Watch Samantha Lefebvre's UMD Kwanzaa video on YouTube
The beating sounds of hands striking an African drum fill the room. And then just as soon as the drumming gets faster and louder, it comes to an abrupt stop and leaves only an echo behind.
“Once there was a king and queen that ruled over all of Africa,” says a voice near the back of the stage. And so begins the story of Kwanzaa.
For the past twenty years, the Black Student Association (BSA) on the UMD campus has organized a free and open to the public event to celebrate the holiday of Kwanzaa.
This year the event was held on Saturday, December 11 and included a dinner in the Kirby Ballroom followed by 22 performances in the Weber Music Hall, ranging from hip-hop dance, to poetry, to rap.
“Each year there is a different theme,” said Blair Moses, UMD student and BSA member. This year’s theme was the ‘Unexpected Story.' Many people from the Duluth and UMD communities came to the event to learn and participate in the celebration of African American culture.
“Well, I came because I honestly don’t know much about it,” said John Woodward, UMD student. “I also have a couple friends who are in BSA and a couple more friends from the Multicultural Center who I came here with tonight. And so I came to learn and have fun and enjoy.”
“I really respect what they are trying to do,” said UMD freshman Roshna Khan. “It is a good opportunity for people to come and realize about the black culture, the African American culture. And the food is really good.”
Chancellor Lendley Black was the keynote speaker at the dinner. He emphasized that UMD’s Kwanzaa celebration was a tradition that he would like to see keep thriving for years to come. Black also expressed how it is one of his goals as chancellor to apply the key element of Kwanzaa that focuses on bringing people together and forming a strong community to the campus.
“One aspect of the original African Kwanzaa, ‘first fruit celebration,’ involved a time of what was called ingathering of people to reaffirm the bonds between them,” said Chancellor Black. “My wish is that tonight’s event and our celebration of Kwanzaa that begins later in December will serve to focus on the bonds that we all share. There is so much that can tear us apart in today’s society. And we need to look for ways to build each other up and to reinforce a strong sense of community.”
After Chancellor Black’s speech David Comer, the director of the African American student program came up to the podium and explained that; “The purpose of Kwanzaa is to get to know one another as a community.” He then encouraged everyone to get up and meet at least four people that they did not come to the celebration with.
Scene from Lefebvre's UMD Kwanzaa YouTube video
After the dinner, people were led to the Weber for the performance part of the event. Brian Robertson, president of BSA, was the MC for the night’s activities. The performances included a skit about the story of Kwanzaa, a hip-hop dance battle, a few different raps, and some African dances. “When we say African dance, African dance can be very very broad because there are a lot of different countries in Africa, and there are a lot of different tribal dances,” said Zainab Taiwo, BSA member. “But with the people that we have in the Black Student Association, we go from who we have there and who can teach us what they know. So we have a good amount of Ethiopians, so we have an Ethiopian dance incorporated in the African dance. Some Nigerians who will be teaching us some Nigerian dances, Liberians who will be adding some of their moves into our dances, and yeah, it’s just a mixture of everything.”
Blair’s First Kwanzaa
Although this event has been going on for many years, this year was Blair Moses’ first year celebrating Kwanzaa with BSA. He has also never celebrated the seven-day long holiday with his family before.
“This is the first year I am actually celebrating it, which I am excited about,” said Moses. “My family does not celebrate it, but we do celebrate Christmas. “I think that there are some people in BSA that do celebrate with their families, but here we kind of do it early and celebrate as a group. We figure it is better that way and it is a tradition that way, at least for us college students. Its just a way to get to know people and have fun.”
Moses is a member of BSA and participated in both the opening skit, which was a story about a prince and the story of Kwanzaa, and the hip-hop dance battle with fellow BSA students. “It went well,” said Moses. “A lot of the alumni and staff said that it was the best show that we have had in the BSA and definitely the best Kwanzaa, so that was good.”
Despite the great reviews from their peers and friends, the various groups that performed in the Weber didn’t get the chance to practice in the hall until the actual night of the performance.
“A lot of people had to switch up their positioning and their formations and things like that, so that made it a little more difficult, but overall it went the way we wanted it to and most of the things turned out well,” said Moses. “I mean everybody messes up, that is one of the things that makes live performances so great otherwise it is basically a recording, but yeah it went really well.”
In addition to the lack of a space to practice their dance moves, Moses said that it was also hard to coordinate everyone’s schedule for rehearsals.
“For the opening African dance and then for the last hip-hop dance, it was so difficult to get 12 people all in one place at the same time, because everyone has classes and it’s near finals, and everyone has work,” he said. “I think we only had two or three practices where everyone was there for the full time. I know that the night before Kwanzaa the whole group actually stayed up till 4 a.m. practicing non-stop, and then we came back at noon and practiced again till 4 p.m. the day of the show.”
According to Moses, however, all of that hard work paid off in the end and the community seemed to enjoy the food, the performances and the entire event overall.
“I really liked it because we made sure all of the performances were something that kids could watch and respect and not get offended by,” said Moses. “Because that is what Kwanzaa was mainly for, the kids and the gifts, and I think the community took it well and enjoyed the show. It seemed to go well.”
As for the question everyone wants to know, will he participate in Kwanzaa next year? “Oh yes, yes. I will be doing Kwanzaa next year, and the year after that and for as many years as I am in Duluth,” said Moses. “Probably not do the celebrating with my family, but I do like the whole group performance aspect thing with people so if I could maybe start something like that on the actual dates of Kwanzaa, I think that would be great. It was so much fun. We just had a blast, and it turned out great. Honestly probably one of the best nights this year.”
The History of Kwanzaa
Dr. Maulana Karenga created the seven-day long holiday in 1966. He is a professor of Africana Studies at California State University in Long Beach. Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday, but rather a cultural holiday celebrated by any and all African Americans “who come together based on the rich, ancient, and varied common ground of their Africanness,” according to the official Kwanzaa website.
Kwanzaa is built upon Nguzo Saba or The Seven Principles. The principles are unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith.
“Kwanzaa is an American type of celebration,” said Moses. “We celebrate African American heritage so it is centered around Africa and the history of everything. It’s not one of those holidays they celebrate in Africa. It’s not a religious holiday. You can be of any religion and celebrate Kwanzaa. It’s kind of like Black History Month or Valentines Day. It’s something you celebrate with anyone of any race, any religion.”
“It is and an African American holiday, and I know it is celebrated to commemorate African American cultures success in America. A lot of the times it will just be a gathering of food and music and celebration, kind of like what we do here,” said Patience Dolo, BSA member. “And so we put it [Kwanzaa] on mainly for the community to come out and give their support because I know there isn’t a very large African American population in Duluth and so we like to bring everyone together to celebrate.”