Umoja Festival opens first day with music, food and fun

Zach Vance • Sep 8, 2018 at 12:17 AM

A fusion of colors, culture, music and food encapsulated downtown Johnson City Friday evening as the Umoja festival commenced its 22nd year under new leadership. 

“This is my first year organizing this, and the committee has been working really hard. Hopefully, this will be one of the biggest festivals we’ve had,” Umoja Cultural Arts Committee co-chairman Joe Bradley said. “We’re just here for everyone to have a good time.”

Sponsored by East Tennessee State University, this year’s festival features a petting zoo, boxing demonstrations, a wrestling match, a wide selection of food and clothing vendors and a revamped children’s area, with an emphasis on STEM interactive activities.


Bradley said the Hand-On Museum, Gray Fossil Site and Tinkergarten were all hosting learning activities for children. Quantum Leap also set up four large inflatables for children to jump on, while The Triple H Petting Zoo brought a llama, a pig, a calve and mini ponies. 

Vendors, like Hajae Njie, spent most of the day Friday under the blistering heat preparing their booths while the streets remained relatively calm.

Njie, who operates D’Fine Clothing and Accessories, traveled from Atlanta to Johnson City to sell clothing and accessories at Umoja. 

“From the start of me coming, it’s been about 10 years, and there’s been a lot of changes,” Njie said. 

“More people come to the festival now (and) more vendors come to the festival so that shows some progress ... It’s on the right path. A lot of the time, it’s the weather that determines whether vendors come.”

Njie’s booth contained a rainbow of various African-themed dresses, earrings, and other attire, which caught the eye of ETSU students Taylin McNeese and Natalie Shanklin. 

“Especially being in the South and not having as much diversity as other places, it’s really intriguing for a black person or African-American person to see a festival that’s pretty much dedicated to African cultures. So that’s really what brought me out,” McNeese said. “I’m excited to try out all the different foods, hear the music and buy a lot of clothes.”

Shanklin, who’s from Knoxville, said she was also drawn to the festival because of its emphasis on different cultures. 

“Since I’m from the South, I wasn’t exposed to different cultures, and I just think it’s beautiful how we can have Hispanic and African (cultures) and different types of foods and music just come together,” Shanklin said. 

When asked if they were proud their university is a main sponsor of an event like Umoja, Shanklin said, “I’m proud they do that. I like that they do that. It just shows they care, and they’re open to change and progress.” 

As the night drew near, crowds began gathering around the main stage at the corner of Main Street and Buffalo Street to witness Liberty Bell Middle School student and Niswonger Children’s Hospital spokesperson Patience Gardner sing to open the festival.

Following her performance, the New Orleans-based Zulu Connection stilt walkers captivated the audience with a daring, up-close dance along the street to music performed by the Wato-to drummers and dancers.

The five-member Umoja Band from Atlanta headlined Friday’s festival, while DJs Sterl the Pearl closed out the first day of the festival.

“We just tried to get the best entertainment we could possibly find,” Umoja Cultural Arts Committee co-chairwoman Angelitti Bradley said. 

“Our focus is mostly R&B, jazz and reggae. That’s just the type of music we like to bring to the community.”

Saturday’s festival will feature a parade at 10 a.m., following by Gospel Fest at noon. Here is a full schedule of events:

- 10 a.m. Parade (leaves from Carver Recreation Center)

- noon-2 p.m. Gospel Fest

- 12:30 p.m.- 1:15 p.m. ETSU Tale Tellers at the Children’s area

- 2 p.m.-2:45 p.m. DJ Sterl the Pearl

- 6:15 p.m.- 7 p.m. Hair Show Reception at Tipton Street Gallery

- 7:30 p.m.-9 p.m. ETSU Tale Tellers at the Gazebo Area

- 7 p.m.-8:45 p.m. Xavier Lewis

- 9 p.m. We Are One Tribute Band

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