A Juneteenth performance by the Silver Starlet dancers in 2020.
D.C. residents were understandably excited when megaproducer Pharrell Williams announced that he would be bringing some "happiness" to the District on Juneteenth by relocating Something in the Water, his major Virginia Beach music festival, to Independence Avenue. But the feeling soon faded for some once they saw the ticket prices, and now local activists are planning a competing music festival and protest at Freedom Plaza in hopes that more Washingtonians can attend — and afford — to celebrate the holiday.
Juneteenth, short for June 19th, celebrates the emancipation of slaves in Galveston, Texas, and is an annual reminder of the ongoing fight for racial justice in America. It became a federal holiday last year, but D.C. natives have celebrated the holiday with fervor for decades.
Nee Nee Taylor, one of the organizers of the alternative event, points out that Juneteenth is all about Black liberation.
"When I saw the prices, I knew that Something in the Water couldn't be for us, because the people I serve can't afford $300 tickets," Taylor says. The three-day event costs a minimum of $350 per pass, with no options to purchase a single-day ticket. (The $350 passes are currently sold out, so there are only $399 passes left, not including fees.)
Something in the Water is supported, in part, by the D.C. mayor's office and Events DC, the entertainment and sports arm of the local government. Taylor, a former core organizer with Black Lives Matter DC who co-founded the grassroots activist group Harriet's Wildest Dreams, started posting to Instagram shortly after the announcement. She wrote that the event was unaffordable for the average Black resident in D.C. and that a festival using city resources should better cater to its people. She tagged Bowser, Williams, and the D.C. Council.
The D.C. mayor's office and SITW organizers have not responded to DCist's requests for comment, but we will update this post when they do.
Taylor put out a call to other local activists: "Let's try to organize and have a free water concert for the people — our people — who can come and actually enjoy and celebrate what this day's supposed to be about; and that's freedom, as we continue to fight white supremacy, capitalism, and gentrification."
Wayne Palmer, a local organizer who owns Washington Source, a D.C.-based production company, says he heard the call. The activists have applied for a National Park Service permit to organize the event at Freedom Plaza, which is part of NPS's Pennsylvania Avenue National Historic Site. They haven't yet heard back from NPS about the status of the permit.
In terms of artists, Palmer says he's trying to book an all-local lineup, or "every single go-go band that's not on that [SITW] card," he told DCist. The published SITW card features just a handful of local acts, including Rare Essence and Backyard Band. The activists hope to pair the shows with an open-air market so local creatives can sell their art.
Taylor says the potential Freedom Plaza event would also continue the mission of local mutual aid organizations by educating attendees on civil rights issues while providing free food and water.
It's not that different from years past. Even during the pandemic, D.C. organizations have hosted free virtual and in-person protests, concerts, and parades for Juneteenth.
The activists feel that Williams and the city government are co-opting the jubilant spirit of D.C.'s annual, mostly free Juneteenth celebrations and trying to make a buck — or in this case, a lot of bucks — off it. Previous Something in the Water festivals have been a financial boon to the city of Virginia Beach, bringing in millions of dollars in revenue.
"This [SITW] festival is kind of like a culture vulture to what we've already been doing the past three years on Juneteenth," says Palmer.
Williams' festival did offer a special rate offered to Virginia residents for a limited time, as well as to D.C. residents who came to purchase tickets in person on April 30 at the D.C.-owned Entertainment and Sports Arena in Congress Heights. However, that sale simply waived the $50 processing fee, and base price tickets still started at $299 — tickets that sold out while people were still waiting in line — according to people there tweeting about the sale.
When Williams last hosted his festival in 2020 in his native Virginia Beach, the tickets cost about $150, per WUSA9. The musician and entrepreneur says he moved the festival due to the "toxic energy" of his hometown's officials. Local police killed Williams' cousin, Donovon Lynch, in March of 2021 in a shooting during which the officer's body camera was turned off.
At this year's Something in the Water, tickets are free to students from Ballou High School, the Southeast D.C. school where Williams announced the festival, and whose marching band played a rendition of his hit song "Happy" during the announcement. But Taylor wonders why the offer is limited to one school east of the river.
"You have Friendship Collegiate, Anacostia High School, Woodson Senior High, Maya Angelou [Public Charter School]," Taylor says, listing schools in Southeast and Northeast D.C. "Can those kids go for free? A majority of kids that attend those schools can't attend Something in the Water either."
Taylor says she's willing to partner with Williams to provide more affordable access to his Juneteenth celebration. Specifically, she's hoping Williams could make a donation so she can provide water and entertainment at her event.
"We're not free until everybody's free," Taylor says. "We're gonna party. But even when you party, you have to educate people."
This story is from DCist.com, the local news site of WAMU.