Abdul Karim Abdullah, founder and CEO of Afrochella, on Ghana’s popular music and arts festival and that it will return with a new name.
“It all started out as a way to connect with African-Americans in Ghana,” says Abdul Karim Abdullah, CEO of Afrochella, a festival celebrating Africa’s diverse culture that will be rebranded as AfroFuture.
“I noticed there were limited daytime events [where] people can engage and speak to each other,” adds the founder about the beginnings of what has become Ghana’s biggest music festival over the Christmas period.
Abdullah, who also holds a day job working for an international pharmaceutical company as a clinical trial manager for cancer research, was born in the Bronx, New York, where his father and mother, who are Ghanaians, run a restaurant and a trading business respectively.
Growing up in New York, Abdullah was always immersed in the African community. Over the years, he had a dream to re-create some of the carnival events he attended in New York back in Africa where the community would come together to connect. Little did he know that his dream would turn into one of the biggest social events on the African social calendar attracting some of the biggest global superstars from the likes of Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Dave Chappelle and many more to the shores of Ghana.
But for Abdullah, this has been a slow and well thought-out journey.
“When we started the festival, I knew it had to be profitable and I still needed to keep my day job in order to live the lifestyle I wanted to live. But I am also passionate about the job that I do and I never thought I was going to fall in love with cancer research until I started the program in 2011.”
In 2014, after a hiatus of several years away from Ghana, Abdullah returned home over the holidays and had his first epiphany of creating an event bringing the diaspora together when they visited Ghana.
“Secondly, I am a very avid Twitter user and a couple of people from the diaspora were complaining that at Christmas, you come to Ghana and party and go and there is no benefit. I would see that people saw that friends were all coming to Ghana or Nigeria but they never had time to connect with each other on the ground,” says Abdullah.
Three years later, Abdullah and his team decided to do something about it. Prior to this, they had started a business to create Afro-inspired events in New York and they were keen to expand to Ghana.
After several iterations of the concept, they decided to create a festival where people could learn from each other and most importantly, drive the benefits to the people in Ghana as well as those from abroad. And just like that, Afrochella was born. The first event was a steep learning curve for the team. They had no money to hire the big artists so they decided on a strategy to focus on the emerging artists in Ghana who had the potential to be the next big thing.
“What I saw was there was a number of rising artists who were amazing at what they did and I noticed that we just wanted to do an event but we didn’t have any purpose behind it. So those rising star artists inspired me and I wanted to develop something. On December 28 2017, we had our first Afrochella.”
With no proper funding, Abdullah knew he had to get creative to get local businesses interested in partnering with them. They incorporated cultural elements that attracted startups in Ghana to partner with the festival. Today, those rising artists are some of Ghana’s biggest names.
“We only anticipated 2,500 people but we got 4,700 people so our expectations doubled and people traveled from all over the place just for one day.”
But Abdullah was not ready to celebrate just yet.
“We told ourselves, until we repeat what we achieved three times, we will not think this is worth pursuing. In year two, we grew from 4,700 to 12,500 in a stadium and that was the year we got a lot of partnerships and we had the endorsement of the Ghana Tourism Board. In 2019, we became the anchor event for The Year of Return [campaign] and that took us from 12,500 to 16,000 people and we had so many worldwide celebrities and tables sold out completely and we were overwhelmed with the amount of support we got,” says Abdullah.
Afrochella had ushered in a new wave of party-goers and cultural aficionados in Ghana. Five festivals later and the festival is still a hit with Ghanaians, African-American celebrities and the diaspora.
In 2022 though, they drew backlash from a much more established festival in the United States. Organizers of Coachella, the hugely-popular annual music and arts desert festival, reportedly filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against Afrochella on the basis of leveraging its intellectual property and calling Afrochella the “Coachella of Africa”.
“We cannot really comment on the status of the lawsuit at this time as it is still ongoing but what I will say is we are in a good place,” comments Abdullah.
The brand also offers curated tours across Ghana for those wanting to experience the country’s heritage. Their vision is a lot more streamlined now.
“We have been approached for equity but for us it’s all about keeping the integrity of the event so we haven’t pursued that. We have had partnerships with Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube, Sony music, Apple music and Hennessey. We also didn’t know who to hire. We had to understand the different roles like health and safety, production, source the different festival managers we needed, security check points and barricades,” says Abdullah.
The brand is still going strong, he attests, confirming that Afrochella will be back as AfroFuture.
“The festival is in a great place! We are ushering in a new era of gap-bridging for the black diaspora.”
As 2022 closed with new partnerships, from Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty to American rap sensation Meek Mill taking the stage, Afrochella has put Ghana on the festival map with the country’s tourism industry reaping the rewards.