The rise and fall of ATL’s wildest spring break street party, as told by those who lived it.
As told to Angel Elliott (@AngelElliott)
Atlanta, 1992. A burgeoning black mecca teeming with young professionals, hot weather, and undeniable energy. Colorful tricked out Caddies and dope boy Benzes sittin’ on rims as tall as your waist stuck at a standstill on the overcrowded 75/85 connector. Fine young women on the come-up sporting finger waves and Poetic Justice braids hustlin’ to class, anticipating the weekend to come. Guys in oversized shirts, crew socks, and Cross Colors abound while Chris Lova Lova and PoonDaddy drop the latest bass-heavy joint on Hot 97.5 FM, all against the backdrop of a bucolic yet urbane Southern city. Something is about to go down in ATL, and it’s freaky.
To this day, the word Freaknik prompts chastising looks and tight-lipped conversations in certain circles.
Although the name Freaknik now conjures images of scantily clad, curvaceous women, crowded streets, and Sodom and Gomorrah–style public fun (and to some, lewd violence and animalistic behavior that denigrated and shamed Atlanta’s black community), it had humble beginnings. It all started in 1982 as a small picnic thrown by Spelman and Morris Brown students who needed a little hip midterm get-down. Soon, the picnic began to attract other students from nearby black colleges like Morehouse and Clark Atlanta. Where’d the infamous name Freaknik come from? A ’70s dance called the “The Bump,” also known as freaking.
Without Twitter and Instagram to spread the word, HBCU insiders who had their ear to the original social network—also known as “the grapevine”—helped turn that picnic into a black cultural phenomenon. Spike Lee’s 1988 film School Daze referenced the festival, and on a November 30, 1989 episode of NBC’s A Different World, the characters Whitley Gilbert and Freddie were desperate to make their way down to the freaky festival.
Once largely ignored by the city of Atlanta, Freaknik steadily grew in size and soon local officials were desperately trying to organize the sexually charged melee by adding a career fair, concession stands along Auburn Avenue, and community basketball games. They even attempted name changes like the Sweet Auburn Festival and Black College Weekend, but their efforts were all in vain. By 1992, the little picnic had turned into a full-on street party without inhibitions, boasting some 200,000 attendees overrunning almost every part of the city, and crowding out residents and workers who made their living there. Thus, the legend of Freaknik was born.
As its popularity grew, so did the dollars pouring in from college students coming to partake in some ratchet fun. By 1994, the festival was adding as much as $20 million to the city’s economy. But what happens when you leave college students to their own devices and mix parties, drinking, word-of-mouth hype, a local government turning a blind eye, and an unfettered desire to get down? Trouble. Which explains why this is a story some would prefer to leave untold. To this day, the word Freaknik prompts chastising looks and tight-lipped conversations in certain circles.
Nothing seemed to be off limits to the revelers, who poured in from all over the country during the third weekend of April to get down during spring break. Testosterone-and-alcohol-drunk young men with camcorders came to make their weekend an orgy of honeys and hip-hop. Women abandoned their scruples and clothes—ready for whatever. Back then, rap was in its infancy, and it became the soundtrack to the revelry. For many rappers, Freaknik was their opportunity to break their Dirty South sounds to the world. Freaknik also helped paved the way for many of today's music videos featuring women sporting little-to-no clothing and flaunting overly abundant assets as public twerking became the norm.
Testosterone-and-alcohol-drunk young men with camcorders came to make their weekend an orgy of honeys and hip-hop. Women abandoned their scruples and clothes—ready for whatever.
Atlanta residents came to regard the festival as a plague that swarmed their city every third week in April. Residents would rush to grocery stores, take leave from their jobs, and escape the city as if a natural disaster was on the way. Businesses shut down, roads were blocked off, and then Police Chief Beverly Harvard allocated $300,000 in overtime to beef up the 1,800-person police force. By 1994, attendance had grown way beyond college students. Folks were pouring in from all over the country and a sinister element seeped into the crowds that inundated the city from Piedmont Park to Auburn Avenue. By time Mayor Bill Campbell was elected in 1994, the city had grown weary of hosting up to 400,000 party people.
Once the hype around Freaknik reached a fever pitch, and downtown Atlanta was overrun with the young and nasty, Mayor Bill Campbell cracked down, appointing a special committee on Freaknik consisting of city council members. Violence was on the rise—in 1995 a reported 2,000 crimes were committed, ranging from indecent exposure to rape. In a 1997 interview with the Associated Press, Campbell lamented, “Few issues in the city of Atlanta have been as divisive in the last 10 years. It is a very difficult weekend even under the best of circumstances.”
When word came that Atlanta would be hosting the 1996 Summer Olympics, the city put on its white hat and went into clean-up mode. There was one last effort at re-organizing Freaknik and re-naming it Spring Jam ’97, but their efforts were to no avail.
Attempts to revive the festival have been made in subsequent years, but nothing could replicate the unfettered, wanton atmosphere that was Freaknik’s essence. Past attendees stored it in their memories, but was that a rose-hued reflection of an event that was really violent and hedonistic in nature? Let the people who were there tell you the story of one of the most freaky phenomena in American history.
Derrick Boazman - Morris Brown Graduate, 1990; former Atlanta City Councilman ’97
Bun B - Rapper
Joe Compton - Freaknik attendee ’94
Jermaine Dupri - Rapper, Producer, Founder of So So Def Records
Adina Howard - Singer, known as the “Queen of Freaknik”
Panama Jackson - Morehouse Alum, Attended ’97, ’98
Uncle Luke - Rapper, Founder of Luke Records
Killer Mike - Rapper, broke into the rap game during Freaknik
Alex Tehrani - Photographer, shot Freaknik for Vibe in ’96
Nika Watkins - Freaknik attendee ’95, ’96, ’97
Kameelah Williams - Lead singer, performed with her group 702 during Freaknik