OKLAHOMA CITY (Free Press) — On June 19th, 1865, news of the Emancipation Proclamation was spread through Texas, the last of the formerly Confederate states to be freed of the horrors of slavery, and the unofficial holiday and cultural landmark of Juneteenth was born.
Just last year, over 150 years later, President Biden finally cemented the day into law by making Juneteenth an official federal holiday.
The long overdue and frustratingly ignored recognition of Juneteenth has never stopped the celebrations and festivities, however, as African-American led communities across the country have openly celebrated the holiday, official or not, for decades. The recent federal recognition has only served to increase both the visibility and the size of the celebrations.
It was with this eye toward increased visibility and viability for the holiday that OKC’s own activist, entrepreneur, restaurateur, public art patron, and rapper extraordinaire, Jabee Williams, sought to launch a full-scale Juneteenth block party and festival for OKC’s historically black east side, “Juneteenth on the East.”
Music and Film
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The family-friendly event features education initiatives, food, public art, and even a 5K charity run.
But of course, the music takes center stage, especially with Grammy-winning singer Mya topping the bill.
“The lineup was really a collaboration between myself and [Oklahoma Contemporary Programs Curator and nonprofit administrator] Marie Casimir,” Williams told me. “She and I get together and go through all the music submissions and try and pick who’s the best and who we think will fit with the story we’re trying to tell this year.”
That story being told through the event’s music is intended to be one of inclusion and invitation for all different ages and sensibilities, and is designed to build off of last year’s performances.
“Last year, our headliner was a hip-hop artist, and this year they’re R&B artists,” he said. “So of course we’re going to lean more toward an R&B lineup this year.”
Williams says he knows that his involvement means that people might be expecting a more straightforward, rap-oriented roster of artists, but he doesn’t want that to be the focus of the festival. Instead, he says his goal is to explore the wider world and history of African-American music throughout the festival’s iterations, and to make that history accessible to guests and visitors.
“I want it to be all-inclusive, you know,” Williams said. “With these soul and R&B artists, if you think about it, that’s kind of the essence of the history of black music, even as far back as singing gospel in church. So that’s part of it, too. I just wanted it to be really well-rounded and not, you know, just a rap show because I’m putting it out.”
This year’s lineup of R&B-focused artists isn’t just about harkening back to history, but looking ahead to the present and future by elevating some of the most impressive voices and talents the genre has to offer, starting with one of OKC’s brightest rising stars, singer/pianist Sarafina Byrd.
“I’ve seen her over the past couple of years,” Williams said, “and I’m just like ‘why isn’t she bigger?’”
Visiting artist Ché Noir’s presence at the festival, in addition to her electrifyingly soulful hip-hop game, also carries another, more solemn connotation, as she hails from Buffalo, New York.
“We actually had her booked before the stuff in Buffalo happened,” Williams said, referring to that city’s racially-motivated mass shooting that claimed ten lives in May. “After that happened, it really felt like we’ve got to get her down here so that they know we’re supporting what they’re going through up there.”
Ultimately, Williams’ hope is that this festival can return year after year and evolve into a bigger, potentially even multi-day event, showcasing all that OKC’s black culture, and the city’s east side in particular, have to celebrate.
“That’s definitely the goal,” he told me. “Multiple nights. Multiple stages. Eventually maybe even take up more of the street. There’s a lot of space on 23rd, you know. Right now, we have two blocks, but maybe one day, four or five blocks.”
With the support of the city, the growing recognition and anticipation of Juneteenth, and the flowering, evolving community of OKC’s east side, it’s a safe bet that “Juneteenth on the East” has a long life ahead of it.
“This is only the beginning,” Williams said. “If we continue to do it, continue to do it right, and just put the community first, then the community will support it. It’ll be great.”
“Juneteenth on the East” runs Saturday, June 18th from 3:00pm to 9:00pm on NE 23rd Street, from N. Kelham Ave. to N. Hood St., and is presented by With Love OKC, a nonprofit collaboration between Jabee Williams and the Oklahoma Mural Syndicate.
For schedules, maps, and more information, visit withloveokc.org.
Last Updated June 14, 2022, 7:45 PM by Brett Dickerson – Editor