Rapper Niko Brim And Activist Opal Lee On The Importance Of Juneteenth: "It Represents Freedom"

Niko Brim

Photo: Courtesy of V Records, A Division of ADX Labs & Technologies


Rapper Niko Brim And Activist Opal Lee On The Importance Of Juneteenth: "It Represents Freedom"

The emerging hip-hop artist and social activist talk about their tireless fight to make Juneteenth a national holiday and their commitment to make a difference in the world

GRAMMYs/Jun 19, 2020 - 07:00 pm

When he's not in the studio working on music or involved in youth activism and speaking at Black Lives Matter rallies, emerging hip-hop artist/producer Niko Brim is helping 93-year-old social impact leader Opal Lee with her tireless fight to make Juneteenth a national holiday. 

As the oldest-known celebration commemorating the ending of slavery, Juneteenth marks a special day of remembrance and reflection for many Black Americans. The holiday, also known as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day, honors the day—June 19, 1865—when Union Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, where he informed enslaved African-Americans there of the end of the Civil War, essentially granting them their ultimate freedom.

While Juneteenth is celebrated annually across most of the United States on June 19, it is not recognized as a national holiday.

Lee, widely known as the nation's foremost Juneteenth awareness leader, has dedicated her entire life to changing that. Her story is both personal and universal: At just 12 years old, she lost her home when 500 white supremacists set her house on fire. She's since dedicated herself to educating people about the importance of Juneteenth.

In 2016, at age 90, Lee walked from her home in Texas to Washington, D.C., in an effort to advocate for Juneteenth as a national holiday. She traveled two and a half miles per day to commemorate the two and a half years that slaves waited between when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, on Jan. 1, 1863, abolishing slavery, and the day (June 19, 1865) that message finally arrived in Texas.

Lee's hard-fought dream may actually come true: Today (June 19), multiple senators announced legislation to make Juneteenth a national holiday. Lee's own petition urging the same goal has received more than 600,000 signatures at the time of this writing.

Brim, who just wrapped his guest appearance on Rapsody's 2020 A Black Woman Created This Tour, has received over 1 million streams, with hits including "Throne," "Feds Watching" and "Woke." His latest single, "Hard To Believe," reflects his mission to implore Black and brown youth to reclaim their power.

"For 'Hard To Believe,' I wanted to tie the idea of revolution to some of our best moments as a people," he tells the Recording Academy. "A lot of times when revolution or systemic change is brought up, the images used are from the looters and the burning buildings. But they don't highlight the beautiful community and culture that is leading the charge day by day. 

"[The song's] lyric video has some of the most brilliant black men and women, prolific writers, speakers, artists, etc. All of these people stood for the same change that we need! I wanted to show that in the video to create a conversation that is more uplifting for us as a people."

To honor the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth, Brim is launching a new show on his Instagram channel called "Power Hour," which "will explore the meaning of 'freedom for all," he says. The weeklong series, which begins nightly at 6:19 p.m. EST and runs from June 19-June 25, launches with Lee as the first guest.  

The Recording Academy spoke with Niko Brim and Opal Lee about the significance of Juneteenth, the importance of music to the holiday's celebration and the dynamic duo's commitment to make a difference in the world.

Tell us about the importance of Juneteenth.

Niko Brim: Juneteenth is the day that all Africans were freed from slavery. In Texas, two-and-a-half years after slavery was considered abolished, there were still slaves. June 19 is the day that the last remaining slaves in this country were freed from bondage and given the start to this marathon we have been running for human rights. To me, Juneteenth represents freedom—it represents my past, the present and where the future is headed for Black America. The 4th of July never represented that for me and many Black people. [Juneteenth] is symbolic for us, in acknowledging and being aware of our own history. This was not taught to us in schools or seen on the calendar.  

Lee: I am part of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation. The states that don't recognize [Juneteenth] are Hawaii, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota. Each state has a board member. We currently don't have representation from [those states]. We need many signatures and everyone to shout about it to get Congress on our side to pass this bill. The President would have to sign an executive order to make Juneteenth a federally observed holiday. I hope to see that in my lifetime. 

