Some men choose the Christian cross, birds, or snakes as body art. Kymone Freeman has turned himself into a tableau of the middle passage. Last year, he covered his forearm with an intricate, 10-inch tattoo of a slave ship carrying 130 slaves. “I’m a runaway slave, and this is my North Star,” the 29-year-old Freeman says. “I can’t feel pain as long as I look at this.”
Freeman has become a postal worker to pay the bills, but in the subtext of his existence, he is paying a debt to his African ancestors. “That pain, that suffering, that holocaust is my driving force,” he says passionately. “[Emancipation] pulled the knife out, but we are still bleeding profusely.”
Freeman is inescapably obsessed with the ancient wounds of African-Americans. And he is distraught to think that today, they continue to destroy themselves in ways that are both obvious and insidious. Two years ago, Freeman, who lives in Southeast D.C., began a grand public overture called the Black L.U.V. (Love, Unity, Vision) Festival to try to chase off the doubt and despair that hang over his community like storm clouds.
“I’m just furious with people’s acceptance of our condition,” he says. He cites the random violence and racial self-hatred that permeate black communities as evidence of continued mental slavery. His festival, which took place on Freedom Plaza in the horrible heat of July 31, manifested Freeman’s own mental decolonization as much as it provided an outlet for his frustration.
Freeman likes to entertain. For five years, he promoted parties around D.C., where, he says, petty disputes and brawls were always breaking out. But one time, things turned deadly: His 26-year-old cousin was murdered at a party of his. “Watching him bleed to death in front of me was a big wake-up,” says Freeman. “When I saw that, I just lost it, and it just spinned me off into another direction.”
The new road hasn’t been terribly smooth. By mounting the Black L.U.V. Festival, Freeman and his 25-year-old friend and partner in the effort, Matthew Payne, have become self-ordained faith healers to African-Americans. “We are the medics. We are the ones coming, like, ‘OK, we know you all have been injured, and so now we’re here to repair what’s been damaged,’” says Payne. But his evangelism carries a high personal cost. To start, he was unemployed for three months to make the festival happen. And at times, it seemed, it never would.
Under a gray, foreboding sky on a Saturday afternoon, Payne and seven volunteers stand in an empty parking lot at 14th and U Streets NW, ready to start the first of two car washes they’re holding to raise money for the Black L.U.V. Festival. Volunteer Kiona Cloud wriggles through a crack in a chained gate behind Mangos restaurant to connect the water hose. She then hoists her hatch and lets the Roots boom from her car stereo.
Black L.U.V. Festival volunteers, ranging in age from 12 to 29, have no real wealth or position—which means they have to collect cash however they can. Unlike the Black Family Reunion or other larger African heritage festivals, this one isn’t backed by middle-aged civil-rights-era luminaries and established professionals with immediate access to thousands of people and pockets. Besides washing cars, Freeman and Payne are pinning their hopes on T-shirt sales and happy-hour fundraisers. The two are scurrying for sponsors—only three have signed up so far—a sound system, a stage, and vendors. Their initiative isn’t quite paying off: They need about $10,000. So far, they have raised $390.
The volunteer in charge of signs hasn’t arrived with the placards for the car wash, so the others resolve to advertise by washing each other’s cars in lieu of paying customers’. Just as they do, it begins to rain.
“This ain’t nothing but a sun shower,” volunteer Talim Lessane says optimistically.
“Is that rain? Is that rain?”
repeats Cloud, as if in denial. She pauses from washing and holds her hand to the sky. Water coats her palm. It’s an official downpour.
Thunder rolls. Payne cracks a tight smile. “There is no cutoff point,” he says. “We have a festival in seven days. My entire reputation depends on it, and it’s going to be completely divine.” Any intervention would help.
For the fundraiser Payne and Freeman held two nights before, they hosted about 100 people at Bar Nun for five hours of live music and discounted drinks. Admission was free, but donations were suggested. “Put your green love for the Black L.U.V. in the brown basket,” Payne repeated after almost every musical selection. But somewhere between rum-and-Cokes and the sounds of Payne’s progressive soul band, Moya, the folks who came seemed to forget the “d” in fundraiser: At the end of the night, their 3-foot-high wicker donation basket held $40.
Their promotional merchandising plan is kaput, too: They expected to start selling Black L.U.V. T-shirts at least two weeks before the event. But production of the shirts was delayed until just one night before the festival.
Midday, the rain stops, and all the volunteers’ cars are spotless. Four little boys cross the lot. “How much would y’all charge for a bike?” one of them asks.
