When Michelle Williams gets to the Hollywood Bowl as part of an all-star lineup for Juneteenth: A Global Celebration of Freedom on Sunday, the former Destiny’s Child singer says she expects it will be like a sprawling family reunion.
Some of that feeling will be because of all the old friends she’ll see there, from Questlove of the Roots and bassist Adam Blackstone, musical directors for the show, to performers such as Robert Glasper, Lucky Daye and Mary Mary.
“I’m going to be on stage with the homies, you know?,” says Williams, a solo pop and gospel artist in addition to her years with Beyoncé Knowles and Kelly Rowland in Destiny’s Child.
But Williams, who grew up in Rockford, Illinois going to Juneteenth celebrations in the park with her grandmother, says the holiday, which celebrates the freeing of the last enslaved people in the United States at the end of the Civil War, felt like a homecoming even then.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a Black family reunion,” Williams says. “You can imagine if you watched movies like ‘The Color Purple’ and how when one person was snatched away from their family, they’re reunited with that family, right?
“It’s something you want to do every year that brings family together,” she says. “You celebrate, you sing, you dance, you eat good food, you love on one another.
“And the fact that this is made into a federal holiday? It’s, like, wow, amazing.”
Juneteenth: A Global Celebration of Freedom comes one year after Juneteenth was established as a federal holiday, though it has been celebrated since 1866, one year after enslaved people living in Galveston, Texas became the last in the United States to receive word of their freedom.
The concert, which will be broadcast live at 5 p.m. on CNN, includes such Black artists from every genre of music and includes funk acts such as Earth, Wind & Fire and the Roots, R&B singer Khalid, country star Mickey Guyton, rapper Killer Mike, and Broadway musical star Billy Porter.
The Re-Collective Orchestra, which will perform on its own and accompany other acts, will be the first all-Black orchestra ever to play at the Hollywood Bowl in its 100-year history.
In addition to Williams, we talked with Philip Bailey, lead singer of Earth, Wind & Fire, and Thomas Wilkins, resident conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, who will lead the Re-Collective Orchestra on Sunday.
For Philip Bailey, performing with Earth, Wind & Fire at the Juneteenth Celebration offers a chance to spread the word about a holiday he regrets not knowing more about sooner.
“For more years than I care to even divulge, I did not know exactly what Juneteenth was,” says Bailey, 71, who was born and raised in Denver. “And sadly, I was among millions of other people who have not a clue about Juneteenth.”
He had heard of it, of course, and knew it was an important day in the Black community, but details – the fact that it commemorated the last Black Americans to be freed from slavery – remained vague.
“Man, it’s disheartening that something that’s so important is so misinformed and disinformed in today’s communication age,” Bailey says. “I mean, that story should be so prominent that everybody should know the story right without even thinking about it. They should know it like they know McDonald’s.”
So when Earth, Wind & Fire were invited to perform, Bailey says he was excited to do so and delighted to see that the concert fell between the band’s show with Santana in Los Angeles on June 18 and its next stop on their coheadlining tour in Mountain View on June 21.
To Bailey, the divine nature of music can change the current and course of humanity. “You can’t find words to describe a spiritual force that is as powerful and as timeless,” he says.
While Earth, Wind & Fire is best known for love songs and dance classics such as “After The Love Is Gone,” “Shining Star,” and “Boogie Wonderland,” Bailey’s 2019 solo album “Love Will Find A Way” included songs written by Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye that spoke more specifically of issues such as race and inequality in the Black community.
“Those are songs that have just a wonderful life of their own, you know, in encouraging and speaking not only to people but for people,” Bailey says. “You know, we have that privilege. We have that opportunity as artists to say to and for people what the heart wants to say.”
That Juneteenth is now a federal holiday and its history now reaches more people is wonderful, he says. But it’s not the end of the discussions that Americans need to keep having.
“We have to be realistic and we can’t think it’s going to move the needle forward significantly in a short amount of time,” Bailey says. “But hopefully, just person by person, it can help change the relationships between fellow man.”
For conductor Thomas Wilkins, principal conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, leading the Re-Collective Orchestra on Sunday will make history.
Not only will it be the first all-Black orchestra ever to play the Hollywood Bowl, but it will also be the first time Wilkins, who is Black, has conducted an all-Black orchestra anywhere in a career that includes posts at the Omaha and Boston symphonies.
“That’s pretty awesome,” Wilkins, 65, says from his home in St. Petersburg, Florida. “I think it speaks to a number of things.
“One, it speaks to this idea that classical music has never been the sole possession of anyone,” he says. “Also, sometimes when I’m conducting someplace, a writer or reporter asks me, ‘How does it feel to be a Black conductor standing in front of this orchestra?’
“My answer is always that hopefully some young kid who looks like me sees me at the podium on stage and realizes that this is also a possibility for their lives,” Wilkins says.
Wilkins will share the podium on Sunday with Derrick Hodge as the Re-Collective Orchestra, which was founded in 2018 by composer Matt Jones and violinist Stephanie Matthews, performs classical pieces on its own and accompanies other acts on the bill.
Like Bailey, the Virginia native says he grew up with little knowledge of the history of Juneteenth. He also shares Bailey’s belief in the power of music.
“It has been a cause of great celebration and a cause for great exhilaration and joy,” Wilkins says, adding that music can also help people think and expand their understanding, “to challenge our preconceived notions of ourselves, or our preconceived notions of the world around us, or the guy sitting next to us.”
Wilkins says a Minnesota Symphony performance he conducted in May reminded him of the power of classical music to move its audience, musicians and conductor alike.
“I just did a piece called ‘Seven Last Words of the Unarmed’ ” he says of composer Joel Thompson’s orchestral and choral work inspired by the final words of Black men killed by police or authority figures.
“On that same program, we did Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, which is a brilliant move from despair in the first movement to hopefulness in the last movement,” Wilkins says. “So not only did people hear this challenging music of the ‘Seven Last Words,’ they also now get to hear Tchaikovsky with a whole new sense of what it means.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean something written for the 19th century. It means something written for the 21st century as well.”
Michelle Williams says she expects the Juneteenth concert on Sunday, and especially the CNN broadcast, to spread the word about this newest federal holiday.
“If you don’t know what Juneteenth is and you happen to turn on CNN, you’re probably gonna be like, What is this?’” she says. “But the music’s gonna be so good. You gonna be like, ‘Whoa, wait a minute.’ Then you’re gonna see Juneteenth on the lower third of the TV.
“I believe that is going to be probably one of the most Googled terms on that day,” she says. “People will be like, ‘Wait a minute. This is a holiday. What’s going on?’”
And just as James Brown sang “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud” or John Lennon wrote “Imagine,” music can once again make a difference, she says.
“It’s good to make music the tool to make somebody aware of something,” Williams says. “But it is not going to be used to glamorize why we’re celebrating. Because those folks not knowing when they would be free – if they’d ever be free?
“Let’s not glamorize how fearful that was for people, and probably my great-great-great-great grandparents. You know what mean? I want to acknowledge that it ain’t all potato salad and fruit punch.
“Music has always been a part of certain revolutions,” Williams says. “Sometimes music was the only way people knew how to express themselves.”
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