Organizers say the young adult stage at the Umoja Festival is gaining in popularity every year. (Photos by Max Hrenda/Johnson City Press)
Although the Umoja Festival has been part of Johnson City’s summers for almost two decades, organizers said some of its more recent additions have begun to draw more attention as the years move on.
On Friday and Saturday, thousands flocked to downtown Johnson City to help celebrate the 18th annual Umoja Festival through meals, music and merriment.
While the festival itself has occurred for 18 years, this year marked the fifth time the event has taken place downtown. Wherever the venue, Umoja Committee Chairman Ralph Davis said the festival’s ultimate goal was to encourage people of different ethnic and cultural groups to learn from each other and enjoy each other’s company.
With regard to this year’s festival, while he said he didn’t think any one event was any more popular than another, Davis said he and other organizers saw attendees doing just that.
“We have seen a lot of interaction between different groups,” Davis said. “We’ve seen some fantastic entertainment and fantastic learning. That’s exactly what we want.”
Traditionally, the festival has relied on musical acts to help bring in crowds. According to event coordinator Bill Coleman, this year’s event was no different.
“The crowds are gravitating to the different music venues,” Coleman said.
While the crowds were enjoying the artists’ performances during the festival, some of the artists were, in turn, enjoying the festival’s assistance with their performance. Amythyst Kiah, a solo singer and guitarist from Chattanooga, credited the festival’s sound team with creating “an artist’s dream” on stage.
“It’s an artist’s dream to be able to come to a venue and not only hear themselves but ... for it to sound really good,” she said. “The whole point of performing is to express yourself artistically, so when you know for sure that it sounds good and people can hear when you’re doing, it’s fantastic.”
Kiah performed on the main stage, located at the intersection of Buffalo and Main streets, between 5:30 and 6:15 on Saturday evening, but there were also other venues providing music. On Saturday at around 7 p.m., DJ El Centenario (Isaac Villaneuve) set up on East Main Street between Colonial Way and South Roan Street. At around the same time, one block away on East Market Street, the festival’s young adult stage was drawing one of the festival’s largest crowds. Davis said that, though the stage is one of the festival’s newer additions, it has seen a significant increase in popularity.
“Since we put the young adult stage on two or three years ago, it has blown up,” Davis said. “We’re getting younger ideas (and) younger people. That’s the right direction to go.”
The young adult stage isn’t the only newer idea that experienced an increase in popularity. The Umoja Car Show, which became a part of the festival in 2011, featured more vehicles this year than in previous ones.
“That’s something we’ve been building on,” Davis said. “Car people are a different breed; they’re not going to bring their cars anywhere where they really don’t know what’s going on. (But) they’re beginning to trust us.”
In addition to the car show, the festival’s annual race — the Unity Race 5K Run/Walk — also had its highest level of participation. In its fourth year, Davis said, the race boasted its highest number of participants with approximately 190.
“The run was phenomenal,” Davis said. “It was our biggest run so far.”
While organizers praised some types of participation, Coleman added the festival suffered an early blight as “dozens” of motorists ignored the safety barriers and drove through the closed streets.
“Our only issue, from my perspective ... is getting people to respect the safety barriers and not drive through them,” he said. “It hasn’t been so bad since the festival cranked up. But in the first hours of Thursday night and Friday morning, when we were trying to get set up, it was dangerous.”
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