the next years growing this until, hopefully, it’s in every country.”