Yalla…you there? Philly’s only Arab arts fest sees drop after ‘positive’ messaging

This Labor Day weekend, YallaPunk focuses on celebration over discrimination.

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Courtesy of YallaPunk
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YallaPunk, Philly’s only Arab arts festival, is back for its third year next weekend. Organizers say the party will be bigger and better than ever — a four-day bazaar of live music, arts and culture centered around the Arab experience.

But just a week out, festival founder Rana Fayez says interest is unusually lackluster.

In YallaPunk’s first two years, Fayez marketed the arts and culture around a call to action. The inaugural event in 2017 used the travel ban against Muslim-majority countries to galvanize support for Arab, North African and Southwest Asian communities in Philadelphia. Last year, the festival similarly evoked urgency around the discrimination Arab communities face every day in the U.S.

For 2019’s festivities, Fayez decided to shift to a more positive message. She focussed on celebrating the good — rather than dwelling on the threats.

But after that shift in tone, she actually saw a decrease in ticket sales.

“People tend to flock to trauma porn,” Fayez said. “But we can’t keep talking about only bad stuff. We have a lot of great things to really celebrate. Struggle should not be the default narrative.”

Her challenge for Philly remains firm for next weekend: Come out and support joy in the Arab community.

City of Djinn at YallaPunk 2017

City of Djinn at YallaPunk 2017

Courtesy of YallaPunk

Four days: YallaPunk’s biggest festival to date

Fayez conceived of YallaPunk in 2016, after seeing a flyer that used Arabic lettering to promote a DJ who didn’t even speak the language. It was then that Fayez, a DJ herself, decided to create her own arts and culture festival, designed by and for SWANA (Southwest Asia and North Africa) people in the Philly region.

Each year, the party features a diverse lineup: comedy acts, film screenings, poetry readings, workshops, lectures and a local vendors fair, all centered on the Arab experience.

In 2017, Fayez said the response to YallaPunk was overwhelming. The first day that she publicized the festival, she was raking in hundreds of excited DMs.

“People responded said they were really interested in supporting our culture and the event,” she recalled. “They tagged their friends. It was really exciting.”

Each year since then, the party has grown in scope. It has welcomed more new artists, and added educational components like lectures and panel discussions.

This year is no exception. Scheduled for Aug. 29 to Sept. 1, YallaPunk will include the largest programming schedule to date:

  • Film screenings at PhilaMOCA (Thursday night)
  • Live music with a comedy afterparty at Johnny Brenda’s (Friday and Saturday night)
  • A two-day vendors’ fair at CraneArts (Friday and Saturday)
  • Poetry readings and experimental art at CraneArts (Sunday)

But despite the built-in community of YallaPunk supporters and the enhanced lineup, Fayez hasn’t seen the same hurried excitement to attend. (She declined to provide ticket sale figures.) Perhaps folks have started to take it for granted, she mused — or perhaps it’s the messaging that’s to blame.

‘This year the narrative is changing’

Instead of focusing her marketing efforts on hate, Fayez attempted to elevate the YallaPunk community this year. YallaPunk 2019 has been advertised as a celebration of joy among SWANA people.

“This year the narrative is changing,” she said. “I see that as the indicator that interest has waned a little bit.”

She sees it all the time in her Middle Eastern and North African communities: People respond en masse to negative news and instances of tragedy. Controversy generates widespread interest, she says.

But when a community feels joy, it’s not as grabby, Fayez has observed.

“We thought it was important to build a foundation for resilience and community, and to celebrate joy,” Fayez said. “I think it’s taking people by surprise.”

It’s frustrating for Fayez, who has worked to grow a community around the annual event.

“We keep getting better and better,” Fayez said. “There’s been a more curated process every year. But when it comes to the interest, I think maybe people think that SWANA people are passe.”

“But we’re still here. We’re still creative.”

Want to go to YallaPunk? It’s not too late. Tickets range in price from $15 to $60, and you can buy them in advance or at the door.

Editor’s note: Billy Penn nominated YallaPunk founder Rana Fayez for a 2019 Billies award.

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