President Joe Biden signed a bill on Thursday making Juneteenth an official federal holiday. But the annual commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States has long been celebrated in the Mile High City, says Norman Harris, the director of Denver’s yearly Juneteenth Music Festival. In fact, the multi-day fête, which attracted 90,000 attendees in 2019 before moving online in 2020, sprang forth from those early jubilees.
“In 2012, we saw an opportunity to rebrand it, and bring the music theme forward as an anchor to attract people to the celebration,” Harris says (the music festival is organized by nonprofit JMF Corporation, which Harris oversees). “We wanted to build a platform to spread the actual meaning of Juneteenth.”
Raising that awareness was needed—until recently, many in the United States didn’t know much about Emancipation Day. Erica Wright, the events specialist for the Juneteenth Music Festival, says she was 25 years old when she learned the true meaning of the holiday she celebrated each June 19th. On that day in 1865, Union soldiers led by Major General Gordon Granger landed in Galveston, Texas, delivering news of the Emancipation Proclamation to the people still enslaved there—roughly two and a half years after Abraham Lincoln signed the order.
“Juneteenth is my Independence Day in this country,” says Wright, who is Black. “I want to get that message across to people at an earlier age.” That mission got a boost earlier this year, when Denver City Council unanimously voted to make Juneteenth a commemorative holiday, setting aside the Saturday closest to June 19 for the celebration each year.
Following 2020’s virtual-only celebration, revelers will be pleased to learn that most of this year’s festival, which runs June 18–20, will take place in person. However, Harris and Wright agree that livestreamed elements had some perks: “We received messages from people who were just so grateful to participate on a virtual platform because their city or state doesn’t have a Juneteenth celebration,” Wright says.
To continue reaching communities beyond the Rocky Mountains, the festival will start with a Juneteenth Eve broadcast on the 18th from 2 to 8 p.m. Viewable on Denver Community Media TV channels Comcast 56 & 881HD, the six-hour virtual kick-off will be hosted by JMF Corporation and Denver Community Media. Along with a rotation of guests and performances, the broadcast will present the Dream Big Awards, honors presented to members of Denver’s Black community who’ve made a positive impact on the city. Parts of the weekend-long festival will also be livestreamed on the Juneteenth Music Festival’s Facebook page.
The Juneteenth R&B Summer Kickoff at Levitt Pavilion will follow the broadcast. It’s headlined by Grammy Award–winning R&B outfit 112, with opening acts Rachel Bailey, the Grand Alliance, and KDJ Above.
The morning of June 19, more than 100 groups will walk in the Juneteenth Parade beginning at 11 a.m. The procession honors the social progress achieved through marches and demonstrations throughout history, and includes a blend of dance groups like the Platinum Divaz, car clubs, youth sports league teams, and community groups like Colorado Black Health Collaborative, enrichment program Curls on the Block, and more.
Denver dance icon Cleo Parker Robinson will transform her theater into a pop-up Juneteenth Museum called Five Points of Culture on June 19, with three 90-minute panels throughout the day spotlighting different aspects of Black culture in the Mile High City (the topics are Afro-futurism, The Entertainment Industry in Black, and Black Business and Impact of Sports).
The street festival on Welton Street in the Five Points neighborhood is perhaps the best-known attraction of the Juneteenth Music Festival, and will span June 19–20 this year. Catch Colorado salsa band Conjunto Colores, R&B singer Danae Simone, rapper A Meazy, DJ Jazzy Jeff, and more at stages along the Welton Street Corridor, Charles Cousins Plaza, and Five Points Plaza.
Attendees will find plenty of shopping opportunities at the street festival, too. The Habitat for Humanity Home Decor Row will feature Colorado artist Jess E. DuBois, renovation expert Affordable Room Makeover, and Aurora’s Fiddle Leaf Plant Boutique. Browse booths manned by Turner’s Creations, B Fresh Gear, and more for gifts. Stop by Reggae Pot Jamaican Grill and Big G’s Bar-B-Que’s outposts for food.
Of course, the JMF Corporation isn’t alone in its mission to share Juneteenth with Colorado. Its new partnership with the Center on Colfax, the group responsible for organizing Denver PrideFest, has helped both celebrations become more inclusive, and Juneteenth Music Festival is promoting Black Pride, a festival for the Black LGBTQ community, on its website. Denver is the latest city to launch an official Black Pride, following in the footsteps of Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Portland. The festival will feature events throughout the month of June, many of which take place over Juneteenth weekend as well, giving Denverites plenty of reasons to celebrate.
Other Ways to Commemorate Juneteenth and Black Pride in the Denver Area
Silent Disco: Wakanda
If you love the nightlife and love to boogie, hustle your way to Civic Center Park for Silent Disco: Wakanda. The jams start pumping whenever you want them to. June 18, 6–10 p.m.
City of Aurora Juneteenth Celebration
Aurora residents can learn the significance of June 19 from exhibitors like the NAACP and Aurora History Museum while taking in a lineup of spoken word, storytelling, guitar, and rap performances in the Town Center at Aurora. June 19, 1–5 p.m.
Dazzle @ Baur’s
The Central Business District supper club hosts two outfits this Juneteenth: Purnell Steen and Le Jazz Machine, a band of six dedicated to preserving Five Points’ legacy as the Harlem of the West, take the stage first, followed by Grammy Award–nominated trombonist Stafford Hunter, who will perform with his new group, Freedom Quartet, for the first time. June 19, doors open 5:30 p.m.
Hair Wrapping & Storytelling
Hair wrapping has long been practiced by African, Asian, and Middle Eastern cultures. Visit Urban Sanctuary, a Black-owned yoga studio in Five Points, to learn more about the tradition. (Members of the BIPOC community can also take a free yoga class at 10:30 a.m.) June 19, 4:30 p.m.
Juneteenth Jubilee & Cookout
Revel in Black joy at Tooey’s, off Colfax, where performers of of Sacre’Bleu, Melanated Ménagerie & The Chrysalis House will team up for a cabaret. June 19, 7 p.m.
Juneteenth Sounds of Freedom
Denver gospel musicians, including pianist Soloman Chapman and vocalist Jubilee Renee, gather at Park Hill United Methodist Church for a blend of spirituals, jazz, gospel, R&B, and soul. June 19, 3 p.m.
Pop Up Market: Juneteenth Edition
Peruse produce and other goods from Black purveyors on the Museum for Black Girls patio in Five Points. June 19, 12–5 p.m.
Zarah and the Chocolate Factory
Head over to Tracks nightclub for the premiere of Zarah and the Chocolate Factory, a drag revue featuring an all-Black cast of Denver’s most sickening drag performers, hosted by Miss Zarah. The show’s lineup also includes one of the top queens from RuPaul’s Drag Race season 11, Miss A’Keria Davenport of the Dallas Davenports. June 19, 9 p.m.
Gospel Drag Brunch
Let the Holy Ghost and mimosas send your shoes flying during this drag brunch at X Bar’s Saffron Grill (because, you know, Jesus was Mediterranean). The show is hosted by another member of Drag Race royalty: Season one’s winner Bebe Zahara Benet. June 20, doors open at noon