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Film Review: The Jungle Book

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By Dwight Brown (NNPA News Wire Film Critic)

Start the great debate right now. Is The Jungle Book the best kid’s action film ever made? Possibly. Expect to hear both sides of that argument waged by millions over lattes at Starbucks after they exit theaters. Performances. Direction. Script. Production Elements. Special effects. They all blend together seamlessly into a visual wonder and an emotionally satisfying drama.

British author Rudyard Kipling, who was born in Bombay, wrote the original children’s book back in 1894 and set it in India. The essential storyline involves a kid raised in the jungle by animals who could converse with him. In 1967, Disney adapted Kipling’s tale into an animated feature film directed by Wolfgang Reitherman (101 Dalmatians), adding songs, like the popular “The Bare Necessities.” Nearly five decades later, with a dazzling array of special effects technology at hand, director Jon Favreau (Iron Man) assembles a top notch tech crew, a brilliant cast and uses the imaginative plotting and dialogue from a screenplay by Justin Marks to craft the ultimate kids’ fantasy adventure film.

Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is a man-cub raised by wolves. His protective mom is Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave) and his father Akela (Giancarlo Esposito, Breaking Bad) is the leader of the pack. Mowgli was brought to the wolves years ago, as a foundling, by the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley, Gandhi), who remains his mentor.

When the animals in the jungle gather at a popular lake, seeking water, they encounter a nearly dry sand bed, the result of a severe drought. During these times, the code of the Peace Rock rules: Animals who gather here, must act peacefully. It is the first time Mowgli is exposed to other creatures and he is keenly aware that he is different.

One angry cat won’t play nice in the sandbox. It’s a rogue, one-eyed tiger named Shere Khan (Idris Elba). He smells the scent of a man, his archenemy, and swears one day he will kill Mowgli. Akela comes to the man-cub’s defense, but a threat is issued that could spell doom for the wolves. To avert a massacre, Bagheera is determined to guide Mowgli back to human territory, where the boy belongs, back to the people who have the power of the “Red Flower,” fire. Nothing involving their sojourn goes right. Mowgli meets a selfish bear (Bill Murray) and a menacing gigantic ape (Christopher Walken). Meanwhile, the tiger is relentless. Who can stop him? Legend has it that if they stick together, they can: “The strength of the wolf is the pack. And the strength of the pack is the wolf.”

It’s a fantasy story, but everything looks real. The trees, rivers, mountains. The birds, reptiles, mammals. The fights, chases, stampedes. An opening scene with Mowgli running through the jungle seemingly being chased by a monster is electric. You know from the very beginning that the tech crew and director know how to ratchet up the action to very compelling levels. And when the action scenes take a break, the viewer is left with scene after scene of eye candy.

Many viewers will claim their favorite adventure sequence. One scene in particular stands out: Shere Khan is stalking Mowgli. The boy is chased into a deep riverbed, with the tiger on a bank above. Just as you think this is the end, a herd of water buffalo appears galloping through a trickle of water. They camouflage the son of the jungle, he climbs on one, and they run off into the distance. The riverbed is a deep chocolate brown and so are the animals. It is an indelible image.

Kind critics won’t mention where this film was shot. It is up to the audience to discover where the big-branched trees exist, the ancient monkey city is staged and the steep cliff that Baloo and Bagheera climb looms. When viewers find out the exact locations, they will go into shock.

An A-team of special effects wizards deserves applause: Visual effects supervisors Rob Legato (Avatar), Adam Valdez (Maleficent) and Dan Lemmon (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King). The visual effects producer is Joyce Cox (Men in Black 3) and the film’s animation supervisor is Andy Jones (Avatar).

The tech team kicks ass too: Bill Pope (The Matrix) director of photography, Christopher Glass production designer, Mark Livolsi (The Judge) editor, and Laura Jean Shannon (Elf) costume designer.

Neel Sethi is the glue that holds the performances together. He’s a likable kid-next-door type who is both inquisitive and endearing. You don’t want his Mowgli to suffer. On the other hand Idris Elba, as the ferocious tiger does more in a growl and a gravely voice than most actors do when their entire body is on screen. Damn, Shere Khan is evil incarnate. Bill Murray doesn’t have to stretch much to play the affable, manipulative bear. Lupita Nyong’o is perfect as the mother wolf; ditto Kingsley as the sage panther.

