KENDRA SITTON | Uptown News
Hundreds gathered in an empty field at Balboa Park for a celebration and a commemoration on Juneteenth. The event, titled “Artist 4 Black Lives,” included performances from several local Black artists as well as displays of visual art.
“We are here to not only protest the injustices that we face here in America, but we are also here to celebrate Juneteenth, mourn our brothers and sisters that we’ve lost over American history and to show love — amplify Black artists, amplify Black voices,” organizer Eboni Muse said.
Ahead of the event, organizers hoped for 100 people to come together to honor Black lives lost and celebrate Black lives still here. Instead, over 1,000 people came to the sit in in the grass near President’s Way.
13-year-old Alanna Jolee performed her original song “I Can’t Breathe” based on some of George Floyd’s last words. In a moment of levity, drag performer Friidae danced for the jubilant crowd. After uproarious applause, the artist explained this was the biggest audience she had ever performed for. The varied performances included acoustic bands, poetry, hip-hop, and testimony from a local woman brutally arrested at a recent protest.
On the visual art side, canvases displayed support for Black Lives Matter. Mechanical engineering student Rylee Pamelar explained he felt the need to use his drawing skill to draw attention to recent victims of police killings.
The event was planned in barely a week after actor Eileen Bowman posted on social media asking how local artists will respond to the recent uprising in response to the police killing of George Floyd.
“A lot of us were calling to our theaters wondering why we hadn’t heard from them and to other artists that are allies and why we haven’t heard from them. While we did that, one of my really awesome allies, [Bowman] posted ‘What are we going to do?’” explained Muse, who spearheaded the event. “We threw out some ideas and one of the ideas was ‘We should do a sit and sing.’”
After the decision of what type of event to hold, Muse reached out to a handful of close friends who are Black women artists. They planned the event and brought on several artists to perform. In addition, Ben & Jerry’s served hundreds of people free ice cream from a canopy at the park. Free food was also given to attendees with some donation options.
Muse said the date was picked to coincide with the Juneteenth celebrations as well as to fight back against President Trump’s decision to host a campaign rally in Tulsa on the important African-American holiday (after an outcry, Trump changed the date of the rally to Saturday, June 20). Tulsa is the location of a race massacre in 1921 where a thriving Black middle-class neighborhood was destroyed with hundreds murdered.
“We thought that is very disrespectful and we needed to clap back,” she added.
The Juneteenth holiday originated in Texas in 1865 when enslaved people were told they were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation which was signed nearly two-and-a-half years before.
Muse did not grow up celebrating the holiday but after learning about it as a teenager, intentionally began celebrating it in lieu of Fourth of July. Despite its significance, the holiday has not received federal recognition.
“It should be something that’s important to everyone because it is a part of American history,” Muse said. “It should be something that everyone celebrates and it should be a national holiday.”
As Juneteenth gains broader recognition in mainstream America, that comes with a complicated mix of feelings. Kovu, a leader in the San Diego Black Lives Matter chapter, explained that he does not want to see the holiday cheapened by commercialization or used as an excuse to party.
“It’s fine… just understand what it is. I don’t want it to get Cinco de Mayo’ed,” Kovu said. “That’s not what this is. It’s a celebration as well as a commemoration. Because, yes, our independence, but with that we have to understand that just represents that our independence happened way beforehand and we just got told about it. So it’s a call to the informed.”
Kovu grew up celebrating the holiday after his mom explained that it was their independence day and a part of their culture, a culture others would try to claim was stolen or lost to history. Kovu did hear messages denying the existence of Black culture as a child so Juneteenth celebrations made him feel proud and affirmed his existence.
At the Juneteenth art event, one of the first speakers emphasized how this history should not be overlooked.
“It’s not just Black history. It’s U.S. history. It’s world history,” she said.
Kendra Sitton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.