Kuumba, the festival of African-American culture, has been celebrated in Knoxville every year since 1989.
Founded by African American Appalachian Arts, Kuumba Festival is now a Knoxville tradition. Local founder Nkechi Ajanaku is still in charge of the festivities.
Different every year, the festival usually includes the Kuumba Watoto drum and dance ensemble, and a “Junkanu Parade,” like no other parade in the year, it includes drummers, dancers, and colorfully dressed stilt-walkers, often surprising office workers downtown on the Friday evening of Kuumba.
African American Appalachian Arts has an especially close relationship with Haley Heritage Square, as the organization sometimes known as Quad-A was central to planning the memorial square, known for sculptor Tina Allen’s large seated bronze statue of Alex Haley, completed in 1998.
African Americans have been part of Knoxville’s population and culture since the city’s founding. Throughout the period of slavery, Knoxville was home to both slaves and free blacks. Knoxville’s black population has been as high as about 30 percent, early in the 20th century, but due to suburbanization and some out-migration, the city’s black population is today 17 percent. Still, that proportion is higher than that of the United States as a whole.
Kuumba is a Swahili term for “creativity.” Knoxville-born blacks especially known for their creativity include modern artists Beauford Delaney (1901-1979) and his brother Joseph Delaney (1904-1991); modernist poet Nikki Giovanni, born here in 1943, who is now on the faculty of Virginia Tech, but is still a frequent visitor; and bluesman / actor Brownie McGhee (1915-1996), and his brother Stick McGhee (1917-1961), whose career links him to the dawn of rock ’n’ roll.
Others moved here later. Musicians Carl Martin (1906-1979) and Howard Armstrong (1909-2003) lived and performed in Knoxville for several years in the 1920s and early ‘30s, at the beginning of their careers that linked jazz, country, and blues. Blues singer Ida Cox (1896-1967) moved to Knoxville after most of her performing career was over, but she lived here when she made her only record album. Author Alex Haley (1921-1992) moved here when he was already famous for Roots.
James Brown, Godfather of Soul, never lived in Knoxville, but visited repeatedly both to perform and because he had a business interest here. In the late 1960s he launched a black-oriented radio station, WJBE, which broadcasts to this day at 99.7 FM and 1040 AM.
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