Kicking off a weekend of celebrations, the Juneteenth Foundation hosted the star-studded Juneteenth Honors at the Warner Theatre on Thursday. Featuring show-stopping performances, encouraging speeches, empowering award presentations and calls to action, the Juneteenth Honors celebrated liberation, while reminding audiences there’s more work to be done in the fight for freedom.
“Often our holidays get commercialized and they get shut down, and they get pushed to the side,” said Laquan Austion, CEO and founder of the Juneteenth Foundation. “We continue to do Juneteenth in a major way.”
Organized by a group of professionals, the Juneteenth Foundation is a 501(c)(3) organization founded with the “purpose of building a movement to recognize Juneteenth and celebrate the excellence of Black culture and freedom.”
With the black tie awards- ceremony kicking off this year’s third annual Freedom Festival, the foundation featured performances from the likes of Ashanti and Ja Rule, Lalah Hathaway and members of Howard University’s choir. MC Lyte served as the evening’s host. Honorees included renowned jazz musician Herbie Hancock, celebrated activist and community organizer Tamika Mallory, hip-hop legend Chuck D, the 19th president of Morris Brown College Dr. Kevin James and entrepreneur Rohan Marley, the son of artist Bob Marley.
As the evening highlighted the power of Black music, education and activism, many speeches also underscored the importance of the holiday.
“Even though the last slave was told that they were free long after the Emancipation Proclamation, which was hidden from us on purpose… Black folks did what we always do, and that’s make something out of nothing,” said MC Lyte, referring to the enslaved Texans who learned of their liberation two-and-a-half years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
“Juneteenth is our independence day,” MC Lyte continued. “It’s a time of reflection on freedom, the achievements of African Americans and our history, all the while serving as an opportunity to promote and celebrate our culture.”
Humbled to receive the “Fight the Power Award,” Chuck D dished on the risk Public Enemy took when they first emerged as artivists.
“[It’s an honor] for me to receive an award named after my song, ‘Fight the Power.’ It seems pretty tame, when you listen to ‘Fight the Power’ now… but in the context when we released ‘Fight the Power,’ it was very controversial. And also, we were actually risking our safety, and those around us at the time, because the police, after that, started watching us closely,” the legendary rapper explained.
Despite the danger, Public Enemy had a clear goal when releasing “Fight the Power,” in the summer of 1989.
“We felt that we needed to be clear about the state of the United States of America and how Black people were being treated in the Americas, and also across the world,” he said.
As someone on the frontlines of several freedom fights, Mallory, one of the leading organizers of the 2017 Women’s March, encouraged audiences to consider the history of Juneteenth when celebrating the day.
“Two years later, some of our people still didn’t know they were free, and that’s very powerful, when you think about the thugs that were holding them captive. And I’m sure that even they knew emancipation had happened, the work still continued, the rape still continued, the murder still continued over that two-year time period,” Mallory said reflecting on the enslaved Black Texans who learned of their liberation two-and-a-half years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
“It made me think about all the people in our communities that still don’t know they’re free, because even today, what we experience, what we feel, the oppression, the pain, the abuse, the rape, the murder still continues,” Mallory continued, before encouraging audiences to fight towards true liberation. “Juneteenth is a call to action. Let’s not allow this federal holiday to become like others, where we sit down and just enjoy family and have a day off. But let’s make it a day on, where we go into our communities and make sure our people know they are free, but even in our freedom, we must continue to fight.”
Filling the night with fun, good music and exciting speeches, the foundation’s founder shared some of the organization’s current wins and hopes for the future.
“This year we’re giving $1 million in scholarships. Next year, I want to give out $10 million. I want to start a brand new school, surrounding and supporting Black excellence for our community,” Austion said. “I want to have a parade as large, if not bigger than the Macy’s Day parade.”
“Juneteenth is big,” Austion continued. “It’s [the Black] community’s, it’s our celebration, but it’s all of our celebration. The nation needs to tap in and do this.”