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By: A.M. De la Torre

You’re invited to “The Juneteenth Experience,” a celebration of Black freedom through art, song, dance, culture and performance.

Raised from infancy by his Trinidadian grandmother in North Miami Beach following his own mother’s lapse into addiction, Kunya Rowley understood from a young age that education was the key to advancement. His Blackness was not spoken about while growing up, and his grandmother made sure that he never saw it as an obstacle. In Trinidad, after all, the challenge to attaining success was socio-economic class, not race.

In the U.S., however, the reality of being Black and of not having role models has deeply informed Kunya’s goals and passion projects. Today, as the artistic director of Hued Songs, and with the upcoming premiere of Hued Songs’ collaborative project, “The Juneteenth Experience,” he works to inspire and lead others.

Bringing an underrecognized U.S. holiday into the spotlight

Juneteenth is the holiday — celebrated unevenly across the country — commemorating the date, June 19, 1865, when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas to take control of the state and ensure that all enslaved people were freed. “The Juneteenth Experience” aims to manifest interpretations of Black liberation and freedom — with song, spoken word, dance, satellite performances and community workshops throughout Miami-Dade County — culminating with the grand finale on Saturday, June 19, 2021 at the Miami Beach Bandshell. Still a work in progress, “The Juneteenth Experience” is a partnership between Hued Songs, the Rhythm Foundation and the Mangrove Collective. Together, they are inviting the community to understand Juneteenth from three perspectives: (1) honoring ancestors and what has transpired to get to this moment; (2) where we are today, and where we are not; and (3) the future of liberation, which means something different to each of the cultures of the African diaspora.

For Kunya, who is Black and queer, this as a great opportunity for conversation and understanding. “When we make space to promote cultural identity and to revel in who we are, it inspires others to do the same and breaks down barriers. So much of this country’s intense fighting, disagreement and divides,” he adds, “are rooted in ignorance.”

As creator of “The Juneteenth Experience,” Kunya empowers his performers to explore every facet of what freedom means, their range of spirituality and orientation, and to confidently bring their whole selves to their performances.

“Not shedding any component of themselves to fit into a box,” is how Kunya puts it.

The journey from being ancestrally lost to culturally proud

It is fitting that “The Juneteenth Experience” falls during Pride Month, which celebrates LGBTQ+ people and their contributions. Kunya is intentional in the program’s intersection of Blackness and queerness, educating audiences that Black culture is not monolithic. That’s particularly important for Kunya to promote because he felt culturally and ancestrally lost as a child despite the fact that he was gifted — and lifted — in so many ways by educational opportunities offered to him in languages, music and theater.

From Toussaint L’ouverture Elementary School in Little Haiti where Kunya began, to Sunset Elementary in posh South Miami where he studied French, to the New World School of the Arts in Downtown Miami where he majored in opera, with each educational level Kunya not only gained a deepening knowledge of the arts, his capabilities and talent — he also experienced a gnawing realization that as a Black (and later, also queer) man, he had few role models to which to aspire. He recalls, “What does singing opera, in Italian, have to do with me or my background? Where do I fit into the performance — or the art form?” Increasingly, he felt he didn’t, and he stopped singing and performing altogether.

During this time, he began working with a hospitality company. With this newly acquired business acumen, in 2017 he pivoted back to the arts — this time, supported by a prestigious Knight Foundation grant. The concept: Hued Songs, a series of concert performances focused on Black art, music and classical composers, to be held throughout Greater Miami. Hued Songs led Kunya to learn about Juneteenth — and gave him the desire to expand his repertoire around it.

A celebration that seeks to build pride — as well as bridges

While Kunya was in the middle of developing “The Juneteenth Experience,” the COVID-19 pandemic hit. In June 2020 — as racial divides and inequality gripped headlines around the world — Kunya proposed the idea of a Miami Juneteenth event, and began seeking another grant. While he was not selected for the grant, a person on the selection panel approached him about realizing the concept. For Kunya, this was not just another artistic decision and opportunity, but an obligation to use his talent and this platform to build community and inspire others.

His vision and expectation: “I hope ’The Juneteenth Experience’ creates momentum for people to continue the conversation about cultural identity and preservation, as BIPOCs (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) — and as Miamians. I’m hoping the dialogue doesn’t end on June 20.”

The Juneteenth Experience will consist of a series of events leading up to the grand finale on Saturday, June 19, 2021. The details are not yet finalized. Check back often for updates.