The Madaraka Festival

A decade of celebrating African music and culture

Article by Bree O'Brien

Photography by Assorted photographers as noted

Originally published in Bellevue Lifestyle

2023 was the Madaraka Festival’s biggest year yet! Reaching over 25,000 attendees in events in New York, Atlanta, Dallas, Los Angeles, Washington DC, and Seattle at Benaroya Hall, Madaraka is the most consistent African festival in the US. This year looks to surpass 2023 with plans for 15 events in 13 cities with a total of 150,000 attendees and 50 million people experiencing it digitally. 

The Madaraka Festival is a music and cultural festival launched in 2014, “to empower diversity and inclusion in Seattle communities by deepening the relationship between African and African American communities, and fostering partnerships with other international communities to shift the narrative and honor cultural dynamics.” Founder and CEO Simon Javan Okelo says, “What we have learned is there is a need for an authentic African festival that operates worldwide,” and he aspires for Madaraka to be the largest example of that. Inclusivity is a particular focus for Okelo, and he ensures that the lineups include historically marginalized or underrepresented groups, such as those in the LGBTQ community. 

Okelo started his work in music events before he moved to the United States in 2010. In 2008 when there was post-election violence in his native Kenya,he organized a Unite The People Concert, the first public gathering after the violence. Okelo’s One Vibe organization used the proceeds to feed displaced children at the Young Generation Centre in Manyatta slum.

This year’s 10-year anniversary festival in Seattle will be held at the Neptune Theatre on June 17. Okelo wants Madaraka to be a platform for African artists in the US, as 90% of festival artists travel from Africa, with the other 10% being US-based. 2024’s lineup will include Kenyan headliners as well as East African artists from Uganda, Tanzania, South Sudan, and more. Okela wants to express his gratitude to Seattle and the Eastside communities for their support, including corporate partners like Amazon, Alaska Airlines, Titos Vodka, and Kenya Airways. He asks that anyone who wants to support the Madaraka Festival reach out to him via the website or Instagram @madarakafestival. 

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