Blackfest wasn’t always a music festival. For decades, beginning in the early 1970s, it was a family picnic of sorts, sparked from the need to bridge an east-west campus divide. “The largest number of Black students living together outside of Ujamaa were in Mirrielees,” recalls Mary Haynes, ’83.
But they could all meet up at the Black Family Picnic, an annual gathering on Roble Field organized by the Black Student Union (BSU) and the Black Community Services Center (BCSC) that included students, staff, faculty, and members of the East Palo Alto community. “There was this sense of wanting to reaffirm that Stanford was a place where you can still have community and find the support of other Black students,” says James Jordan, ’93, who was assistant director of the BCSC from 1998 to 2002.
In the early years, there were games, like bid whist and backgammon, and sports—football, lacrosse, Frisbee. “It provided an opportunity for Black students and staff to gather in a nonacademic, fun setting,” recalls Grace Carroll, ’71, MA ’75, PhD ’75. “Folks ate, played ball, and just hung out.” Al Perry, ’77, remembers a man they called Big Daddy—who ran the Faculty Club kitchen—barbecuing ribs and chicken for the event in the mid-1970s, but by the late ’70s, student organizers were in charge of the food. “One year,” recalls Richard Craven, ’82, “with long-distance phone calls to our mothers to guide us, Odell [Mays, ’82] and I cooked 23 sweet potato pies in our Mirrielees apartment!”
Roughly 50 years later, Blackfest is known as the largest free hip-hop event in the Bay Area. This May, rapper and producer Pi’erre Bourne headlined the festival in Frost Amphitheater before a multicolored light show. Over the course of the afternoon and evening, thousands of music fans crowded together near the stage, swaying and bouncing, while others picnicked on blankets on the upper slopes and perused the wares from local Black businesses—cartoon-sketched streetwear from Hella Bay Clothing, or Avocurl hair products, or 5DNectar’s crystal pendant necklaces.
“As someone from the East Coast, it’s been pretty shocking to come [to Palo Alto] and see the lack of Blackness,” says Kyla Windley, ’22, one of this year’s co-directors of the Black Family Gathering Committee, which now coordinates the event. “It’s very difficult, down to finding people to braid my hair. There is no soul food. Last year at Blackfest, I remember tearing up when I saw all the middle-aged Black people because they reminded me of my family.”
Organizers expanded the event in the 1990s, adding bouncy houses for children, step performances, three-on-three basketball tournaments, and vendors selling handcrafted African garments and jewelry. “It was an exposure day for folks to be able to come to campus and feel welcome at Stanford,” says Jordan. By then, it had become known as the Black Family Gathering.
In 2003, organizers added live music to the mix, including student groups such as the Stanford Gospel Choir, and rebranded the event as Blackfest. The student-led Stanford Concert Network signed on as a co-sponsor that year, which bolstered the name recognition of the artists, starting with Oakland-born singer-songwriter Goapele. In 2009, the R&B rap group Day26—known from MTV’s Making the Band reality show—performed on Roble Field; three years later, it was E-40 and Kendrick Lamar at Frost. In 2014, rapper Ty Dolla $ign headlined the event on FloMo’s Levin Field. Attendance climbed from 700 in 2007 to an estimated 4,000 in 2011. Some 3,000 came to hear the 2023 lineup at Frost, which also featured DJ Bia Baby (Engubia Fontama, ’23), singer Jean Deaux, and rapper Kenny Mason.
This year’s co-directors, Windley and Catherine Harbour, ’24, tried to keep one guiding principle in mind. “Some Black artists specifically use their art to promote the Black community,” Harbour says. She and Windley asked themselves: “Who is someone that everyone is going to be excited about and who is going to maintain the integrity of the event?”
In the end, Blackfest 2023 did what it has always meant to do, Windley says. “It serves as a mutual acknowledgement that we see you and we see each other, and that’s super meaningful to me.”
Rachel Lit, ’25, is an editorial intern at Stanford. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos, clockwise from top: courtesy Derek Toliver, ’75, and the Black Community Services Center (2); Audrey Miller, ’83; Chad David, ’08; Asha Brown, ’09; Miklos Raibon, ’06