There are two scenes that are nods to the 1967 animated movie that involve characters breaking into song. Mowgli riding on Baloo’s belly as they float down a river singing “Bare Necessities” and Walken as King Louie breaking out in a show tune. These scenes, though they show homage to the first movie, take away from the drama of this movie.

Jon Favreau turns out his finest piece of direction ever with this interpretation of a centuries old story. And the script by Justin Marks builds to a more than worthy climax. Debates will rage about this kid flick’s place in film history. Is it the best, or one of the best? That’s the kind of a conversation that will thrill the team behind The Jungle Book.

Dwight Brown is a film critic and travel writer. As a critic he regularly attends international film festivals including Cannes, Sundance, Toronto and the American Black Film Festival.

Read more movie reviews by Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com.

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Freddie Allen is the Editor-In-Chief of the NNPA Newswire and BlackPressUSA.com. Focused on Black people stuff, positively. You should follow Freddie on Twitter and Instagram @freddieallenjr.

Freddie Allen is the Editor-In-Chief of the NNPA Newswire and BlackPressUSA.com. Focused on Black people stuff, positively. You should follow Freddie on Twitter and Instagram @freddieallenjr.

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Gunshot Medley Brings Black Theatre to the Electric Lodge

LOS ANGELES SENTINEL — “Gunshot Medley: Part I” is the latest play to hit the stage at the Electric Lodge on Abbot Kinney Boulevard near Venice Beach. Running until August 19, the play tells the story of American history through the eyes of three slaves.

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Donathan Walters (left) as George, Mildred Langford (middle) as Betty, and Sha’Leah Nikole Stubblefield (right) as High Priestess in Gunshot Medley: Part 1. (Photo Credit: Cristian Kreckler)
Donathan Walters (left) as George, Mildred Langford (middle) as Betty, and Sha’Leah Nikole Stubblefield (right) as High Priestess in Gunshot Medley: Part 1. (Photo Credit: Cristian Kreckler)

A play with a Black cast, director, and playwright tells a story of pain, racism, and hope at the Electric Lodge.

By Shaquille Woods

“Gunshot Medley: Part I” is the latest play to hit the stage at the Electric Lodge on Abbot Kinney Boulevard near Venice Beach. Running until August 19, the play tells the story of American history through the eyes of three slaves.

The playwright, Dionna Michelle Daniel, was inspired to write this play in 2015, after the Charleston Church shooting. While in North Carolina, she visited a graveyard where she found the graves of Betty, Alvis, and George who would eventually become the characters for “Gunshot Medley: Part I.” All that was left on the graves were their names and the dates that they died, each before the Emancipation Proclamation. Daniel also found something unsettling in the graveyard — newly placed Confederate flags.

“At the time that I wrote ‘Gunshot Medley,’ there was so much going on with killings and discourse over the Confederate flag,” said Daniel. “For me the play is an awakening. It is so vital for Black people to tell our stories because we have lived through these experiences and the pain is real.”

Set in a haunted graveyard in North Carolina, audiences see the connections of racism through past and present. Betty, Alvis, and George are not able to rest their souls. They want to believe that things are better, and cover up the pain, but what they see in the present takes them back to their own past hurt. They see happy moments in Black culture as well, referencing famous songs and dances, but they are reminded of pain with each gunshot that they hear.

Sha’Leah Nikole Stubblefield (left) as High Preistess looks on as Derek Jackson (middle) and Mildred Langford (right) dance as Alvis and Betty in Gunshot Medley: Part 1. (Photo Credit: Cristian Krekcler)

Sha’Leah Nikole Stubblefield (left) as High Preistess looks on as Derek Jackson (middle) and Mildred Langford (right) dance as Alvis and Betty in Gunshot Medley: Part 1. (Photo Credit: Cristian Krekcler)

Betty represents a mother figure, constantly cleaning to cover up her pain. Alvis takes on a more playful role, looking for the beauty in everything, and George represents revolutionaries fighting and dying for change. The fourth character is High Priestess Oya. When Daniel originally wrote the play, she made a lot of reference to the wind and the rustle of leaves and treetops. One of her friends told her about Orisha Oya, an African goddess who is the ruler of storms and winds, and the protector of cemeteries.  From that comes the majestic character garbed in elegant reds and an expression of pain upon her face.

“The play was very powerful and moving,” said Tenille Jones, one of the audience members. “I think that it will open people’s eyes and make change for the better. I like how the main character, Betty, thought that she had to clean something up to solve the problems, but in the end, it showed that racism is more of a comprehensive problem. It’s not just a one-person problem, it’s a worldwide problem. I was very entertained. It’s a great way to spend an hour and support Black theatre.”

