In Jersey City, NJ, a group of young Black creatives are getting ready to kick off one of the biggest Juneteenth celebrations in the East coast. More than 15,000 people are excepted to show up.
Juneteenth for Texans — specifically of Galveston — isn’t anything new. It’s a piece of Galveston’s heritage and a quintessential part of the city’s history. After Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, celebrations occurred within cities where enslaved Americans were inhibited. However, for Texans, this emancipation would be delayed for two years — until June 19th, 1865 — thus fostering the holiday we know as Juneteenth.
For many Black Americans from the North, this important celebration and circumstances surrounding the event weren’t taught in schools, leading to a virtual erasure of the holiday’s significance for other descendants of slavery. However, due to rising awareness around the social justice movements in 2020, Juneteenth has become a valuable history lesson and reason for celebration amongst Black Americans not from Texas or the Southern region. So much so that this week Congress passed a law acknowledging Juneteenth as a federal holiday.
At Liberty State Park, in Jersey City, NJ, a group of young Black entrepreneurs brought Juneteenth celebrations to the East. Last year, Isaiah “Zay” Thomas and friends DJ Flygerian, Showcase Montana, and Shelt “DJ Shotty” Brown saluted the holiday with one of the largest one-day Juneteenth festivals in the New York tri-state area. Now, they are getting ready to follow that up with a bigger celebration. Based on free ticket reservations, roughly 15,000 people are expected to attend the 2021 Juneteenth Celebration at Liberty State Park.
Social protests lead to a celebration
Zay was inspired to do a small Juneteenth celebration — around 300 to 500 people — last year after attending one of the Black Lives Matter protests in the region. “ I kind of just came up with the idea,” Zay said. “It was ten days before Juneteenth, we just put together a flyer and the rest is history.”
Soon, Zay had his “Dream Team” of individuals to help bring his vision to life. Aside from the lineup of three of Jersey’s hottest DJs, he called on the assistance of other friends along the way: Henry Johnson, a lifelong friend of Zay; Juels Pierrot, an event and production coordinator; and Devin Cobbs, an event and production coordinator who has worked with TierNYC and Adidas.
In conjunction with the event, they put together a Juneteenth week that included activities like Black Jeopardy and a discussion panel that was created to amplify Black women’s voices. The panel featured figures such as Nadirah Simmons of The Gumbo and Brooklyn White-Grier of Essence Girls United, their planned conversations were centered around social justice, the Black dollar in finance and investments, Black fashion, nightlife in Black America, and more.
The week of dialogue and interactive games ended in Liberty State Park. To the surprise of Zay and the rest of their team, the event’s attendees exceeded everyone’s expectations. “I was excited last year when we got word that nearly 5,000 people came out and there wasn’t any violence,” Brown said. “In retrospect, I think we activated something that people have been waiting for. It’s the start of an actual Juneteenth celebration in Jersey. To take it to the level we’re trying to take it to right now, it’s a large challenge but a huge reward in the end.”
Those challenges began to increase as the group decided to hold off on their Juneteenth week and focus on throwing an even bigger celebration of Juneteenth this year. The Juneteenth Celebration will feature food trucks, art installations, guest DJ sets from Uniiqu3, and Sonic Boom as well as live performances from Jersey’s own Marcus Ariah.
“It’s like when it’s your first time doing anything, it’s all about experience or lack of experience,” Zay said. “Learning certain policies and such. Every single person on the team is a specialist in some aspect of what they do.”
But the group is supported. Emory Jones of Paper Planes is a sponsor of the event and will be featuring an art installation inspired by their soon-to-be-released collection. Vin Rock from Naughty by Nature is also a sponsor. D’usse will be sponsoring a pre-Juneteenth pop-up event in Newark at the Brownmill store and, to top everything off, Queen Latifah gave the event a shoutout on her Instagram page.
“We were pretty much ahead of the curve by having a turn out like that in the middle of a pandemic,” Flygerian said. “There’s a cultural renaissance that’s happening in Jersey. New energy emerging from this pandemic. I’ve never seen anything like this in Jersey before.”
Due to vaccinations becoming increasingly available and restrictions for gatherings being lifted, Juneteenth events have become an even bigger demand in major cities all across the United States. With the United States observing the holiday this week, the coordinators are anxious to see what the future holds as they continue with their yearly celebration. “Music is the common denominator we have that makes us feel something that isn’t tangible,” Brown said. “I still haven’t grasped how large this event is in the grand scheme of things. I’m excited about those kids or people that look at something like this and say, ‘this can be done.’”
Zay, Showcase, Flygerian, and Shotty are doing more than celebrating Jersey’s connection to history; they’re creating their own. “As a visionary, I can see this event going to a place that we’ve never imagined,” Showcase said. “We spoke this into existence. I’m sick of hearing what people say Jersey can’t do. I’ve always had faith. We’ve all gone hard and what you’re going to see [Saturday] is a direct reflection of that.”
Kia Turner is a journalist from Newark, New Jersey. When she’s not spearheading her album-based series Deconstructing or talking about Pussy Rap, you can find the red double cup queen two-stepping on Juneteenth at @ChasingKia on all platforms.