Brian Jones Kraft
A lot of people found themselves bewildered on September 9 after a disastrous event called the NYC Pizza Festival. Some attendees had paid up to $75 for the food fest which turned out to yield nothing more than cold, kiddie sized portions of pizza served on paper plates in a parking lot across the street from Popeye’s at Knickerbocker and Flushing Avenues.
“The Fyre Festival of Pizza” made the internet rounds for a news cycle or two, reaching at least as far as the Daily Mail in England, and blogs briefly got busy coming up with dough related puns for a pizza related scandal. Aside from Gothamist conducting a brief interview and running a black and white photo of the organizer’s smiling face near the top of that site for a day or two, no one really bothered to ask much about the man behind the fest, Ishmael Osekre, whose history with ill-fated food events was already established after 2016’s widely panned NYC African Food Festival.
Scheduled at the same time, and in the same place as the Pizza Fest was an event called the NYC Burger Festival, promising “‘mountains of French Fries, Oceans of Ketchup and Waterfalls of Beer.” And the gift for grandly braindead evocation was as Trumpian as Osekre’s jumbled description of what went wrong in an interview with Gothamist:
“…It’s exciting when food arrives every 30-45 minutes—and so many boxes of pizzas and it’s fresh and it’s hot and people see it and they are sharing—which is part of what we were trying to go for. The excitement and enthusiasm around that, coming from different pizzerias…”
Barely anyone even remembered ask Osekre what happened to all the burgers.
His Mark on the Music Scene
New York music scenesters may have caught Osekre in the past fronting Osekre and the Lucky Bastards, a raucous ska/afrobeat outfit whose tunes have been compared to Fela Kuti and The Clash by local publications. Readers of the Huffington Post may have browsed one of his articles enthusiastically chronicling 21st century Afrocentric culture. Through his blogging platform and brand Afropolitan Insights, Osekre has organized numerous music and culture events over the better part of the past decade, including Aputumpu, a music event, and the Jollof Festival, a celebration of the traditional West African rice dish, held this summer in New York and Washington, D.C.
With his Ghanian immigrant background and enthusiastic boosting of African culture, its easy to think of Osekre as maybe a guy with good intentions who just gets in over his head.
Another former acquaintance, Daniel (not his real name) recalls Osekre as a musician who could barely tune a guitar but easily recruited band members and scored gigs through sheer charisma, and who also led the Lucky Bastards on a disastrous 2013 tour that was from the start a parade of hastily improvised deceptions too numerous and labyrinthine to list here, eventually leaving an Osekre-less band largely high and dry by the end. Daniel next saw him in 2015, when he recalls Osekre improvising a quick lie to grift a Bushwick rehearsal space for a few hours of free practice time.
“It was impressive-he made a scam right in front of my face in 30 seconds, and I hadn’t seen him in two years,” Daniel told Bushwick Daily.
Osekre is impressive. At their peak, the Lucky Bastards were a well-oiled machine. He radiates an easy charm that can make even a brief online chat seem like touching base with an old friend. His confidence seems downright Tom Cruise-ian. “Pizza is easy,” he puzzlingly told Crain’s New York last week.
Chuck (also not his real name), a longtime collaborator of Osekre’s had this to say in a Gothamist comment thread after the pizza fest: “He’s just an asshole, that has gotten by by being endearing, calculating, and manipulative.”
When we reached out to him for more details, Chuck, whose partnership with Osekre lasted years, offered a few gotta-hand-it-to-him compliments like, “He works his ass off. He’s a fucking animal,” even describing him at one point as “like a brother still, I suppose.” But also added: “He’s not harmless, he’s an asshole and will take advantage of peoples’ kindness and help.”
At times his former associates seemed to hint at an absurdly cryptic personality (“He’s very secretive… no one knows how old he is.”), but Chuck seemed to sum up Osekre’s M.O. with the lamentation: “In his head he’s this genius businessman, but he puts too much work on himself and shit falls apart. When it falls apart, he takes the money and runs.”
His History With Brooklyn events
At some point as his ambitions ballooned, so did the scale of the dubiously planned events.
Although Chuck recalls a Bushwick warehouse show that was supposed to feature Wu-Tang Clan member Inspectah Deck as a headliner (“… Inspectah Deck never showed”), Osekre’s reputation for food related disasters began to solidify around the time of 2016’s NYC African Food Fest.
Eagerly anticipated in some circles, attendees would afterwards describe a boiling hot summer day where they were shoved into the event space—an actual greenhouse—to sweatily sample the culinary output of only a fraction of the promised two dozen chefs, with none of the other promised attractions. (There was water; it was expensive.) One festival-goer, Nicholas Cummins, had his inquiry for a refund met with the e-mailed response:
“We are unable to refund any tickets at this time but can guarantee you a spot on our private post festival dinner for festival attendants as well as free tickets to next year’s event.”
Shortly before the September 9 fest, Osekre made a brief appearance in a Forbes article (headline: “When Accidental Inspiration Sparks Entrepreneurial Ideas”), where he could be found reflecting on the fallout from the, in his words, ‘far from perfect’ African festival and waxing inspirational about how it, along with a Kendrick Lamar song, led to a new venture: The Gonna Be Alrite Self Care Festival, which went down August 19 at the historic Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn.
There, “hundreds of people received free massages, yoga classes, and guided meditation sessions; there were panel discussions on nutrition and food justice, mental health.” A Weeksville employee named Danielle who was present at the event noted that aside from some some minor scheduling hiccups, there were “no major issues” and described Osekre as “friendly.”
No ink was spilled in Forbes for the actual victims of Osekre’s event. In the imagination of a good capitalist, it seems, disasters like that are perfectly fertile ground for more capitalism. It’s notable that the self care event, his last pre-pizza fest engagement, utilizes the term popularized so many Trump resisting liberals. Its Eventbrite description is as chock full of typos as it is good intentioned platitudes; however, as more than one African Food Fest attendee pointed out in disgruntled Facebook threads, failures like that one can actually hurt the black small business community by sowing cynicism and mistrust.
Daniel agrees: “… the way he plays the immigrant card, it really annoys me. I am an immigrant, so I feel insulted by how he rocks that flag.”
his next moves
Where does Osekre’s story go from here? His latest exploits have landed him an investigation by the state attorney general, although glancing at his social media, he appears collected, hashtagging #wefallwetripwestandwewalkwefly, and writing “to all my entrepreneur friends out there: there is no guarantee that you will succeed because you tried, but truly, what is there to be gained from hiding your potential, abilities or from your dreams?”
We reached out to Osekre for comment on this piece, but due to the pending investigation, he was reluctant to grant the interview request.
Eventbrite, along with Goldstar Discount Tickets, refunded Pizza & Burger Fest ticket buyers last week. But there are seven upcoming events organized by Ishamel in cities such as Atlanta, Houston, and Los Angeles. At least one, An Ankara Bazaar NYC, an African themed fashion show that was to be held at the Midtown Loft and Terrace, has been cancelled after the expected attendance exceeded the venue’s maximum capacity and a payment was not delivered. (The bad headlines probably weren’t helping, either.)
“It’s been a bit of a mess,” says Amber Star, the manager in charge of booking at that venue, saying “he didn’t really give too much info” about his plans for the event. And so it goes…
Featured image by Chip Shannon via Facebook.