“Gunshot Medley: Part I” started as a project for a program at California Institute of the Arts, or CalArts, where Daniel graduated. She presented it in their 2016 New Works Festival and won the chance to go to New York to have a reading of the play and get it published. One of the readers from New York put Daniel in contact with Desean Terry of Collaborative Artists Bloc, a production team that produces performances that explore of cultural identity and promote social change. Terry became the director of “Gunshot Medley: Part I,” giving the play a Black cast, Black director, and Black playwright.

In 2018, Rogue Machine Theatre joined in and brought the production to the stage at the MET Theatre in Santa Monica for a two-week run. “Gun Shot Medley: Part I” also did a two-week run at the Watts Village Theater Company, where tickets were based on a donation of any amount and audience members could register to vote. Rogue Machine Theatre has brought the play back this year to the Electric Lodge. “Gunshot Medley: Part I” runs through August 19. Student tickets are $25.99 and general admission is $39.99. For more information and reservations, call (855) 585-5185 or visit www.collaborativeartistsbloc.org.

This article originally appeared in The Los Angeles Sentinel.

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Cardi B. Sets the Record Straight about Her Race and Ethnicity

NEW ORLEANS DATA NEWS WEEKLY — The conversation surrounding Latinos regarding ethnicity vs. race is an ongoing theme. Cardi B, a Black Latina who speaks Spanish, set the record straight for fans who may have been confused about her ethnic, racial, and national identity. The Grammy-Winning Rap Star took to her Instagram account to talk about the subject.

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Cardi B (Photo by: Eric Moore | Wiki Commons)
Cardi B (Photo by: Eric Moore | Wiki Commons)

By Keka Araujo

The conversation surrounding Latinos regarding ethnicity vs. race is an ongoing theme. Cardi B, a Black Latina who speaks Spanish, set the record straight for fans who may have been confused about her ethnic, racial, and national identity. The Grammy-Winning Rap Star took to her Instagram account to talk about the subject. On June 26th, Cardi addressed fans after a recent incident in California when someone told her she ought to represent for Mexican people.

She clarified that Latinos are not a monolith.

“A lot of people don’t know the difference between nationality, race, ethnicity and that’s not nobody’s fault,” she said on Instagram Live. “That’s actually the schools’ fault because schools don’t be teaching this s— to people.”

Elsewhere in the video, she said, “I’m not Mexican at all. I’m West Indian, and I’m Dominican. I speak Spanish because I’m Dominican. And it’s like, so what’s the difference between Dominican and Mexican?’ And it’s like, everything!”

Cardi went on to elaborate on her race in particular. She reiterated that being light-skinned does not mean that she isn’t a Black woman.

“People just don’t be understanding s–t,” Cardi said “It’s like, ‘Cardi’s Latin, she’s not Black.’ And it’s like, bro, my features don’t come from…White people f—ng, okay?’ And they always wanna race-bait when it comes to me…I have Afro features. ‘Oh, but your parents are light-skinned…all right, but my grandparents aren’t.” This situation isn’t the first time the rapper, who is Dominican and Trinidadian, has had to address comments about her race.

A common misconception about Latinos is because of the fact they speak Spanish they can’t be Black. Latinos are a group of people from different races brought together by Spanish or Portuguese colonization. It’s also a well-documented problem within the Latin community. Racism is prevalent among Latinos who are of African descent by other Latinos.

Quite often, Black Latinos have to prove their latinidad due to their race. It’s an ongoing challenge many Black Latinos face given the fact that countries like Brazil, Cuba, Puerto Rico, The Dominican Republic, Colombia, and Panama have the highest populations of afrodescendientes in the Western Hemisphere.

Conversations from non-racially ambiguous Black Latinos have to continue so that people are more aware of the differences between ethnicity, race, and nationality.

This article originally appeared in the New Orleans Data News Weekly.

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FunkJazz Kafé Arts & Music Festival celebrates 25 years at Atlanta’s historic Tabernacle

ATLANTA VOICE —

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Photo by: Electrick Baby Photography | FunkJazz Kafe)

By Martel Sharpe

With its 25th anniversary on the horizon, Atlanta’s FunkJazz Kafé Arts & Music Festival is celebrating a quarter-of-a-century of artistic Black culture on Saturday, August 10 at The Tabernacle.

