Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Voice of Madison’s artists: The Black Arts Festival 2023

Founder Shasparay Irvin tells us about origin of Black Arts Matter Festival
Shauna Breneman / Wisconsin Union

A few years ago, Shasparay Irvin was an undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin. Originally from Austin, Texas, she was involved in many art forms but primarily interested in spoken word poetry. While attending UW, she decided to join “The Studio,” a student learning community for artists, writers, musicians and other creative endeavors on the third floor of Ogg Residence Hall, Irvin said. 

This decision, along with a few others, would change Irvin’s undergraduate experience and the course of her education. Irvin is founder and artistic director of the Black Arts Matter Festival an annual event providing Black artists in Madison, and beyond, with a stage and an environment to be heard in.

This year, the fourth annual BAM Festival is taking place at Memorial Union from Nov. 8 to Nov. 12. Irvin, along with the Wisconsin Union Directorate Art Committee and other sponsors, are excited to commemorate the event. 


The BAM Festival brings some of the top slam poets from across the nation and Grammy award-nominee musicians to elementary, middle and high school students with aspiration and passion for the arts, according to the Wisconsin Union’s website.  It is a space where artists, especially Black artists, can have a voice. This is Irvin’s ambition — to provide a stage where people can be heard. 

Today, the festival has grown into an annual artistic gathering where artists come from across the nation to take part in competitions with prizes up to $2,000.   

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The seed of such a still emerging artistic gathering can be found in Irvin’s undergraduate days at UW.  

As part of the student community, The Studio, Irvin was eligible for the Studio Creative Arts Award — a learning service grant for members of The Studio.  

Learning that professor of printmaking and Creative Arts Community Faculty Director, Faisal Abdu’Allah, was one of the judges, Irvin decided to apply for the grant but had no aspirations of its achievement. 

Taking inspiration from her own experiences of the difficulty in finding a stage, she decided to come up with an event which would provide this city and Wisconsin a place where black artists could share their work. 

“I was always going to a different city, a different town to compete in poetry slams, and to be a part of these different festivals,” Irvin said. “I thought why not create my own and bring some of my friends into Madison? Because most of the poets have never stepped foot in Wisconsin.”

With the assistance of her mentor and director of the Bolz Center for Arts Administration, Sarah Marty, Irvin wrote her grant to the Division of the Arts.  

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The other judge of the Studio Creative Arts was said to be Marina Kelly — a multidisciplinary artist then involved with The Studio. Kelly and Abdu’Allah decided that year to award the grant to Irvin and the creation of her event — the Black Arts Matter Festival.  

“Honestly, I was just writing it to get feedback on my grant writing in case I ever had to write a grant as an artist, you know, get some practice,” Irvin said. “Instead of it being actual practice, [the Division of the Arts] was like, ‘No, that’s great. Do that.’ Fortunately, I actually had to figure out how to make it work.” 

Irvin was not expecting herself to achieve the grant. It was between $300 to $400, but was not enough to bring about the event, according to Irvin. It was a start, however, and meant now she had to do it and it was no longer just an idea.  

It would be almost two years before she would amass the funding and resources to bring about the first festival done using various grants and the Madison Public Library Bubbler Program.  

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This year, the festival has grown in size and constitutes many funds from various institutions including the Wisconsin Alumni Association, Madison Arts Commission, Dane Arts and Wisconsin Arts board to name a few.  

It is said to open with “Apologetically BLK” exhibition by Mawhyah Milton, a New York artist who uses her work to voice various social and political issues and an opening reception by DJ Femme Noir. The grammy-nominated R&B band Tank and the Bangas is expected to be present during the festival.

The main event this year is the All-Star Poetry Slam, inviting many of America’s renowned slam poets like Steven Willis, Ebony Stewart, Jumaane Hill and Black Chakra who hold national and international rankings, according to Irvin. They will be competing for a prize of $3,000, $2,000 and $1,000 prizes. The judges are said to be picked from the audience just before the completion, providing an interactive experience.

This year, the festival is said to include an art market where local artists and Black-owned businesses in Madison open their collections and products to the people and a Youth Talent competition giving space for school children to compete and showcase a variety of their art forms.  

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All events are to happen at Memorial Union with the Art Market happening at Madison Youth Arts Center.  

Irvin’s main objective is to not only represent black artists but to also have people learn of art.  

“What I’m trying to do is make sure that people enjoy the festival and that they learn from the festival because it does have goals of being arts education,” Irvin said.

Today, she is a proud graduate of the Wisconsin School of Business Bolz Center with a master’s degree in Arts Administration and a Bachelor of Science degree in Theatre. She hopes to continue the festival as long as she can.  

“I’m trying to make sure that people have opportunities and because I was randomly given this platform to, you know, give those opportunities, ” Irvin said. ‘That’s what I’m doing and I’ll do it as long as I’m able.”

Someday, Irvin would like to see this as a national or international event becoming the voice of artists around the world and the voice of Madison.  

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