Sweet notes of blues and jazz filled the air as vocalist Josephine Howell performed a rendition of “I Believe I Can Fly” at The Seasons Performance Hall Sunday.
Her arms gracefully outstretched to appear as wings, Howell sang soulfully, letting the sound float with the deep percussion of the drum and altissimo chirps of the saxophone.
She and her accompanists produced a moving celebration of freedom for the Juneteenth holiday, also remembering community members lost during the pandemic and marking the many contributions African American and Black artists have made in the world of music.
The audience at the event looked like America ought to look, community leader Esther Huey said at the opening of the program at The Seasons.
“I just want to tell you how happy I am that each one of you showed up to help us celebrate this important date, this important moment in our struggle for freedom, justice and inclusion,” she said.
History of Juneteenth
Juneteenth, a holiday celebrated for more than a century by the African American community and added to the federal calendar in 2021, commemorates the delayed emancipation of enslaved African Americans in the U.S. years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed.
The Emancipation Proclamation took effect in January 1863, but it wasn’t until more than two years later, on June 19, 1865, that word of freedom reached African Americans still enslaved in the confederate state of Texas. Huey said she can imagine the joy and happiness that filled their hearts after hearing they were free.
“They cry, they rejoice, and they just exude this happiness,” she said during the program. “They didn’t know what the next day would bring, but they knew that day they were free, and they began to celebrate.”
The African American community is still fighting to achieve full equality and justice — “So many people have shed blood for where we are today,” Huey said — but it’s also at a turning point.
“I see a difference in Yakima especially right now,” Huey continued. “I see people becoming more conscious, more educated, more informed about why this is important to us, but more than that, why is it important for America to celebrate the contributions that African American people have made.”
Seattle vocalist Howell began the musical portion of the evening by thanking her elders for sacrifices made with grace, elegance and excellence.
“Thank you for the shoulders that we stand on,” she said. “Thank you for standing tall, and thank you for remembering that your life is not just about your life, but it affects everybody.”
Excellence in music
Music is a gift for African American and Black communities, Howell said Sunday.
“It is our way to express ourselves. It is our way to keep the story,” she said. “It is our way to keep talking when they try to steal our language.”
Howell led the audience on a musical journey through gospel, blues and jazz — just some of the many genres to come from Black artists and musical traditions.
The set included spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”; gospel “Something About the Name Jesus”; blues “I’ve got a 20 Room House”; and jazz “All Blues.”
Howell was joined by Andra Green on keyboard, Herman Brown on guitar, Christopher Patin on drums, Medearis Dixson on saxophone, and vocalists Josephine Carson, Donna Kirvin and Phyllis Talley.
Music isn’t the only way to relay stories and experiences from a stage. Community member Evelyn Malone performed Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” during the program, sharing the art of spoken word in a speech originally authored and delivered by the abolitionist and activist at the Women’s Rights Convention in 1851.
The Juneteenth celebration concert was the first of its kind hosted in Yakima and at The Seasons Performance Hall, though other performances and Juneteenth events took place over the weekend. Seasons director Pat Strosahl said the board of directors for the venue committed to hosting a yearly Juneteenth musical celebration for at least the next five years.
“(Music) is the way we access some part of our soul, and I’m just so grateful that we got that tonight,” Strosahl said.
Near the end of the event, Howell asked audience members to reflect on the evening. Live performances and community are something special, she said.
“It’s really important that you not leave here the same as you walked in. Otherwise, you could have just turned on the radio.”