Just as vibrate as its creator and curator, Jason Orr, FunkJazz Kafé has survived throughout the years with 49 events under its belt, making its 25th anniversary the 50th.

“Essentially, FunkJazz Kafé Arts & Music Festival is about cultural prevention, cultural sustainability, cultural education, and cultural innovation,” Orr said. “We focus on various artistic disciplines as opposed to music performances. We are not a concert.”

“We just happen to have a cache of exceptional talent.”

Though FunkJazz Kafé is more than just a typical music festival, the event procured a host of iconic artists over the years including Goodie Mob, Outkast, Janelle Monae, Arrested Development, Soul II Soul, Jill Scott, Cee Lo Green, Erykah Badu, India Arie, Public Enemy, and more.

“We want to preserve the legacy of Black excellence in every artform whether its culinary arts or fashion pattern designing. We want to sustain those cultures and not let people take it from us as they have in the past, and we want to innovate upon it. Innovate upon these cultural legacies and educate the generations behind us about it,” Orr said.

The 48-year-old Atlanta native started FunkJazz Kafé Arts & Music Festival back in 1994 with its inaugural event taking place at Atlanta’s historic Royal Peacock on Auburn Avenue.

“It was awesome,” Orr said. “We had multiple vendors. We had great performances from Arrested Development, who in 94’ was like Anderson Paak. Then there was also Bone Cusher and leaders of the New School.”

According to Orr, what he has turned into a 25-year legacy started with a typical day for him, while working for the City of Atlanta at the time and managing a band.

“I got into the Royal Peacock because the guy gave it to me for free,” Orr said. “I was a tax collector for the City of Atlanta and the guy came in to pay his taxes, and he said, ‘I own this club you should come check it out.’”

“I wanted to create something that highlights other artists and musician. I knew a lot of fashion designers, I knew a lot of visual artists. People who did sculptures, people who did water-based paintings, people who did acrylic paintings, people who did pottery and handcrafted jewelry.”

As FunkJazz Kafé continued to grow, the mission stayed the same even though the venues changed.

Orr says that, in the past, the festival set up shop in some of Atlanta’s most notable locations including The Science & Technology Museum of Atlanta (SciTrek) which closed in 2004, Atlanta Stage Works which is now Krog Street Market, Nexus Contemporary Art Gallery which is now Atlanta Contemporary Art Gallery, the Nike Pavilion and World Club which was on Marietta Street.

“I would make venues,” Orr said, “It didn’t even have to be a venue, long as they had bathrooms and were approved for food and beverage, and fire permits, we were good.”

However, returning to The Tabernacle for its 25th anniversary is special for FunkJazz Kafé since it was the first event that ever took place within that space.

“We opened The Tabernacle in 1996 as it was the House of Blues,” Orr said. “FunkJazz Kafé did a partnership with Dallas Austin’s Rowdy Records. And we did the first event in what is now called The Tabernacle.”

Since then, FunkJazz Kafe has expanded, further tackle its mission to preserve Black culture and innovation through its award-winning film, “FunkJazz Kafe’s” Diary of A Decade” and producing the FJK Documentary Film Festival & Music Conference.

Beyond celebrating the arts, Orr also mandated that the festival would have a civic service initiative, creating a positive impact in the community.

“At the first one, we started our civic service initiative,” Orr said. “We were taking food donations for the homeless for a reduced price. It was $12 to get and we would take $5 off if you brought a canned good.”

“We kept that tradition and all the way up to today we’ve donated almost a million plates of food, (approximately) 900,030.”

However, Orr says that he plans to top himself this year with the 25th anniversary featuring various suites to festival-goers to enjoy.

These suites will feature various art forms including poetry, health and wellness, fashion, and different genres of music.

He’s very excited about the “House Party” suite which will simulate a 1980s house party and will change its music every 15 minutes to all people to enjoy hip-hop, reggae, afrobeat, house music, and more.

Additionally, the festival will have a vegan food court and up to 40 vendors participating in its marketplace.

And though it’s FunkJazz Kafé’s tradition to keep its roster of musical guests a secret until the day of, Orr says that he has a lot of great performers lined up and ready to go.

“We’re going to introduce new people that some people don’t know and we’re going to celebrate with some of our musical icons,” Orr said.

This article originally appeared in The Atlanta Voice.

