I pulled up to the Juneteenth Family Reunion on June 19th, 2021, and before I even got out of the car, I knew history was being made.
Now before I speak to the experience, lemme give y’all a little background on the folks who brought this Black festival to fruition.
“This shit didn’t start with us. We’ve had ancestors and generations and generations of folks doing this so that we could make it here today.”- said Victoria Jones, Tone Executive Director.
Tone, formerly known as The CLTV, is a local nonprofit organization that uses art to center Black culture. “What does that mean,” you ask? It means giving Black Memphis its flowers for setting the “tone” that’s characterized our city for over two centuries.
They host exhibitions, readings, and roundtable discussions. They provide a platform that synergizes Black excellence across the nation, and act as an alarm—waking people up to see Memphis as the cultural beacon that it is.
Photos: IMAKEMADBEATS & Victoria Jones close out the night (L) // The Unapologetic crew gets the crowd going (R)
And then there’s Unapologetic.
This crew, made up of visual artists, musicians, clothing designers, event coordinators, and strategists, is known for drawing people in—from the productions they put on as a team to the creative prowess that each member exudes. Maybe that’s because everything they do, they do while being unapologetically themselves. They are bold. They are daring. They use their voices, sounds, visuals, and designs to disrupt the framework of commonality.
These two organizations have commingled their moves in the past—but their most recent partnership to procure the former United Equipment Building is a big move for Black business.
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“Today, we take ownership. Today we set legacies forward.”- said IMAKEMADBEATS, Unapologetic Founder and Producer.
Having sat in the shadows, unused—overlooking Orange Mound, America’s first African American neighborhood, for 20 years—the 200ft landmark and its 80,000 sq. ft warehouse is currently a deceiving exoskeleton of what’s to come: housing, affordable commercial space for budding Black entrepreneurs, a coffee shop, and more.
As a native Memphian, I’ve driven past what will now be known as Orange Mound Tower many times throughout my life. I get my hair done in the shopping center across the street. My mom has taken my brother and I on many a reminiscent car ride—passing the sky-high infrastructure as she pointed out old stomping grounds from her youth.
Well, on Juneteenth 2021, I didn’t just drive by. I walked up to the Tower, and was greeted with the kind of liveliness you’d expect to see in Tom Lee Park. The air smelled of well-seasoned food, and the Black market carried essentials like corner store bamboo earrings and big graphic tees.
Photo: Jamie Harmon (Amurica Photo Booth)
The lineup of performers and the crowd’s exuberance produced an energy so electric that we might be getting a bill from MLGW. If you didn’t see the IG stories, you’re not following the right people.
Guess how many times I almost dropped my drink trying to get to the center of the dance circle because I “heard my jam…”
I went to a Black as fuck festival in Memphis tonight, and it was a Juneteenth celebration for the books.
— Shelby Smith (@shelbywordsmith) June 20, 2021
Let’s just say, the limit does not exist.
Off and on throughout the evening, I had side conversations about Black hopes, Black dreams, Black accomplishments and Black beauty.
From one angle, you’d see a couple kids running around—coils swaying with the breeze—and from another, you’d see braids swinging, booties bouncing, and elders getting down in the cut.
*shoutout to the man with the walker*
For a brief moment, I was taken back to a conversation I’d had with my coworkers just a couple days before. We’d just watched the Black Ice documentary that follows a group of South Memphis climbers from Memphis Rox as they head out on their first expedition to ice climb in the mountains of Montana.
We were asked our thoughts, and through tears, I shared the fact that I’d never seen that kind of Black joy before; that I’d seen it in sports like basketball and in music, but that this film featured it in a way that added a new layer—not to what Blackness could be, but to what it’s always been.
“Started from the Mound, and now we tower, bruh. STARTED FROM THE MOUND, AND NOW WE TOWER.”- Unapologetic recording artists, PREAUXX & AWFM, led the crowd.
When given the tools and the opportunity to be excellent, people like me can move mountains—and the development of this space, of Orange Mound Tower, is just the beginning.
I can’t imagine what it felt like when my ancestors heard the news of their freedom over 150 years ago, but I imagine they danced and hooped and hollered just as I did with my brothers and sisters—and my parents; Hey Mom and Dad!
To everyone who made June 19, 2021 what it was, I say thank you.
You gave me a memory, gave Memphis a monumental moment, and are giving Black Memphis a means to build upon what it’s supposed to be—a boomtown for Black brilliance.