The notorious Freaknik festival is set to return next month, rebranded as a family-friendly event. Is this the right decision, considering the event’s shady past?
A family-friendly version of Freaknik is set to occur next month in Atlanta. This announcement, which occurred at the beginning of April, came as several clips from Freaknik parties from the ’90s and unsettling videos from spring break 2019 in Miami started circulating around the internet. Much like in Miami, violence at Freaknik included women being groped, exposed, and even physically assaulted. The viral videos caused a debate about whether a festival that is hostile towards women should ever return.
The overwhelming response was no. (This is not to say that there were not those who joked callously about people’s aunts or mothers taking part in raunchy activities, but that is a symptom of a much larger problem of trivializing female trauma.) Just as many, if not more, people were adamant about Freaknik not returning due to its violence towards women.
The statement of the revival of the infamous festival forces us to examine how a concert so notorious for its violence towards women could ever be family friendly. It also raises the question as to why organizers of the event think this rebrand will be any more effective than any of its past failed attempts to relaunch? It is possible, that at the very least, organizers may value the buzz the name brings over the trauma that it could trigger for so many of the women who experienced harmful acts during one of the original events.
Freaknik began as a spring break event in Atlanta meant to bring together students from historically Black colleges and universities. The event was originally started by the DC Metro Club, one of the many clubs at Atlanta University Center that were created based on the home states of students. It was a celebration meant to offer a sense of togetherness to those students who did not travel home for spring break.
By the mid-‘90s, however, what originally started as a small picnic in 1983 had spread to clubs and locations far from its origins in Piedmont Park. The growth of the event was due in large part to being popularized via Spike Lee’s School Daze in 1988 and A Different World in 1989.
By the early ’90s, tens of thousands of people —as many as 200,000 in 1994 — arrived in droves to the event as it attracted some of the best and most popular talents in the hip-hop community. A look at some of the more popular music videos of the time, including Playa Poncho’s “Whatz Up, Whatz Up” and Luther Campbell’s “Work It Out” demonstrates some of the objectification of women at the time. While some women were certainly willing participants, there is documented evidence of women who were subject to verbal assault, physical assault, and rape.
An article from the Baltimore Sun highlights the history of violence towards women at Freaknik, citing words from Police Chief of Atlanta in 1999, Beverly Harvey. “A lot of women have been victims; they’ve been groped and attacked,” Harvey said, highlighting women as victims, not perpetrators.
The same article quotes M.A Sharpe, an officer, who said: “It only takes a matter of seconds before a woman’s clothes are torn off and she’s completely naked and then you have a situation on your hands.”
By the mid-‘90s, Freaknik was so rowdy, lewd, and hazardous that local businesses and residents aimed to stop the event. White business owners and residents, in particular, were at the forefront of the push to halt the event.
Despite originally defending the innocence of the college students, Atlanta’s Mayor at the time, Bill Campbell, took several steps to help suppress the event. The move, in part, was to demonstrate that Atlanta could handle the 1996 Olympics that the city was slated to host. While the Mayor and his staff insisted that Freaknik, an event resistant to planning should not be used as a measure for preparedness for the Olympics.
By 1997, Freaknik events started to become more difficult to navigate and many were canceled. By 1999, the increased police presence — and a series of other steps including roadblocks — were so effective that the hype of the event sizzled out. There were several attempts throughout the years to rebrand the event but all of them failed.
The move to bring back the festival is one that seems absurd especially when considering previous failed attempts, the heavy negative connotation of the name, and being deep in the thralls of the #MeToo era. It would have been fairly easy to rename the festival and reference it as a more adult and family-friendly version of Freaknik, yet the organizers have decided to keep the name while claiming the event will be family friendly — a clear oxymoron.
Tara Thomas, who is the publicist and branding partner for the event has said that she wants to erase the negative connotations associated with the old event and wants to replace them with more wholesome thoughts. The event organizers plan to do this through various means including choosing musical acts that appeal to a crowd that is older than 25. While the goal is an admirable one, the announcement is tone deaf in an environment where so many women have been so vocal about their assaults.
A report from Atlanta’s WSB-TV quotes Tara Thomas as saying, “I just know about it from the stories I’ve heard and there will be no naked girls running down the street on top of cars! We want it to be fun and to make it something people look forward to every year, like a funk fest.”
The framing of this quote alone seems to shame women as the main perpetrators of the lewdness of the event. However, videos and stories demonstrate that this was not the case while men and women both took part in the activities, men seemed to be the initiators more times than not. This is especially evident in the words of former Mayor Bill Campbell, former head of Police Harvey, officers, and even members of the school government at the time. While it is certainly possible that the event may be a smashing success, the choice to keep a name so riddled with negativity towards women automatically breaks the idea of family friendliness.
Women, after all, are a part of families. And the women who are 25 years and older, part of the targeted demographic, may still be harboring anxiety, dread, and trauma from the original event.
Nyanka Joseph has written for DJBooth, MEFeater, and more. You can follow her @nyankanoire.