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My Detroit Story: Wedding at African World Festival

in My Detroit Story by

Thornetta Davis and James Cornelius Anderson became engaged to be wed in 2005. At times during her stage performance Thornetta will joke about the time it took for her to find “the right man”. If you’ve had the opportunity to witness James and Thornetta together, the impact of their bond is humbling. Thornetta is a gem of Detroit’s vocal talents. Thornetta carries a historic tradition of soul, blues, and rock divas of Detroit. James is a world class percussionist. James has performed alongside a collection of funk, reggae, and rock artists across the globe. Together their marriage is a mix of business, artistry, and spirituality built upon love.

This is the story of their memorable wedding day, August 17th 2008, at the 26th Annual African World Festival in Detroit’s Historic Hart Plaza.

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African Drummers, James and Thornetta, and Thornetta

For the three years during their engagement James and Thornetta were consistently approached with the same question: “When and where is the wedding?” Originally the wedding was planned to take place on Belle Isle. The Detroit Grand Prix derailed that. Shortly after the Grand Prix, during a performance at Detroit’s Tastiest, Thornetta and James realized they should have been married right then and there between performance sets. “We always wanted to get married outdoors while allowing the city to join the ceremony and celebration,” said Thornetta, “So when I saw the crowd full of family and friends I felt we missed a perfect opportunity to host our wedding.”

Days after the Tastiest performance, Thornetta received a call from Njia Kai, who is an event specialist that has helped execute and produce performances at major cultural events throughout Detroit for over 25 years. Njia knew of Thornetta and James’ plan to host their wedding outdoors and before Detroit. So when Njia took the helm as the event coordinator for the 2008 African World Festival, she reached out to Thornetta with a simple offer: “I’m running the African World Festival this year and I got three days so pick a time for your wedding”. Thornetta immediately shared the news with James and planning for the wedding began.

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Bridesmaids, Kem, and Groomsmen

One of the most challenging elements of the process turned out to be the catering. Thornetta and James had planned their dream wedding. This dream was full of a mix of African, Caribbean, and Southern American foods. The director of Detroit’s Board of Health was originally not on board with the plan. Thornetta writes:

“Our caterer visited [Detroit’s Board of Health Director] a series of times and felt she was disrespectful towards her. Specifically she said she was ‘evil.’ The director of the Board of Health requested our caterer pay for an African World Festival vending permit, Hart Plaza kitchen access, and city permits. The collective costs for all this access was unreasonable. James and I talked our caterer into a final meeting with the director of the Board of Health and one fateful Friday morning we visited her office and waited. Luckily, as we waited three hours for the director of the Board of Health to arrive to work, we had the chance to fill out all the paper work needed to cater the event. So when the director of the Board of Health finally arrived to her office three hours late, and welcomed all of us [James, Thornetta, and the caterer] into her office we were ready. We sat down at her desk and she asked us: ‘so ya’ll still wanna’ do this thang?’ As angry as I was that she called my wedding a ‘thang’ I patiently responded yes. After that the director of the Board of Health continued to question us with every possible reason why a wedding at African World Festival was a bad idea … ‘where will people park?,’ ‘where will people sit?,’ ‘why do yall’ want to get married outside?,’ and finally she asked ‘what if it rains?’ I told the lady I don’t think it will rain because God got this. Immediately after I said that her whole attitude changed. She went from questioning everything I said, to helping us out. She provided clearances for kitchens, tables, chairs, and full access to Hart Plaza. Upon leaving her office that day she thanked us all for starting her day off so well.”

The stage was finally set for a wonderful occasion. Singer-Songwriter and Detroit native Kim had agreed to sing at their wedding years before, and flew in from his tour in San Fransisco to make good on his promise. The Bill Moss Jr. choir, who had performed at the Festival earlier that day, sang during the ceremony. Finally, Kenfense Cheike led a group of African percussionists and dancers who had also been featured in the African World Festival. Every element that was planned to be in the wedding of Thornetta and James came together in a harmonious celebration of culture, love, and Detroit. Thornetta remembers the honor of spending the day preparing for her wedding with her mother and daughter (Thornetta’s daughter Wanakee Davis was a fellow classmate of mine when I attended King High School from 1998-1999). The ceremony was one of the most memorable events in the history of Detroit’s African World Festival.

Today, eight years after the ceremony James and Thornetta are still approached by many Detroiters with the statement: “I was there”. “The wedding was also moving for so many people and their relationships,” said James, “Many of our friends who attended mended broken relationships and began new ones from that day forward.”

After the ceremony, James and Thornetta led their percussion ensemble to the Pyramid stage in hart Plaza for her performance. In her wedding veil, Thornetta performed for Detroit, sharing the joy of her wedding day with the audience. She opened her set with “Honest Woman,” written in honor of James. This song will be featured on her upcoming album to be released this year.

James wrote a poem that was placed on the invitations, reprinted here with his permission, in honor of Thornetta.

Once upon a time in the city by the river …
There was a girl
The blues she would sing
A voice heard the world over
There was a boy
The music he would promote
For the people in the city by the river
Two people in the city by the river
Two people who share
The same hopes, dreams, aspirations
For Detroit, for music, for love,
On Sunday, August 17, 2008 at 3:30pm
At Phillip Hart Plaza
At the African World Festival
On this day of love will be fulfilled
As two unite as one in holy matrimony
A reception jam session from 7pm to 9pm
At the Nile River Jazz Club Stage
With music to share and love to give
A charmed life they will live
And all is well in the city by the river

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