[Editor's Note: In a June 17 guest column for The Billings Gazette, Montana state Sen. Margaret MacDonald wrote, "In 2017 the Legislature adopted a bill establishing Juneteenth as National Freedom Day in commemoration of the Emancipation Proclamation on the third Saturday of June. Montana was the 46th state to officially mark the date." On Thursday (June 18), South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem proclaimed Friday (June 19) as Juneteenth Day for 2020 only in the state; it is not recognized as an annual state holiday or observance, according to the Argus Leader. On Wednesday (June 17), North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum announced the state would formally recognize Friday as Juneteenth Celebration Day for the year 2020; state Sen. Tim Mathern plans to propose a bill to recognize Juneteenth as a holiday in North Dakota. In Honolulu, the capital of Hawaii, Mayor Kirk Caldwell announced on Thursday that June 19 will be officially recognized as Juneteenth and will be celebrated as "an annual day of honor and reflection going forward for the City and County of Honolulu."

Opal Lee | Photo: 

What do you love about each other?

Brim: I wanted to work with Opal so I could actively do all that I can to push our community forward. I immediately fell in love with her passion, her commitment and her will for human rights. When I decided to promote Juneteenth, I came across her through the internet and made it my mission to connect [with her]. Since then, she has been a mentor who has guided me and is one of the cornerstones of the Black community. I'm blessed to know her.

Lee: If I could, I would adopt him! I am so proud of him for how he is educating people, and hope he will continue speaking at the rallies. He is a great rapper, and I love him!

How has music played a role with Juneteenth? 

Brim: Music is an important aspect of Juneteenth because it is part of our culture. As we celebrate the Emancipation, we listen to melodies that have been reflective of our times, everything from slave hymns to current-day hip-hop. The music is the voice, and in many ways, the narration. It's the honest experience of us as a people and will forever be a key in all cultural movements.

I think the hip-hop and R&B community is embracing Juneteenth. For years, we were unaware of our history, and now, more than ever, the information is spreading like wildfire. I'm seeing collective support for the holiday, and I hope that for the rest of the 2020s, it will be celebrated on a national level. I would love to see it embraced by the overall music industry entirely, but we'll see.

The holiday still isn't recognized throughout the country, so hopefully starting this year, we can begin annual musical celebrations in honor of the event.

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Lee: Music is an integral part of Black American and African history. The rhythm and vibrations, from drums and voices, create energy that not only moves our bodies, but moves our spirits. Juneteenth represents unity, and when we as people are together, there is an energy there that can transcend all pain and injustices. 

When slaves learned they were free, they started celebrating with music, singing and dancing. It was such a joyous time. I have never been to a Juneteenth festival that didn't have some kind of music there; it could be jazz, opera, country or classical music.  

Niko, tell me about your new Instagram show, "Power Hour." 

Brim: Opal is my first guest on the show, which I created to commemorate the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth. Celebrities like rappers Doug E. Fresh and Rapsody, John Amos ("Roots," "Good Times") and filmmaker Monty Ross (Spike Lee's collaborator on films including She's Gotta Have It, Do The Right Thing and Malcolm X), who convey "Black power," will explore the meaning of "freedom for all" during a week-long conversations series [starting] at 6:19 p.m. EST from June 19 through June 25.

The series' topics focus on the "Twelve Freedoms" granted on June 19, 1865, when Union General Gordon Granger led federal troops to Galveston, Texas, to announce that slaves were freed and the Civil War had ended. They were now able to do business, dress, grow food, marry, own, read and write, preserve history, serve in the military, travel, worship, birth and name their children, and vote, legislate and govern.

Opal, what is it going to take to get Juneteenth to become a national holiday?

Lee: In order for Juneteenth to be a national holiday, we must not live in fear of people that are different from us, but rather accept those differences and get to know those differences. When this happens, it will be harder to judge a person by their skin color. Education is key and that education is not learned in the classroom, but in life and in our rearing. We just hit 100,000 signatures [on the petition]. Now we want 1 million!

Niko, your mom is veteran music fashion stylist Misa Hylton, and your dad is Jojo Brim, CEO of V Records. What have they taught you?

Brim: My parents have always been a great influence on me. My father has always exemplified doing what is best and taking the higher road, and that is something that inspired me. He is a seasoned music executive, who has taught me how to build a brand. I am thrilled to be on his label! 