“A dollar,” Payne replies.
“We have to take everything we can get at this point,” he offers as an aside.
Finally, a taupe Toyota truck with South Carolina tags rolls up for a wash. “I’m going to get some special sauce for those tires,” Payne says eagerly.
At the end of the day, Payne pulls $235 out of the donation basket: Both hope and anxiety are alive.
“If we don’t get sound, we don’t know what we’re going to do,” Payne says. At the first L.U.V. festival, held in Fort Dupont Park, the sound system stayed on the fritz for the first three hours. And this year, to make matters more risky, the permission to hold the festival, symbolically, at Freedom Plaza means that they have to raise hundreds more dollars.
“If we have it at Freedom Plaza with no stage,” says Payne, “we’ll still have it at Freedom Plaza.”
“With a bullhorn,” Freeman interjects. “Too many black people take the road of the least resistance,” he says, “but the road of least resistance leads you to the least reward.”
One day before the festival, Payne and Freeman can be heard on WOL-AM asking for donations of tables and ice.
Around the stage at Freedom Plaza on the morning of July 31, the heat index nears 105 degrees. A bevy of volunteers buzz about garbed in rainbow-colored T-shirts emblazoned with the Adinkra symbol. Conga and djembe drummers play near the fountain. A woman with dreadlocked hair writhes and wraps herself around each vibration.
The plaza becomes a diaroma of the diaspora. A woman ordained as a Yoruba priestess pours drinks in homage to ancestors and prays over the festival in Yoruba and Twi. At the opposite end of the square, artist Michaela Brown, 29, puts the final touches on a jet-black display of an unclad woman titled Mary Crucified. She molds and modifies a 20-foot-long symbolic grave honoring six black women murdered in the Park View neighborhood in the District in 1997. Between the priestess and the artist, the blocklong plaza lies empty.
Freeman and Payne expected at least 5,000 people. Four hours into the event, about 100 spectators have arrived, and not all of them have stayed. Random tourist types of all hues make pit stops by the stage, and, for the majority of the day, Freedom Plaza is a thoroughfare for Latino families heading down Pennsylvania Avenue to the annual Latino Festival.
Heat advisories have been issued for the day, but Freeman is nevertheless disturbed by the scant show of black love in so-called Chocolate City. “Black folks don’t have a right to be afraid of the sunshine and the heat,” he scoffs. “Skin cancer is about the only statistic we aren’t leading in.”
Meanwhile, Payne hustles about, serving bottled water to performers and imploring the audience to support the vendors, most of whom—with the exception of the Italian Ice proprietors—report a sluggish day. Some of them even leave early.
About 50 would-be spectators cluster under five trees behind the stage for shade and mist from the plaza’s fountain. Payne pleads with them to come to the front. “We put in a lot of work to put this together,” he tells them. The two owe thousands of dollars in festival debt. Slightly perturbed, Payne pauses. No one in the group budges. He turns to announce the next act. The plaza broils.
At 5 p.m., with only three hours left in the program, the crowd thickens into the hundreds. Some folks—the younger folks, especially—have come for a party rather than a tribute to the race. “I see a lot of rhetoric. It’s good rhetoric, but that’s what it is,” says a 24-year-old in the crowd named Spencer Ash. “It’s a venerable concept, but people have to realize what it is: It’s a free show.”
But the older people at the event see its significance. “Each generation gets a chance to move a nation,” says 53-year-old M’wile Askari, who did a brief stint as a member of the Black Panther Party and performs at the event. “[Payne and Freeman] are trying to create and establish a continuance of a moment from a long time ago when we cared about ourselves.”
The Backyard Band rocks the crowd with “Cease Fire! Don’t Smoke the Brothers.” In a move reminiscent of the Black Power era, the group’s singer impels the now-dense throng in front of the stage to pump one fist in the air “if you have black love!” They crowd indulges him.
Just before the festival’s end, Payne croons his own meditative ballad with Moya: “Shackles on the children’s minds, it’s time we find relief/So the spirits on the ocean floor can finally rest in peace.” To close the day, three djembe drummers rap a lullaby. The crowd disperses. Payne heads onto the stage and kneels in prayer.
“As far short of our lofty goals we fell, [the festival] was still very successful,” Payne says later.
“I have to look at it as a steppingstone,” Freeman says. “I can’t die as a disgruntled postal worker. That doesn’t define me. That doesn’t say who I am.” CP