HARLEM WEEK 2020: Going Virtual in the time of COVID-19

Image: Used with Permission

I LOVE HARLEM WEEK! From bringing artists to the festival for exposure to helping with the planning and the execution of marketing plans, I have been involved with this legendary arts and cultural festival for more than 30 years.

As I have previously shared with the readers of Arts & Culture Connections, this event is an extraordinary example of business, civic and cultural organizations joining together to promote and celebrate arts and culture. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s celebration will be different. The week-long festival, which is usually attended by millions of people, is moving from the streets of Harlem to the virtual world.

HARLEM WEEK is joining scores of cultural festivals and entertainment programs this summer being propelled by the pandemic to change how it interacts with and engages with the community and its audience. As a member of the HARLEM WEEK Board of Directors for the past five years, I know what a humongous task this is.

I recently spoke with members of the executive team responsible for HARLEM WEEKLloyd Williams, President of the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce, which sponsors HARLEM WEEK; Winston Majette, Executive Director of the event; Voza Rivers, 1stVice Chairman, and Marko Nobles, 2nd Vice Director. They shared their thinking and the steps they are taking as they approach the 46th anniversary of the event and the August 16, 2020, launch date.

 Donna Walker-Kuhne: How did you make the decision to make the festival virtual?

Marko Nobles: With the COVID-19 pandemic taking such a huge toll on New York City, as well as around the rest of the country, we were really concerned about being able to do HARLEM WEEK in the way we had previously done it. As we moved through April and early May, we started thinking about the possibility of going online with the festival.

Voza Rivers: The closing of theaters, parks, churches and cultural centers played a major role in our decision to look at digitized platforms to present HARLEM WEEK 2020.

Lloyd Williams: And necessity being the mother of invention, we realized that it was essential that we transform HARLEM WEEK into a virtual experience.

Donna Walker-Kuhne: Given this new reality, what is the theme?

Winston Majette: This year’s theme is “Movement of the People,” and our virtual celebration will include vintage HARLEM WEEK footage, as well as new content. The world will be introduced to local, regional, national, and international singers, musicians, dancers and models and designers. Even though we will be using a virtual platform, the festival will again feature informative business, technology and health seminars, as well as several events for youth and children.

Marko Nobles: The board recognized, especially following the murder of George Floyd and the resulting racial unrest, that HARLEM WEEK could be a source of hope and upliftment, not only for Harlem but also for the “Harlems of the world.”

Donna: How did you assess content what would fit in the new platform and still deliver the same level of excitement for which the festival is known?

Voza Rivers: The history of HARLEM WEEK activities has been captured on television, film, cable, radio and in photographs. Once we made the decision to go virtual, the board members reviewed our archives of performances, productions, annual reports, photo essays and newspaper articles to determine how best to present this wealth of historical material. We focused on the best moments and performances throughout the history of the festival. We all agreed that making our historic events and content available to a local, regional and global audience would be a major achievement in this “era of new normal.”

Marko Nobles: We also looked at the events that have been the most successful over the years and what is currently appealing to those in Harlem and the neighborhoods similar to Harlem around the country. So, as Winston shared, there will be entertainment from local, national, and international artists, as well as presentations from Broadway productions.

Voza Rivers: HARLEM WEEK community partners also have agreed to share some of their archival footage and new content for our programming consideration. Our partners include Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Jazz at Lincoln Center, Lincoln Center, NJPAC, the Apollo Theater, Jazzmobile, and others.

 What are your concerns about going virtual?

Marko Nobles: Trying to transfer more than 100 events onto a virtual platform and create an event that is engaging and interactive.

Voza: Our new challenge also will be to convince previous sponsors of the benefits of virtual programming. Our sponsorship committee is actively creating a virtual tutorial to demonstrate the benefits of the new platforms.

Donna: How do you go about integrating sponsorship into the festival and what success do you anticipate?

Marko: We look at the virtual platform as providing our sponsors with a unique opportunity to reach an audience that will be exponentially larger than the audience they would have reached if HARLEM WEEK was a live, street festival. Because the festival is virtual, we can truly work with our sponsors as partners to be creative and embed them in a true interactive experience that will expand their customer/consumer base.

Donna: What are your goals and expectations this year?

Winston Majette: In the wake of COVID-19 and the murder of Mr. Floyd, the world appears to be reflecting and talking about systemic racism and evaluating our behavior as human beings. Just as it did in 1974 with its launch, HARLEM WEEK will once again lead the discussion about our vision for America, bringing together a diverse audience—this time, from all over the world.

Marko: Harlem also is one of the most famous communities in the world. People who have always wanted to come to Harlem and experience the culture, the vitality and all that is Harlem, can do so this year from wherever they live. We expect that this year HARLEM WEEK will truly be a global experience.

Donna: And what are your plans for the future?

Lloyd Williams: Moving forward, we plan to hope to have an actual experience for HARLEM WEEK in Harlem and to continue a virtual experience for the region, the nation and the world.

Donna: Thank you all. I look forward to sharing the results of your efforts with the readers of Arts & Culture Connections.

 In the interim, you can get more details and learn how to register for your virtual seat at HARLEM WEEK using this link. Please share your comments and thoughts below.

Be safe! Stay Well! Be Strong!

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