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Toledo-raised performers headline African American Festival

<i>Lori King/Toledo Blade</i><br/>Aniyah McCalister
Lori King/Toledo Blade
Lori King/Toledo Blade
Aniyah McCalister

By Madison Hahamy

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    TOLEDO, Ohio (Toledo Blade) — Homegrown talent is a highlight of the Toledo Urban Federal Credit Union’s African American Festival, which is back after a pandemic cancellation for its 16th year on Friday and Saturday.

The festival includes a prayer breakfast, parade, and performances, most notably by singers Lyfe Jennings and Shirley Murdock, both native Toledoans who have not returned to the city in more than a year. Suzette Cowell, CEO of the Toledo Urban Federal Credit Union, said that the local ties that can be found throughout the two-day festival are intentional and ensure that the festival has “a hometown feeling.” The festival is extra special this year, she added, because the credit union is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

The African American Festival kicks off on Friday, with a prayer breakfast at 8 a.m. at the Glass City Metropark Pavilion, 1001 Front St., Toledo. Tickets, $10, are available at Toledo Urban Federal Credit Union, 1441 Dorr St., Toledo.

On Saturday, a parade then steps off at 10 a.m. from the intersection of Dorr Street and North Detroit Avenue. It’s set to wind through the neighborhood through noon. Shortly afterward, at 2 p.m., the festival begins with live entertainment at Promenade Park, 224 Water St. Along with Jennings and Murdock, the lineup features Jay Rush, Bobby G, Lakeside, the Zapp Band, Tin Cunningham, and Darius Coleman.

General admission to the festival is $20 and can be purchased at the Toledo Urban Federal Credit Union or

Jennings and Murdock will both be performing at the main stage. In separate interviews, both discussed their relationship to Toledo, indicated their excitement to be performing again, and gave glowing reviews to the same local pizza joint.

Lyfe Jennings, an R&B singer and songwriter who described his music style as “passionate,” grew up in Toledo, though he currently lives in Atlanta. He said that he always knew he wanted to be a singer and that his talent “opened doors” for him. Jennings tries to return to his hometown once or twice a year, he said, but “just kind of got busy with life” and has not made it back in recent years.

Though he has been performing since September, Jennings said that he is especially excited to return to Toledo to “show people, especially younger people, that there’s something else that you can do with your life.”

“They hear it,” he continued, “but to actually be able to see and touch it is more realistic.”

In previous years, Jennings has performed at the Stranahan Theater and other venues in Toledo, where he says that he bases his setlist on requests from the crowd and the general “feel” of the audience.

While he’s primarily returning to Toledo to perform, Jennings also said that he’s making sure to grab a slice of Gino’s pizza. “You never find a pizza like that,” he said with a laugh.

Shirley Murdock, also an R&B singer and songwriter, cannot remember a time when she couldn’t sing. She always thought that she’d be a gospel singer, “singing like a grown woman ever since I was a little girl” in church choirs. She attended Toledo’s Calvary Baptist Church and graduated from St. Ursula Academy.

Her singing style reflects this soul and gospel influence, including hits such as “As We Lay” and a remake of the Lionel Richie song “Jesus is Love.”

Although Murdock has relatives who live in Toledo, she now resides in Dayton and has not returned since the pandemic began. “When I found out I had the opportunity to go back home, I was so excited,” she said. “Everywhere that I go, always make sure that I tell people I’m from Toledo. I’ve always been blessed to know that, when I come home, I see that support and love.

Murdock also noted how excited she is to visit the Toledo Museum of Art where, as a child at Lincoln Elementary School, she would take classes every Saturday. And just like Jennings, her favorite food in the area is also Gino’s Pizza.

“Gino’s Pizza will give you life,” she emphasized over the phone.

Of her ultimate performance, Murdock said that people can expect to be both entertained and inspired.

“I always want to leave [audiences] with something that will help them get through tough times, leave them with a song that will strengthen their faith,” she said.

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