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Juneteenth jitters 

Local filmmakers take aim at Power 92.

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It's June, which means it'll soon be time again for Power 92's massive, traffic-halting Juneteenth concert, which draws upwards of 12,000 rap and hip-hop fans annually to the Riverfest Amphitheatre. Not everyone in Little Rock's black community is gleefully clutching their tickets and picking out their concert outfit, however.

In their documentary “The Truth Behind Juneteenth: A Paradox of Freedom,” first-time directors Darrell Scott and Julian Walker take aim at Power 92's all-day concert. They contend that concert organizers have misused the name “Juneteenth,” turning something that should be revered into just another marketing ploy. Worse, they say, the concert squanders a golden opportunity to reach throngs of young concertgoers. By only mentioning the history of Juneteenth briefly and neglecting the holiday's broader message of freedom and independence, they say Power 92 is turning what could be a unifying cultural event into just another concert. 

Both Arkansas natives and students at Davidson College in North Carolina, Scott and Walker took a course on African American history during their freshman year. After a class in which the history of Juneteenth celebrations was discussed, the pair started talking about Power 92's annual concert in Little Rock, which they had both attended during their high school years. The concert, they agreed, didn't go nearly far enough toward being the family-friendly, community-oriented event seen in other cities.

“Julian was like, we need to stop complaining and do something,” Scott said. “He actually came up with the idea to do a documentary. I handled a lot of logistics and we went forward with it.”

In 2007, Scott and Walker brought a digital video camera to the concert, filming fans and asking if they knew the history behind Juneteenth. Almost none of the people they spoke to did. In addition, the filmmakers took the opportunity to speak to artists, one of whom called the concert nothing more than a moneymaking ploy in which unsigned acts were charged up to $1,500 to perform. While Walker and Scott's film is tagged with an opening disclaimer that says they don't necessarily agree with the opinions captured on film, a little quick on-camera arithmetic by the same rapper — 13,000 fans, multiplied by $15 to $25 per ticket, minus a five-figure donation to the Little Rock's Watershed charity (“Over $100,000 has been raised in the last three years,” station officials announced soon after the 2007 concert), minus any overhead — implies that Power 92 annually makes out like a bandit.

As with Walker and Scott's video, Broadway Joe Booker — programming director at Power 92 — did not return phone calls soliciting comment for this article.

Scott and Walker say they don't mind Power 92 making money, and add that they're not out to water down the popular concert. All they'd like, they say, is for Power 92 to at least make an effort to make the event more community-oriented. At Juneteenth events they've attended in other cities, the pair says, there is music, but the sets are periodically broken by brief events like the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation and short speeches by black leaders. At the Power 92 Juneteenth concert, they say, the only mention of the end of slavery usually comes during an opening benediction by the Rev. Hezekiah Stewart. 

“With Power 92,” said Walker, “their slogan says they're involved and proud of this community. We're saying that if you've got the opportunity to reach 13,000 young black minds, why wouldn't you present something that can inform them about their heritage? Have an art show or a health fair or a voter registration drive — things that bring attention to matters in the black community.” 

Both Walker and Scott say that they don't intend to let their calls for a more cultural and inclusive Juneteenth celebration in Little Rock end with the documentary. They're open to working with both the city and Power 92 to accomplish that goal, and suggest that the celebration could be expanded into a two-day event — one day for the concert, the next for gospel, art, poetry, health screenings and other cultural events. For now, they're showing their film on college campuses and at festivals (including a recent screening at the Little Rock Film Festival) and actively working to create what they call the Truth Behind Juneteenth Movement.

“A couple of people have said things to us like, ‘Oh, you guys are just talking bad about Power 92.' ” Scott said. “No, we just want Power 92 to do a better job of serving the community. … If you're going to call it ‘Juneteenth,' please do it justice. You shouldn't trivialize it by throwing it on there for marketing purposes.” 

To see Walker and Scott's film, go to Google Video and type in: “The Truth Behind Juneteenth.”

 

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david@arktimes.com

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