Inside Access to Last Week’s Leimert Park Rising Juneteenth Commemoration Festival

Last Saturday, on the first ever national observance of Juneteenth, I witnessed how beautiful and how strong the Black community stands together in a way that will stay with me for the rest of my days. 

Leimert Plaza Park, a creative and communal hub located in the cultural heart of Black Los Angeles, reopened last weekend after a three-year closure. A huge reason behind that significant moment came courtesy of a few dedicated creatives who wanted to showcase the true essence of the neighborhood, all while celebrating Black freedom and honoring our ancestors through art, music, food, education, and cooperative group economics through the Leimert Park Rising Juneteenth Commemoration Festival.

After President Joe Biden declared Juneteenth a federal holiday, June 19 became a focal point for companies and others who wanted to be “on the right side of history.” But for those on the ground, the moment forever etched in their collective memory as the true moment—not the Emancipation Proclamation—where America finally gave slavery (in its indentured form) its last breath. The moment meant a lot to us inside that circle of trust, for it was the extra energy we needed to build out a pivotal moment for not only the Leimert Park Village, but for Black Californians who were looking to reconnect after a year under quarantine and apart from other close friends and family.

The core team behind Leimert Park Rising are native to the area, having lived in or around 43rd and Degnan for most of their lives.

Of all of the events planned in Los Angeles for Juneteenth, you could tell that the Leimert Park Rising commemoration was the most anticipated. Not only is the neighborhood home to the likes of Terrace Martin, Kamasi Washington, but it also served as one of the final set-pieces for Issa Rae’s Insecure, which will come to an end later this year. Many in the Village recalled the young filmmaker cutting her teeth here, and appreciated the gesture of donating the show’s production equipment to the Village for the next generation of creatives to use. 

This level of earnest giving and community-minded activism was a welcomed sight for me. Coming from Brooklyn, where efforts to gentrify iconic neighborhoods such as Bedford-Stuyvesant and Ft. Greene, have resulted in a dilution of Black-and-Proud moments—the Leimert Park Village felt rooted in its Juneteenth festivities, harking back to 1949 when businessman Jonathan Leonard began hosting traditional barbecues in his backyard. From the Electric Slide line-dancing to the competitive basketball games to Noname handing out free books to the people, the efforts by Black Arts Los Angeles, We Love Leimert, Pray for the Hood, and Leimert Park Rising promised that, despite big changes ahead, the focal point will always center on Blackness.

I witnessed the LPR team confer with each Black vendor, entrepreneur, and neighbor in sight—to highlight the thousands of people who descended to the historic Leimert Park Village on Juneteenth to take in the festival, the music, the local businesses, and the newly renovated park. The threat of the COVID-19 virus was unable to shut down the joyous vibes permeating throughout Leimert Park, while myself and others noted that the overall mood of the event was invigorating and exciting—with a purpose.

“We’re looking at the social impact side of [Juneteenth] and imagining what a cooperative ecosystem really is in Leimert Park so that we can be sustainable as gentrification passes through here,” said Alfred “Qwess” Torregano in an interview with the Los Angeles Standard Newspaper. “I think that this moment will be a catalyst that can be used for continued Black empowerment.”

An insightful moment, yes, where I saw every staple of the historic neighborhood come to light. It was where our elders such as Aminah Muhammad, president of the Leimert Park Village Merchants Assn. led the crowd in a chant of “freedom, justice, equality,” and our heroes like Aaron Johnson—better known as Chace Infinite of Harun Coffee—gave space for the young to showcase their gravity-defying skills on a Pray for the Hood-created skate ramp. It was a place for reflection and reconnection, all #PoweredByThePeople, and led by the evocative soundtracks of TRU, Slink Johnson, Georgia Anne Muldrow, Taylor Gordon (The Pocket Queen), Jimetta Rose, and the incomparable Barbara Morrison.

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I was thrilled with Leimert Park Plaza’s reopening—and the day’s festivities overall. 

In my humble opinion, this is just what we need more of to ignite and unite us into action against all efforts to minimize Blackness and Black culture in this country.

Video courtesy of Leimert Park Rising

Kevin L. Clark is an editor and screenwriter who covers the intersection of music, pop culture and social justice. Follow him @KevitoClark.

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