Houston played host to the much-anticipated debut of the Honeyland Festival, celebrating Black creatives in the culinary arts and music space.

The two-day extravaganza at Crown Festival Park in Sugar Land welcomed an estimated 20,000-plus attendees, featuring live food demonstrations, activation sessions, more than 20 restaurant vendors, and a massive lineup of musical acts, including Mary J.Blige, Chloe Bailey, Houston Hip-hop All-Stars featuring Scarface, Slim Thug, Paul Wall, Z-Ro, Lil Keke, Tobe Nwigwe, Coco Jones, and Miguel, among others.

“[Houston] is probably the city with the most restaurants in the country. It’s one of the most diverse cities in the country. To do it here is very special,” said celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson.

The festival kicked off as local leaders gathered in a pavilion on festival grounds to pay their respects to address Sugar Land’s history of slavery and convict leasing, including the Sugar Land 95, where 94 men and one woman died under convict leasing and were buried on land that Fort Bend ISD now owns. The goal for both festival organizers and Fort Bend County leaders is to celebrate Black culture by honoring the stories of the past.

Organizers also launched a couple of initiatives. The first is the Honeyland Fund to address systemic inequities and barriers faced by Black-led organizations, Black creatives, and Black-serving entities in hospitality, events, and cultural industries. Their goal is to invest $1 million in grants to Black creators over the span of three years.

HISD students were presented each with a $1,000 scholarship fund by the Honeyland organizers. (Credit: Laura Onyeneho)

The second is The Honey Crew, a culinary career pipeline program for under-resourced students at HISD and New York-based nonprofit Careers through Culinary Arts Program. It will provide these competitively selected high school students with educational programming, healthy eating resources, and access to industry professionals.

Investing the youth

Students from Jack Yates High School’s audio and visual program and students from Northside and Wheatley High School’s Culinary CTE program were each presented with a $1,000 scholarship fund to invest in their futures.

“We have to invest in our students. Each student has a different life outside of the classroom. We must guide them to those equitable opportunities,” said KaTarsha Walker-Nwosu, CTE coordinator II for HISD. “We are preparing each student for college, career, or military. Whatever they choose.”

The Eats and Sips Stage introduced an all-star culinary, cocktails, and culture lineup hosted by award-winning television personality Kalen Allen and singer/songwriter LeToya Luckett. The showcase brought delicious food, beverage demonstrations, good conversation, and culinary competitions.

Attendees enjoyed a range of sessions, including a cooking demonstration from Houston hip-hop legend Bun B’s Trill Burger and a chat with Drink Champs, Ghetto Gastro and musician-turned-chef, Kelis, to honor the 50th anniversary of hip-hop to the ‘Girls Night In’ themed event with nationally syndicated radio personality Angela Ye and award-winning media and vegan food personality Tabitha Brown discussing love, life, and legacy.

“For us to be a part of the inception, the genesis of this is big because we are setting the tone, we’re working out the kinks, and we’re doing this as family,” said Jon Gray, co-founder of Ghetto Gastro.

Food Influencer entertaining a crowd of festival-goers on stage.
Emmy Nominated TV Host Kardea Brown joins Award-winning Bartender Josh Davis on the Honeyland Festival Eat and Sip Stage in Houston. (Credit: Jimmie Aggison)

Houston’s own Essence Festival

Samuelson said the festival was a “massive undertaking in terms of space.” And from the feedback the Defender team gathered on the ground, not only was it described to be “Houston’s own Essence Festival,” it certainly has some areas of improvement.

The weather forecast impacted the festival. The rain held off the first day, but not on the second, and the no-umbrella policy frustrated many. That didn’t stop the waves of people toughing it out in the rain on Sunday with colorful ponchos waiting for Mary J. Blige to close the festival.

Aundrea Eli, a Houston resident, sat with her family in the section of the Beat Stage that only allowed the standing section to be in front while chairs were provided for those in the back.

“Having the standing room in front of the sitting area is backward because we had so many people stand right in front of us, and we were lower,” she said. “It would make sense for them to stand behind us so we can properly enjoy the experience.”

Supporting Black businesses

Another festival attendee, Jen B., said her vision was for the festival to be hosted during the summer months or earlier in the year to “boost more Houston area Black business who didn’t partake in the festival.” She also shared her concerns over the operation process.

“Next time, I hope they make sure the vendors are properly supported to feed as many people because there is so much activity going on,” she said. “We waited an hour and 45 minutes for food, and we missed the Tobe Nwigwe performance because of it. We hopped into another food line, and it was a two-hour wait time.”

Festival attendees Joe B. and Jen B. are enjoying a meal at the first Honeyland Festival in Houston. (Credit: Laura Onyeneho)

Her friend Joe. B noted that the experience of the food portion of the festival would be enhanced if vendors were “serving samples of various items” so people could choose what meals were best to buy.

Despite the hiccups, there wasn’t one person who said they wouldn’t return if it came back to Houston. The Defender asked Samuelsson whether the festival would be a permanent fixture in the city, and let’s just say everyone has to keep their fingers crossed.

“I don’t think we can speak on where we will be next year yet, but I think for the first year, this has been perfect, even with the rain,” he said.

I cover Houston's education system as it relates to the Black community for the Defender as a Report for America corps member. I'm a multimedia journalist and have reported on social, cultural, lifestyle,...