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Black Fatherhood Shines in New Animated FIim

THE AFRO — For the most part, Historically, stories about Black fathers in mainstream media often carry a misleading, yet pervasive tones of absenteeism, hyper masculinity, insensitivity, and irresponsibility, monolithic. But this week, the beauty of Black Fatherhood debuts. But this is narrative does not fairly represent the role of the Black fatherhood.

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The picture book “Hair Love” was released by Kokila Books/Penguin Random House releasing on May 14, 2019, and became a New York Times Bestseller. (Courtesy Photo)

By AFRO Staff

For the most part, Historically, stories about Black fathers in mainstream media often carry a misleading, yet pervasive tones of absenteeism, hyper masculinity, insensitivity, and irresponsibility, monolithic. But this week, the beauty of Black Fatherhood debuts. But this is narrative does not fairly represent the role of the Black fatherhood.

Hair Love is a heartfelt animated short film that centers around the relationship between an African-American father, his daughter Zuri, and the most daunting task a father could ever come across – doing his daughter’s hair. The short, a passion project from Matthew A. Cherry, will be making its theatrical debut in North America on Aug. 14.

Directed by Cherry (executive producer, “BlacKkKlansman”), Everett Downing Jr. (animator, “Up,” “WALL·E”), and Bruce W. Smith (creator, “The Proud Family,” animator, “The Princess and the Frog”), Hair Love is a collaboration with Sony Pictures Animation that was launched as a Kickstarter campaign in 2017 with a fundraising goal of $75,000. Strong support led to the campaign amassing nearly $300,000, making it the most highly-funded short film campaign in Kickstarter history.

“To see this project go from a Kickstarter campaign to the big screen is truly a dream come true,” said Cherry. “I couldn’t be more excited for ‘Hair Love’ to be playing with ‘The Angry Birds Movie 2’ in front of a wide audience and for the world to see our touching story about a Black father trying to figure out how to do his daughters hair for the very first time.”

“Hair Love” features the voice of Issa Rae (“Insecure”) as the young girl’s mother. The short is produced by Karen Rupert Toliver, Stacey Newton, Monica A. Young, Matthew A. Cherry, and Lion Forge Animation’s David Steward II and Carl Reed. Peter Ramsey (“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”) and Frank Abney (animator, “Toy Story 4”) serve as executive producers.

“This is such a special story that means so much to us,” added Ramsey, “Matthew has rallied an insanely talented group of people to get this short made, and to be able to share it with the world is a gift. We hope that audiences can feel this team’s dedication up on the big screen, we are incredibly proud of it.”

The short’s co-executive producers include Jordan Peele, Andrew Hawkins, Harrison Barnes, Yara and Keri Shahidi. The short’s associate producers include N’Dambi Gillespie, Gabrielle Union-Wade & Dwayne Wade Jr., Gabourey Sidibe, Stephanie Fredric and Claude Kelly.

Physical production of “Hair Love” has taken place at the Los Angeles-based animation studio, Six Point Harness (“Guava Island”).

The picture book “Hair Love” was released by Kokila Books/Penguin Random House releasing on May 14, 2019, and became a New York Times Bestseller.

This article originally appeared in The Afro.

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The 5th Annual Black Alumni Ball is back in the Nation’s Capital Striving to Advance, Unify and Uplift in the name of Black Excellence

WASHINGTON INFORMER — In its fifth year, the Black Alumni Ball is gearing up to be an impactful evening of celebration with nearly 2,000 Black Alumni on August 10, 2019. The ball will be held from 8 PM-2 AM at the Renaissance Hotel in Washington, DC. It will be hosted by The Massive Host, King Flexxa, with the soundtrack being provided by Nate Hopp and Jerome Baker III and LIVE entertainment will be delivered by Johnny Graham & the Groove. In addition, the VIP reception will be sponsored by Hennessy.

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Black Alumni Ball (Photo by: washingtoninformer.com)

By Cherrelle Swain

Washington, DC – August 9, 2019 – In its fifth year, the Black Alumni Ball is gearing up to be an impactful evening of celebration with nearly 2,000 Black Alumni on August 10, 2019. The ball will be held from 8 PM-2 AM at the Renaissance Hotel in Washington, DC. It will be hosted by The Massive Host, King Flexxa, with the soundtrack being provided by Nate Hopp and Jerome Baker III and LIVE entertainment will be delivered by Johnny Graham & the Groove. In addition, the VIP reception will be sponsored by Hennessy.

