The timing of Kwanzaa’s 50th anniversary celebration in San Quentin was apt because the event happened on the third night of Kwanzaa when communities come together to share and solve problems.
More than 100 men attended the event, which was hosted by Darnell “Moe” Washington. The celebration featured music, spoken word poetry and impromptu speeches about the seven principles of Kwanzaa.
Many of the men used the opportunity to share the problem of not being able to be with their families for the holidays, and they leaned on each other to be that family for one another. Each fulfilled opportunity exemplified Kwanzaa’s third principle: Ujima, or collective work and responsibility.
“I came to support my friend (Darnell “Moe” Washington) and the idea of unity,” one of the attendees, Bruce Engleton, said.
Robert “Belize” Villafranco sang a Bemba Soul Song as he beat a drum between his legs. The song illuminated Bemba birth rituals, rites of passage, and death rites. Villafranco said that the piece was restorative because the song can help African-Americans restore familial and community relationships by reconnecting with their roots.
The night’s highlight was a performance by outside guest Naima Shalhoub, who sang and played guitar, accompanied by Lee “Jazz” Jaspar on keyboard. Jaspar had never heard Shalhoub’s songs, but he embodied the sixth principle — creativity — by improvising his accompaniment.
Shalhoub’s performance also turned into an exercise in Kwanzaa’s first principle, Umoja or unity, when men were so moved by the music that they joined the musicians on stage. Dwight Krizman joined Shalhoub during her first song, adding his drum accompaniment.
When Shalhoub sang about a man struggling to rise from “a street corner next to a house that’s got it all,” Leonard “Funky Len” Walker joined the growing ensemble with a bass guitar. Next, Gino Sevacos joined with the Conga drum. Sevacos later played an African rainforest solo.
“I loved it. It made me happy,” Shalhoub said. With Krizman, Jaspar, and Sevacos being White, the impromptu band epitomized a point Shalhoub made that unity wasn’t about being the same, but about coming together.
John Grain, attending his second Kwanzaa celebration at San Quentin, said that he enjoyed the celebration. “Your heart has to be open to all faiths and all races,” he said.
At the end, Washington led the evening to a close by honoring Kwanzaa’s seventh principle: faith in people. He praised two dozen men in the audience for their community work.
“I need all you brothers and we all need each other,” Washington said. “That’s my gift to you and you are my gift to me.”
The following are the seven principles of Kwanzaa:
Ujima/Collective Work and Responsibility
Webster’s New College Dictionary defines Kwanzaa as an African-American cultural festival observed from Dec. 26-Jan. 1.