For Norman Harris, Juneteenth has always been a family affair. But this year, Harris is also a new father in the middle of a pandemic and a surge of anti-racism and police brutality protests. While the celebration will look a little different, he’s bringing the same energy he gets from black leaders in Denver who have shaped the celebration for decades.
“I think Jay-Z said it best: ‘I put my feet in the footprints left to me,’ and I’m just following some huge footprints,” Harris told The Denver Post on Tuesday. “There have been quite a few people that have carried these legacies, great men and women in our state who have contributed to the culture, and making our city what it is, making Juneteenth what it is.”
Harris is the executive director of the Juneteenth Music Festival, which commemorates the official end of slavery in the United States in 1865. The annual celebration will feature a full day of music, panels, a virtual marketplace and headliner DJ Jazzy Jeff on June 18, all online and broadcast live from Lakewood at juneteenthmusicfestival.com.
Planning Juneteenth is a year-round effort, but coronavirus changed everything. Protective of his infant born in January, Harris was especially attuned to health concerns, and he realized that the in-person festival wouldn’t be possible in the summer.
If you go
The Juneteenth Virtual Music Festival. Featuring DJ Jazzy Jeff at 9 p.m., including DJ Simone Says, Ramond PC and more. Honoring Jason McBride, Tay Anderson, Joy Ann Reid and others. Streaming live from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. June 18 at juneteenthmusicfestival.com. Free and open to the public.
But a virtual celebration opens new opportunities for a global audience, Harris said. He hopes to expand the conversation and give a larger platform to black artists in Denver.
“The fact that we have the ability to reach more people I think is one of the biggest areas of opportunity for us,” Harris said. “Music is still a big part of it. However, there are podcasts and a wealth of information that someone can come and tap into by visiting our website.”
Denver usually celebrates Juneteenth with a street festival in the historic Five Points neighborhood. Harris grew up going to Welton Street with his family, and in 2012, he became an organizer for the festival.
During his first year on the team, Harris remembers his late grandfather, Norman Harris Sr., watching the headliner for the music festival.
“He was very guarded with compliments, and after a hard day of work… he looked us in the eyes and told us we did a good job and he was proud of us,” he said.
Harris said this is one of his favorite Juneteenth memories.
But this year, he said he’ll miss looking out on Welton Street and seeing thousands of people from the stage. He’ll miss barbecue and fried chicken from local restaurants, though he encourages people to order food to enjoy during the virtual festival.
Jason McBride has also enjoyed Denver’s Juneteenth festival his whole life, and he’s joined Harris onstage as the host and MC for the event since 2012.
“[Juneteenth] is just my favorite time of year,” McBride said in an interview with The Post on Tuesday. “It’s a time when everyone comes together in that historically black place of Five Points. There’s art, there’s food, there’s music, just all of our culture is down there, and it’s a beautiful thing to see.”
This year, McBride is also a DREAM Big Award winner for his work with young people in the Denver metro area. He’s an education specialist at the Gang Rescue and Support Project and the founder of the McBride Impact, a nonprofit that provides educational and extracurricular opportunities for Denver students, from books and backpacks to aviation training.
Harris has watched McBride’s work with children in Denver for years, and he said it’s good to give McBride the recognition that he deserves.
“Jason’s a backbone of the city,” Harris said. “You’ll say kids need books, well Jason’s going to get the kids books. Jason’s delivering backpacks and getting kids haircuts for school and mentoring hundreds of youth… Who else would we recognize on Father’s Day weekend than someone who’s been a father to a lot of kids that need that support?”
McBride has given out the DREAM Big Award year after year as a host, so he knows he’s in good company with other black leaders in Denver. Though he’ll also miss the street festival, he’s excited to be recognized by his community in the virtual celebration.
As the United States reckons with systematic racism, Harris wants to make Juneteenth a national holiday. Juneteenth is also about education, he said, ensuring that young people celebrate and learn about black people’s contributions in the United States.
And we’re seeing these contributions right now, as black leaders around the world protest the police killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and, in Aurora, Elijah McClain. Harris participated in the Juneteenth march over the weekend in Montbello,emphasizing that the goals of Juneteenth and the Black Lives Matter movement are connected.
“The fight for justice has been going on for a long time,” Harris said. “People play different roles, and so the role that Juneteenth is playing is engagement and education. And people on the front lines, we need them.”
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