A Beginner’s Guide to Detroit Festivals
By Jason Clinton
Are you planning your vacation in Detroit? Perhaps you already live here and you want something to look forward to. Then get ready to mark your calendars! Detroit’s festivals are more than just an event where you buy merch and listen to music, they connect our communities. Festivals are things that will stick in people’s memories for years to come. I still think fondly of the days when I’d rock out at the base of the Fisher Building for the now-defunct Taste Fest. To this day, I can still smell the scent of freshly made fries from the street vendors.
Yes, festivals have a way of cementing themselves in your memory whether you remember the art, the music, or what you and your friends did as you wandered through the markets. Here in Detroit, you can find a festival in most vending machines, that is to say, we have a lot of ’em! Whether you want to hear your favorite genre of music or get introduced to the strange and wonderful world of Detroit culture, here’s an introduction into some of the festivals that happen here.
This is a car show for car enthusiasts. If you enjoy tricked out automobiles with funky paint jobs and creative additions, this is for you! Autorama pays homage to car customization and creativity. It showcases exciting designs from the past and present, including the 60s Batmobile. If you go, be sure to also check out the celebrity guests and the live music.
St Patrick’s Day Parade
Just cause this parade is green, doesn’t mean it’s anything new. The St. Patrick’s Day Parade has existed in some capacity in Southeast Michigan for over 60 years now. The parade route will march up Michigan Avenue, through Corktown, our historically Irish neighborhood. In addition to a parade, you can also participate in the Corktown races that take place before.
Marche Du Nain Rouge
The Nain Rouge is commonly compared to Mardi Gras festivals in New Orleans, which is an apt comparison. The festival honors a bit of local lore surrounding our city’s founder, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, who fought a demon named the Nain Rouge after leaving a party. The defeated demon cursed Cadillac and the city of
Detroit in response and ever since, the Nain Rouge has been blamed for any of Detroit’s bad luck. Every year, the locals gather in the streets of Midtown and parade to the Masonic Temple, where they cast out the Nain Rouge and all bad tidings of the past year. After the parade, everyone gathers for an afternoon of music, food, and revelry to usher in the springtime.
Detroit Freep Film Fest
The Freep Film fest is an opportunity to see independent movies make their Detroit debut. Many of the films highlighted have a connection to Detroit and Michigan. Since Detroit isn’t exactly rich in mainstream movie theatres, you’ll see that the venues are stretched through the entire greater Detroit area, many taking place at historic theatres like the Redford and the Detroit Film Theatre.
Movement is an ode to Detroit’s status as the birthplace of techno music. It began as the Detroit Electronic Music Festival and has grown every year since. This is where the ravers take the party outside and get to fill up Hart Plaza and the surrounding downtown area with electronic beats from local and international artists.
Dally in the Alley
As far as events go, Dally in the Alley (or Dally for short) is what I picture when I think Detroit festival. It has the best local food, the marketplace is full of intriguing artwork, there’s a variety of music genres that are played, and it takes place in a large section of Midtown. Instead of moving around the alleyways, they’re a part of the experience. Artisan’s booths, food trucks, and even entire stages will be tucked away between apartment buildings. This free event is especially popular with college students, being free and right next to Wayne State University.
Detroit’s Gay Pride
June and July
In the D, pride was so nice, we did it twice; once in June and once in July. Pride Fest, the one in June, takes place in Hart Plaza and has multiple stages for different types of shows such as DJ’s, drag, more DJ’s, and a main stage with concerts from national acts like Kim Chi and the Gay Men’s Choir. Last year had record attendance, so if you plan on coming to this one, you better come early.
Now that’s June. The next month has Hotter than July, which has events that take place all over the city. Hotter than July was started in 1996 as a celebration of the black queer community and continues to be run by LGBT Detroit. The events are meant to elicit joy and empowerment, beginning with a candlelit vigil and ending with a concert.
African World Festival
Hosted by the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, the African World Festival honors the diversity in culture across the African Diaspora. The two stages have performances from local, national, and international acts and the market has a variety of African and Caribbean cuisine. It’s a family friendly event and has a section specifically made for kids between the ages of 3 and 13 where they are hosting dance, martial arts, and kickboxing lessons.
Concert of Colors
The Concert of Colors celebrates the many cultural backgrounds within the city. You can find many of the stages in our Midtown neighborhood in places like Orchestra Hall, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and The Michigan Science Center. You will be able to listen to music that comes from all over the world, bringing our community closer together. And did I mention it’s free?
This is a hip hop and indie rock festival nestled in the hottest month of summer. Sometimes compared to Lollapalooza, it’s not uncommon to see people walking to Mo Pop with neon colors and campy, over-the-top outfits. It has featured artists such as Doja Cat, Khalid, Lizzo and Billie Eilish, so be sure to hydrate because you’ll be dancing.
Vibes with the Tribes
Hadassah Greensky and Soufy worked together to create this festival in 2021. Though it is still in its early years, Vibes with the Tribes looks to combine old and new Anishinaabe traditions on ancestral indigenous land in Southwest Detroit. During the daytime, the festival grounds are used for powwow dances and transform into a music festival at night, featuring native artists from all over the continent.
North American Auto Show
In Detroit, you can’t even walk without running into a car! All jokes aside, The North American Auto Show is a GIANT deal here. You may think that it’s just another business convention, but displays alone set the event apart from other expos. Last year, Jeep advertised their social media trend of ducking (putting rubber ducks inside and around Jeeps) by erecting a 61 foot rubber duck in front of Huntington Place. Even if you aren’t in the market for a new car, the fanfare and showmanship is enough for the ticket price.
Because the Jazz Fest is one of our biggest events, it’s a festival that virtually takes over all of downtown when it happens. Campus Martius and Cadillac Square are turned into stage areas, a section of Woodward is shut down to make way for the Jazz Festival’s parade float. It’s honestly hard to be downtown during the Jazz Fest and not participate. It’s free to get in, so people will wander in to enjoy a show, get some lunch at a local restaurant and come back in an hour or two for another show.
One of my favorite events of the year, Noel Night is a community gathering that takes place in and around our cultural district. This family friendly event brings in a huge crowd, so be prepared to run into someone you know. It’s a time when all the museums open their doors for free and businesses promote their wares with sales and activities in the street. During this time, you can also enjoy performances and shows at the various venues in the neighborhood.
About the Author
Jason is a Detroit artist and an administrative assistant for City Tour Detroit. He grew up on the northwest side of the city and became interested in Detroit when attending Renaissance High School and learning about the contributions Detroit has made to America’s history. He received his BA in theatre from Wayne State University and upon graduation, found a way to combine his love of history with his love of public speaking; being a tour guide! Jason continues to lead tours and does research and logistic work for City Tour Detroit as well as running its blog.