In 2018, the Black Alumni Ball team debuted the Inaugural class of their Influencer program with 15 dynamic individuals who are shining examples of being a game-changer, an individual who is shifting the culture and being an example of excellence. In 2019, the class will grow with the addition of 17 individuals being inducted.

They are as follows: Christian Brown (Howard University Alumna, Owner of Rise Enterprises LLC), Christian Howard (Clark Atlanta University Alumna, Psychotherapist Consultant), Jessica T. Ornsby, Esq (Georgetown University Law Center, Founder of A+O Law Group), Marcus Goodwin (The University of Pennsylvania Alumnus, Founder of The CEO Program), Charles Gussom (University of District of Columbia Alumnus, Community Development Manager, Martha’s Table), Byron Westbrook (Salisbury University Alumnus, Former NFL Player, Head Coach, and Podcaster), Lilybelle Davis (University of Maryland/Columbia Law School Alumna, Corporate Law Attorney), Carrington D. Barbour (Palomar College Alumnus, CEO, JustCarrington), Deanna Collins (Morgan State University Alumna, Founder, The Pretty Girls Guide), Shanae McFadden (Delaware State University Alumna, Blogger, Owner of Sensational Statements, and Podcaster), Dr. Amber Robins (Xavier University of Louisiana Alumna, Board Certified Family Medicine Doctor), Sydney Mikel Pearsall (Delaware State University Alumna, Owner, Part & Parcel, and Podcaster), Chauntay Mickens (University of Connecticut Alumna, Co-Founder and President of Lunchbag Social), Shelly Bell (North Carolina A&T State University Alumna, Founder, Black Girl Ventures), Rontel Batie (Florida A&M Alumnus, Lobbyist), Anwaa Kong (Morgan State University Alumnus, Founder, MVEMENT App & Serial Entrepreneur) and Matt Aaron (Howard University Alumnus, Founder, Aaron Financial)

Collectively, the Black Alumni Ball team states, “We can’t believe we are in our 5th year of the Ball. We are so grateful to have the unwavering support within the Black Alumni community, and we are looking forward to continuing to celebrate Black Excellence! It is our goal to create a dialogue on the importance of uplighting one another and wanting to unify as a unit to help one another advance in the future.

The Black Alumni Ball is an annual event whose mission is to bring black alumni from all universities throughout the nation, including both PWI’s (Predominantly White Institutions) and HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), for a night of sophistication, style, and fun. In addition to a magical evening, a portion of all proceeds will be provided to a Non-Profit Organization in the Washington, DC Metropolitan area from the Black Alumni Ball Scholarship Fund.

This post originally appeared in The Washington Informer.

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Attendees on What They Thought of City’s Inaugural Freedom Fest

BIRMINGHAM TIMES — The festival offered a balance of entertainment and education. Performers included Birmingham talents Ruben Studdard and Alvin Garrett as well as Huntsville hip hop artist Translee. Others included gospel artist Kristen Glover, neo soul artist Love Moor, soul group Midnight Star, hip hop soul artist Musiq Soulchild, and hip-hop duo 8Ball & MJG.

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From left: Kenneth Marbry II; Kenneth Marbry III; Amariya Marbry and Patrice Marbry during Freedom Fest (Photo by: Ameera Steward | The Birmingham Times)
From left: Kenneth Marbry II; Kenneth Marbry III; Amariya Marbry and Patrice Marbry during Freedom Fest (Photo by: Ameera Steward | The Birmingham Times)

By Ameera Steward

Local resident Marie Dixon got exactly what she was looking for when she attended the inaugural Birmingham Freedom Fest last weekend in Kelly Ingram Park.

“As a vegan I was worried I wasn’t going to find anything to eat,” said Dixon. “I had a …black bean burger it’s so good…[and] amazing.”

Dixon moved to Birmingham from Maryland 17 months ago and said the festival gave her a chance to interact with the community.

“I don’t come out as much as I should, so this has been a great opportunity to mix and mingle…,” she said. “I think it’s a great opportunity to be a part of the civil rights [institute] and all of the history that Birmingham has.”

The Freedom Fest drew thousands of people for a day long series of entertainment and empowerment in the heart of the Civil Rights District in downtown.

The festivities began at noon beneath a bright sun that illuminated colorful tents and food trucks that sold goods to the diverse crowd around Kelly Ingram Park.

