Robert Randolph’s Unityfest Amps Up the Party and Importance of Juneteenth
The pedal steel icon and disco legend Nile Rodgers get loud about Saturday’s livestream event
It’s taken generations for Juneteenth to become the kind of holiday that Black Americans feel comfortable getting loud about. For pedal steel guitar prophet Robert Randolph, it wasn’t until his mid-30s that he learned the history behind the holiday commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States on June 19, 1865. But his passion to amplify the celebration in the wake of an explosive year of Black protests, pride and unity couldn’t have come at a better time.
This Saturday, The Robert Randolph Foundation launches the inaugural Juneteenth Unityfest, a multi-city livestreamed event featuring a swath of iconic and influential Black artists, activists and guest speakers of all backgrounds to celebrate the historic holiday in style.
“What drove me to put together Juneteenth Unityfest was to unite as many people as possible to educate and celebrate and figure out how we can work together to bring about a brighter future,” Randolph told SPIN over Zoom.
As a performer at the festival as well, he’ll have plenty of help. Headliners include Earth, Wind & Fire, Nile Rodgers and CHIC, with appearances by Aloe Blacc, Bebe Winans, Black Pumas, Darius Rucker, Earth, Judith Hill, Khruangbin, Michael Franti, Dave Matthews and Carter Beauford, Keb’ Mo’ and others. Stars like Phylicia Rashad, Billy Porter, Jon Hamm, Van Jones, Wayne Brady, Aisha Tyler, Craig Robinson, Zach Galifianakis are also participating in the event hosted by Amanda Seales and JB Smoove.
For disco/funk legend Rodgers, the chance to be part of the event (including hosting the afterparty with his We Are Family Foundation) is a chance to mix his Black heritage with his music in a way that wasn’t always possible earlier in his life.
“For me, Juneteeth, always had meaning,” Rodgers said. He remembers his great, great grandmother telling him stories of his ancestors living on a plantation in Georgia when he was a boy. “But the thing that really touches me the most is that it didn’t have meaning for other people. It was just something I knew because my great, great grandmother told me. But if I told that story to other people, they looked at me like I was crazy.”
Often relegated to the footnotes of history, many powerful stories of African American struggles during emancipation have been buried and rarely talked about. Aside from celebrating Black music, Juneteenth Unityfest will showcase featured stories, poems, and other visual media to highlight lesser known stories of early African American success and ingenuity woven into a stream of powerful music.
“The great thing about what Robert is doing, is that it’s not just didactic, it’s also entertaining,” Rodgers said. “Because you just want to keep it exciting.”
The event is also being hosted by a cadre of grassroots organizations like Heal America, the Hip-Hop Caucus, Juneteenth NYC and many others whose missions revolve around community organizing, Black History education and nonprofit services.
“People who want to help and donate or go and lend a helping hand right there, they will know that all of these grassroots organizations exist,” Randolph said. “They could just go down and just sort of lend a helping hand in some way in some capacity to help them move forward.”
As the pride behind Juneteenth continues to grow and the country eases out of the pandemic, Randolph is hopeful that next year’s Unityfest celebration will include live events that can help the holiday rival the other cultural celebrations we’ve all grown up with — with all the soulful parties, parades and floats he can muster.
“First and foremost, as descendants of slaves here, we are celebrating our damn day and we’re gonna get down,” Randolph said. “And all the people that want to celebrate with us, it’s open to everybody, just like I do when I get wasted with all my Irish friends on St. Patrick’s Day — I’m like ‘Guys, come over here and celebrate with us!’”