Metro Detroit is home to a growing community of Africans from all countries of the continent. While not as visible as Polish culture in Hamtramck or Arab influences in Dearborn, African cultures abound on the Detroit metro, making it easy to sample the richness of the continent right here at home.
Seydi Sarr, originally from Senegal and executive director of the African Bureau of Immigration and Social Affairs (ABISA) in Detroit, says the city attracts a constant flow of African immigrants from large metropolitan areas such as New York and Washington, DC , who come here to settle, raise families and start businesses. In 2000, there were nearly 17,000 African-born people in Michigan. In 2016, that number had increased by nearly 63% to just over 27,000, according to the U.S. census. More than half of the state’s African-born population at this time lived in the Detroit-Warren-Dearborn area. They represent a diverse mix of people from Senegal, Guinea, Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Togo, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire and elsewhere, explains Zaini Itito, from Togo who is responsible for shelters and customer services at the non-profit Freedom House Detroit, a temporary home for asylum seekers.
“It’s definitely diversified, because you have Senegalese, you have Gambians, you have Côte d’Ivoire, you have Benin, you have Togo, you have Mali, you have Nigeria, you have ‘Uganda… you have Burundi here. It’s very, very diverse, ”Sarr says of African influences in the region.
There are many ways to experience the diversity of African culture right here on the Detroit Metro if you know where to look.
Do not miss
A good place to start is a trip to African Beads Museum Dabls Mbad. Museum owner, curator and visual storyteller Olayami Dabls began collecting African beads in the 1980s. He opened his museum in 2002 across a city block in Detroit with the goal of connecting the local community to history. and African material culture, without the construction of European museums. The walls of the Pearl Gallery and Boutique are covered from the floor ceiling with hand-carved bone, glass, brass, and ceramic beads from across the continent. The campus also includes 18 outdoor mosaic and wall installations, including the “N’kisi House” and the “African language wall” which presents 25 of the continent’s languages painted in several colors.
The African World Festival is a highly anticipated annual event in Detroit. Over a three-day weekend each August, the festival features live music and dance performances, art, clothing, over 200 vendors of authentic African and Caribbean food, and even more to crowds that surpass 125,000 in the pandemic-free years. The event took place at Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History over the past decade, but is scheduled to return to its home base, Hart Plaza, August 22-24 this year.
At Detroit Institute of the Arts, local historian Jamon Jordan guides visitors through the museum’s ancient Egyptian and African exhibits as part of the African Royal Tour. Sarr from ABISA, meanwhile, teaches West African dance at the Center of movement of the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art.
The real deal
Several shops offering authentic African clothing and accessories line the Livernois Avenue of Fashion in Detroit. Love Travel. Imports. offers artisanal products handcrafted by manufacturers in South Africa, Guatemala, Peru and Haiti, including clothing, accessories, textiles and body products. The boutique is the culmination of owner Yvette Jenkins’ travels to these places. Close Akoma is an art gallery, boutique, and cooperative space for local women artists and designers, showcasing African textiles, including indigo-dyed cotton and hand-dyed mud fabrics from Mali. Other notable stores on the avenue include African Fabrics & Fashion and African fashion from Prisca for less.
Sarr recommends a visit to Detroit Djenné Beads and Art, owned by Mahamadou Sumareh, originally from Mali, for pearls, perfumes, shea butters and African clothing. To visit also Sun crystal and pearl supply, which features a selection of heishi beads in brass, carnelian, coconut, and more. by Zarkpa, owned by Liberia-born Tracy Garley, offers vibrant tops, dashikis, skirts, dresses, masks and handmade scarves with
fabrics from Ghana, Nigeria and Liberia.
TO African Fashions by Classical Expressions in Oak Park, Nigerian and designer, Yemisi Bamisaye designs ready-to-wear clothes and bespoke pieces with fabrics from Nigeria, Angola, Ghana and Ivory Coast. International Sterose Store in Detroit is internationally known for its geles, a traditional Nigerian wrap.
For more products with African roots, check out Diop, a “diaspora-inspired streetwear” brand founded by first-generation American Mapate Diop. The brand’s vibrant clothing and accessories are made from Ankara fabric, a material Diop’s mother brought home after visiting her native Nigeria that inspired Diop to start her business. And the beauty brand of Chinyone Akunne Ilera Apothecary offers collections of ethically sourced, herbal cleansers, moisturizers and body butters influenced by Akunne’s Nigerian roots.
The west side of Detroit is also home to many grocers –Darou Salam African Market, African village market, African Family Market, and United African Market among them – who sell African food, herbs, organic products, oils, butters, cosmetics and the like.
Authentic African cuisine is plentiful in the Detroit subway. TO Maty’s African cuisine, Chef Amady Guere concocts Senegalese dishes such as chicken yassa; fried fataya pastries; and maafe, a West African stew. Located in the Old Redford neighborhood of Detroit, the restaurant is the first of its kind in the city. The African-American grill by KG in Garden City also serves traditional Senegalese dishes, including various versions of the national dish, thieboudienne, as well as burgers, chicken sandwiches, and other American classics.
Afro-Caribbean restaurant YumVillage, founded by chef Godwin Ihentuge, specializes in hot bowls filled with tasty protein, rice and vegetables, including chicken with mango curry, tahini chicken with guava, jerk chicken with pepper and lemon, jollof, coconut or turmeric rice and spicy plantains. Not far from YumVillage in the New Center district of Detroit is Baobab rate, a highly anticipated East African restaurant founded by husband-wife duo from Burundi Nadia Nijimbere and Hamissi Mamba. This, the region’s newest African restaurant, opened in mid-February.
Kola Restaurant & Ultra Lounge in Farmington Hills, it offers Afro-Caribbean food paired with live Afrobeat, reggae and jazz music performances, as well as comedy and dance performances. Blue Nile in Ferndale and Ann Arbor and Taste of Ethiopia in Southfield offer Ethiopian meat and vegetarian options. Other places to explore include Detroit African Kalahari cuisine and the Fork in Nigeria food truck, which offers tasty dishes rooted in chef-owner Prej Iroebgu’s native Nigeria.
Did you know?
Afrobeat is a genre that combines elements of West African music – such as Nigerian fuji music, traditional Yoruba music, and Ghanaian highlife – with American jazz and funk. The Odu Afrobeat Orchestra, a 15-piece Detroit-based ensemble, is a notable example of local Afrobeat talent.
A legendary Afrobeat performance was recorded live at the Fox Theater in 1986. The late Fela Kuti – a Nigerian multi-instrumentalist and activist considered the pioneer of Afrobeat – performed there less than a year after being released from prison. his 20 months imprisonment in Nigeria. The four-song set lasted nearly two and a half hours and was released as an album Living in D.