It’s been over 150 years since the first Juneteenth: the day when Union Army General Gordon Granger rode down to the city of Galveston to announce General Order No. 3, which freed enslaved Afro-Americans in the state of Texas and ended the institutional practice of slavery across the United States.
Since then, June 19 has been a day of celebration for Black communities everywhere. A federal holiday since 2021, even more Americans have become actively aware of Juneteenth celebrating this day of freedom and the uniqueness of Black food, Black music, and the Black American story.
It goes without saying that the struggle for true Black liberation has continued since 1865. But through the various Juneteenth celebrations since, it’s clear that Black culture has not only survived and thrived, but grown into a shining example of the diversity foundational to American culture– most notably in America’s musical ecosystem.
As Nina Simone laid out in her famous song, “Ain’t Got No, I Got Life”, Black people didn’t have much to call their own in the years immediately following the end of chattel slavery. However, from the early traditions of work songs and field hollers came the Negro Spiritual: a foundationaly American musical style that sprung up and was fully codified as a unique Afro-American art form post-slavery.
This quickly positioned musical performance as a cornerstone of the Black American experience which, in turn, made way for Black composers like Henry Thacker Burleigh to further enshrine the tradition of the Spiritual by arranging these hope-filled pieces of folk music into art songs that could be performed and shared by the broader musical community.
While many saw the Negro Spiritual as a painful remnant of a dark past, others saw it as a jumping off point. From the Spiritual came blues, gospel, folk, country, jazz, and even a new iteration of “classical”, as defined by this new American experience.
Among the many composers and musical artists to benefit from this development was William Grant Still – known as the Dean of Afro-American composers. His widespread popularity and name recognition in western classical music today is undeniable.
Due to the Black exclusion of early post-slavery America (especially in the southern states), Still spent the first years of his musical journey teaching himself. Despite Still’s unconventional start, he eventually found himself in collaboration with a wide array of Black creators representing a broad range of disciplines. This included (but was not limited to) assisting W.C. Handy with his blues band, collaborating with Langston Hughes (which resulted in Still’s opera, “Troubled Island’), and even being involved with Black Swan Records, the nation’s first record label owned and managed by an Afro-American.
William Grant Still was, of course, only one of the many African-Americans to benefit from the mosaic of Black artistry in the decades following the first Juneteenth. But his experiences served as a harbinger of the cross-community collaborations soon to come.
As the decades rolled by, the musical celebration of Juneteenth broadened its scope beyond the first-generation ancestors of the Spiritual – namely hip hop. Not to say that hip hop celebrations of Juneteenth left out the past. In fact, one of the leading ensembles that is blending all Black music – from Black iterations of western classical to rap – is the Illharmonic Orchestra.: a western classical orchestra that focuses on the performance of “classic” Black music from multiple genres conceptualized by a then 8-year-old Jeffrey McNeill, now known professionally as Thee Phantom.
After blending the sounds of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with a recording of “Paul Revere” by the Beastie Boys, the young McNeill discovered a musical aesthetic he knew he wanted to dedicate his career to. After meeting his wife and eventual co-leader of the ensemble, Andrea (known on-stage as The Phoenix), Thee Phantom pressed ahead in this vision, with recent performances taking place at The Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall, and countless schools and universities across the nation. This Juneteenth, the Illharmonic Orchestra will headline a show at Wolftrap: a Washington DC-area venue known for having audiences and programming just about as diverse as the Black music that this one-of-a-kind ensemble will share.
Despite the mosaic of Black contributions that came to fruition following Juneteenth, generations of Afro-Americans would continue to be enslaved in many parts of the south after this date. Thanks to a number of historians (and a plethora of on-demand streaming content rooted in the preservation of Black history) the world is learning that it wasn’t until 1942 when a man named Sylvester Magee was freed from servitude, thus making him the final enslaved Black American to taste freedom.
Even now many argue that jobs that don’t provide a living wage should be considered a type of slavery; these jobs (often held by Black people and people of color) are the same jobs that don’t typically shut down for federal holidays, including Juneteenth.
And so, as this generations-long celebratory holiday should be considered with joy, it is also important to acknowledge the circumstances and people that have impeded Black freedom. The necessary work of liberation requires that communities continue to consider all of the members of society, especially its most marginalized or economically vulnerable.
Moving forward, Juneteenth only has room to grow and evolve along with the varied Black experience and contributions that have played a key role in the lives of Afro-Americans today. Often, the story of African Americans, from slavery to today, tends to center the struggle. Yes, the struggle is real, but so are the victories.
With the ever-growing awareness and celebration of Juneteenth, let it shine as an example of what’s possible through our collective diversity. Let Juneteenth, and the evolutions of music and culture that it has inspired, be something we all celebrate.