Berkeley’s Juneteenth Festival celebrates historic African American day, reflects South Berkeley’s cultural diversity

Daniel Kim/Senior Staff

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On September 22, 1862, Abraham Lincoln issued an executive order for the abolition of slavery through the Emancipation Proclamation. Although this was not an official law passed by Congress, the decree was an exacting and official declaration of the changing times and ways of thinking — one that is regarded as a defining moment for African Americans seeking liberation and autonomy.

Juneteenth commemorates the day news of the Emancipation Proclamation reached Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, but the Berkeley Juneteenth Festival’s purpose transcends this monumental historic day.

“It’s about inspiring every culture and enlightenment,” said Charles K. Rogers, a festival vendor at the Creative Works stand, which he has operated for twenty years.

The Juneteenth Festival, which occupied the five-block Alcatraz-Adeline corridor, is recognized as “the brain child of RD Bonds, Bradley Walters, and Sam Dyke,” and organized by Berkeley Juneteenth Cultural Celebrations. The streets were lined with small businesses, entertainment and cuisine, as hundreds of community members gathered in order to celebrate the important African American event, which coincides with African-American Music Appreciation Month.

The visitors to the festival were a poignant reflection of South Berkeley’s diverse demographic. People from all walks of life wandered the Adeline corridor, bobbing their heads to the music, all while enjoying ribs from CJ’s Barbecue & Fish.  

Despite the sweltering heat of the day, festival attendees could not be discouraged from dancing. One stage hosted various DJs playing classics like “Cupid Shuffle,” while another stage at the other end of the street featured a wide range of up-and-coming artists, whose styles traversed a broad selection of genres ranging from hip hop to jazz.

Neither did the shops fail to capture the attention of passersby. Ornate tapestries and traditional African clothing decorated the entire block — in one corner, vendor Musa Kora tended his African Imports shop, which was populated by large beads and masks hailing from Mali, Senegal, Nigeria and Ghana, and which, according to Kora, “protect you from negative energy.”

Like Kora, each vendor had their own purpose that motivated them to share their business with Berkeley. For Charles Rogers, this purpose was to inspire and teach the next generation through his art, the same way his art teachers did for him when he was in fourth grade.

“They noticed I had a gift. They brought me before the class to show off my artwork,” Rogers explained. “I was inspired after that; I want to inspire the next kid like those teachers inspired me.”

Rogers’ story speaks to one of the festival’s most important qualities, one that a larger commercial festival could never replicate — a special type of intimacy, characterized by personal stories and passions.

This intimacy extended to the artists on the RD Bonds Main Stage, who paid homages to their experiences as African Americans and to the musicians that inspired them. Shavon Moore, an aspiring singer, performed original music that incorporated R&B and jazz, citing esteemed jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter as one of her biggest influences. In between songs, she took every opportunity to converse with the audience, establishing a rapport that was at once both charming and modest. Within the humble-sized crowd, you could spot Moore’s biggest supporter: her mother, proudly dancing along and recording her daughter’s performance.

Music was not limited to the two stages. Impromptu performances were held on the street; one man with a large damaru slung over his shoulder even brought his own microphone and portable speaker. His one-man show would eventually morph into a band, as another bystander joined in to sing and clap along with him in an endearing display of solidarity reached through music.

This moment was, in a way, representative of the festival’s core values. With an unbeatable combination of food and entertainment, the Berkeley Juneteenth Festival spoke the universal language of pleasure, uniting people of all backgrounds in celebration of African American empowerment and freedom.

Contact Lloyd Lee at [email protected].