The festival offered a balance of entertainment and education. Performers included Birmingham talents Ruben Studdard and Alvin Garrett as well as Huntsville hip hop artist Translee. Others included gospel artist Kristen Glover, neo soul artist Love Moor, soul group Midnight Star, hip hop soul artist Musiq Soulchild, and hip-hop duo 8Ball & MJG.

There was also an online contest where the residents of Birmingham voted on “Birmingham’s Emerging Artist” – Chrinway, a Bessemer city rapper.

The fest also gave attendees a chance to hear leaders and innovators in business, technology, beauty, the arts, and urban planning during seven empowerment sessions held in places like the historic Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Panel discussions included the “Justice, Empathy and Advocacy” panel with Mayor Randall Woodfin, U.S. Senator Doug Jones, and Prison reform advocate Anthony Ray Hinton.

Visitors came away pleased by what they saw and heard. To some the festival was reminiscent of the past and for others it was a look into the future of Birmingham.

“I think this is a great event and it being the first year, I just wanted to come out and show some support,” said Dixon, who added she was glad to see the diverse crowds. “It’s about all of Birmingham and not just the African-American portion of Birmingham.”

“I was really proud to be in Birmingham on Saturday,” she said. “I was touched by the history of the Civil Rights District and proud to see how far Birmingham has come.”

LaTonya Roy, 47, originally from Anchorage, Alaska and who now lives in Birmingham said she was attracted to the fest because of the word “freedom…freedom of expression, freedom to connect with a diverse group of people.”

Roy said she was looking forward to “the entertainment, the panels, and the good weather that we’re having.”

“I love it,” said Jeremy Scott, 24, of Birmingham. “It’s brought out everybody in Birmingham, I hope they continue doing it so we can do this for years to come. I know it’s the first annual, I want it to be annual.”

Scott said he and his friends saw the event on Facebook and seeing a music festival in Birmingham was something different.

“We haven’t had a festival here in a long time,” he said. “The last time I came out for a music festival was [City Stages] so it’s been a while since I’ve seen…live talent in Birmingham but it’s been amazing.”

Scott said his favorite part was seeing Midnight Star, “I’m a big funk musician fan so I’m digging it right now.”

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Panel Discussions

Patrice Marbry, 39, of Chelsea, Ala. said she enjoyed the empowerment sessions.

“I like the idea of having the musical artists as well as the informational sessions,” she said.

Marbry is a board member of STREAM Innovations, a nonprofit organization that helps students develop and explore their passion for Science, Technology, Reading, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics (STREAM).  She attended the “Cracking Codes: The Power of STEM” panel discussion, held in St. Paul United Methodist Church to support the organization’s CEO, Dr. Adrienne Starks.

One thing she learned was the challenges faced by people of color who drop out of their PhD programs.

It was encouraging for young people to see people who look like them on the panel with PhDs  in front of their names, she said.

Another favorite was the “Justice, Empathy and Advocacy” panel, said Marbry, a regional middle school instructional coach at the University of Montevallo.

“Anthony Ray Hinton (was wrongly convicted of the 1985 murders of two fast food restaurant managers in Birmingham, sentenced to death, and held on the state’s death row for 28 years) called a lot of things the exact things that they are. As an educator I have been inclined to believe that education should be at the forefront of the Social Justice Movement.”

Scott attended the “She Decides: A Courageous Conversation about Women’s Rights” panel held in Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and said it was informative and it opened his eyes.

“I was kind of in the dark about everything but…I’m looking around and seeing what we need to change in the state, in the country, everywhere,” Scott said.

Jay Williams, 25, of Birmingham, also attended the “She Decides” panel. “We get to see what happens when women empower each other,” he said.

“I have been encouraged by seeing the turnout…I think that opportunities like this should come more to Birmingham [because] it’s just an opportunity for us to show what we have,” said Williams.

Leah Parker, 39, visiting Birmingham from Atlanta, Ga. said she enjoyed both the panels and the music.

“It’s nice to see everybody come out and just enjoy great music; everybody has been so friendly and positive,” she said. “And seeing what our city can really do . . . it’s great energy out here.”

“The music is great, you can’t beat it, live music, outside everybody is up dancing, everybody is having a memory when a song comes on, it’s been great,” she said. Her favorite part was “running into old friends and meeting some new friends.”

Vivian Davis, Alabama State Senator, said on the “She Decides” panel that women need to support one another.

“The more you share with others and you give up yourself to others the more your blessings will repeat the light onto you,” she said.

This article originally appeared in The Birmingham Times.

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