‘Umoja’ is the Swahili word for ‘unity,’ to be in harmony and of one accord, to combine and to include all.
And among a colorful sea of dashikis, national flags draped from rooftop to rooftop and pulsating, cathartic rhythms booming through the streets at the Umoja Festival, unity was manifest.
Twenty years ago, that was the vision of Ralph Davis and the original organizers of the first Umoja Festival.
“We noticed that strong African American communities all over the east coast were having festivals celebrating their heritage and diversity,” said Davis, Chairman of the Umoja Festival. “We thought ‘Why don’t we have something like this in our region? Why not Johnson City?,’ and the festival was born.”
The festival began on the grounds of Carver Recreation Center in 1997, until the grounds flooded and it was forced to move to a new location at Freedom Hall. This larger venue gave the festival an opportunity to expand so much so that it was outgrown, and the celebration moved to its permanent home in downtown Johnson City.
This year’s Umoja Festival was the largest one yet, owing to the current revitalization of downtown and an integral partnership with East Tennessee State University. ETSU provided Umoja with sponsorship, volunteers and vendors, as well as awareness to thousands of students who may not have been aware of the festival otherwise.
Nifemi Moronkeji, a student who has attended the festival each year while studying at ETSU from Nigeria, said that the university’s partnership changed the dynamic of the event.
“This year something was different from before,” said Moronkeji. “The ETSU partnership brought more students, more participation and more enthusiasm than ever.”
The weekend’s headlining act, iHeartMemphis, was one of ETSU’s sponsorship contributions. Davis said that the group, and incidentally the partnership, attracted the largest main-stage audience in the festival’s 20-year history.
“This year is such an upgrade from before […] and I can’t wait for tonight—they got iHeartMemphis!,” shouted Moronkeji, as she began dancing to the booming drums making their way down the block.
“My favorite part about the festival is the dancing and music,” she continued. “I am African, so when I see these performers and hear their music it’s like ‘Oh my god, I am back home, I feel everything that I miss.’”
As the traditional African dancers paraded by on stilts, clad in dashikis and wooden masks, the music, dancing and drumming was infectious to the festival crowds. Everyone within earshot of the performers was sharing in their artistry.
Friends and drummers from Knoxville, Didia and Jaja, echoed Moronkeji, saying that from their perspective, to turn the corner and see everyone on the block react to their beats rewarded years of practice.
“I started drumming because we had it as a school program back in Knoxville,” said Didia. “As soon as we went to sixth grade orientation it was something that caught our attention and reminded us of heritage, and now we are in college at ETSU and still drumming today.”
Along with street entertainment and mainstage performers, Umoja attendees enjoyed a plethora of colorful, bold cuisines and the wares of artisans and merchants from across the Southeast.
“Umoja shows the very best of the community,” Jaja added. “I am here all the time and I don’t see people together like this. It brings our city out.”
This unity was the primary goal of the festival when it began and twenty years ago and it remains as such today.
Davis says that with issues of race relations and violence in the national spotlight, Umoja, being the only diversity-concentrated showcase in the region, is an asset to Johnson City.
“The current national discussion undoubtedly had something to do with the festival’s success this year,” said Davis. “Our original mission was and is to maintain a celebration of ethnic diversity and a universal love of life. We use a festival celebration to facilitate eliminating barriers between race and cultures.”
Thanks to organizers like Davis, students like Moronkeji and performers like Didia and Jaja, Johnson City removed itself from the division plaguing the country. The ‘umoja’ was in the air and it was contagious.
“When I hit the drum, I immediately see the joy on people’s faces,” said Didia.
“Yeah, it’s like we’re handing out joy to people,” continued Jaja. “That’s why we do this. That’s what we love.”