Mom has taught me hard work and the importance of believing in yourself. Between the two of them, I feel very comfortable in expressing what I stand for.

Both of them shared with me the ins and out [of] the industry and the business as well as staying true to myself and making the art I love. Learning these jewels from them helped a lot with the pressures that come with the industry and how to maintain a level head and a true heart in my music.

What are you both working on next?

Brim: I have a new song, "Hard To Believe." The truths and beliefs I've grown up with may be hard to believe for people who aren't Black, but for us, it's inherent knowledge that we must be aware of to operate in society the best we can. I touch on politics and how none of the system was ever in our favor, how our young men are incarcerated for being falsely accused or for standing up for freedom. These are just two of the many unsaid truths about being Black in America that I share on this song. 

And this summer, I am releasing my next album, The King Has No Crown, which sheds light on the Black millennial experience. I share my story, rising from the south side of Mount Vernon to be one of the biggest voices for New York. This story is told through my eyes, the eyes of my closest people and the eyes of my city. 

Lee: I am ready to restart my trek across America, which they call "Opal's Walk 2 D.C.," to the White House to bring awareness and get Juneteenth to be a holiday that is on the calendar. I want everyone to know that we were not freed on the 4th of July. My walk is 2.5 miles to represent the 2.5 years it took for slaves in the South to be freed. 

I am also working on a book called "1619." It dives deep into how the first slaves arrived in America, telling a grueling account from whence they landed and the stories that were passed on through the generations.

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More



Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

The Nigerian-American singer and actor sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about what inspired his latest album, 'Walk With Me'

GRAMMYs/Jul 8, 2019 - 10:04 pm

In 2015, Rotimi stepped into the New Orleans Superdome for the first time to experience the magic of ESSENCE Fest. Four years later, in 2019, the "Love Riddim" singer returned to the celebration as a performer, something he said was spoken into existence.

"Last year me and my manager had a conversation and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be on the [ESSENCE] mainstage this year. 365 days later, we did it," Rotimi told the Recording Academy at the 25th annual ESSENCE Fest.

Rotimi, also an actor on Starz' "Power," has evolved since his last album, 2017's Jeep Music, Vol.1. The singer said he really hit home with its follow-up, the recently released Walk With Me, a project he worked hard for, putting in hours in the studio after filming on set.

"Walk With Me is the first time I actually felt like I was giving myself as an artist, and personally I feel like with everything else I have going on I wanted to show people that this is really what I do," he said. "I wanted people to understand who Rotimi is, who Rotimi was before, who I want to be and just understand my growth and the journey and my passion for what I do."

Part of why the album felt like such a representation of him is because it embodies beats of his African roots, something he said was very present growing up Nigerian-American. 

"I grew up with a lot of Fela Kuti and I grew up with Bob Marley," he said of his musical roots. "But I also grew up with Carl Thomas and Genuine and Usher, so there was a genuine mixture of who I am and what I've grown up to listen to. The actual Walk With Me project was a mixture of influences of Akon and Craig David."

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Find Out Who's Nominated For Best Rap Album | 2020 GRAMMY Awards


Find Out Who's Nominated For Best Rap Album | 2020 GRAMMY Awards

Dreamville, Meek Mill, 21 Savage, Tyler, The Creator, and YBN Cordae all earn nominations in the category

GRAMMYs/Nov 20, 2019 - 06:28 pm

The 2020 GRAMMYs are just around the corner, and now the nominations are in for the coveted honor of Best Rap Album. While we'll have to wait until the 62nd GRAMMY Awards air on CBS on Jan. 26 to find out who will win, let's take a look at which albums have been nominated for Best Rap Album.

Revenge of the Dreamers III – Dreamville                                                                        

This star-studded compilation album from 11-time GRAMMY nominee J. Cole and his Dreamville Records imprint features appearances from some of the leading and fastest-rising artists in hip-hop today, including label artists EARTHGANG, J.I.D, and Ari Lennox, plus rappers T.I, DaBaby, and Young Nudy, among many others. Recorded in Atlanta across a 10-day recording session, Revenge of the Dreamers III is an ambitious project that saw more than 300 artists and producers contribute to the album, resulting in 142 recorded tracks. Of those recordings, 18 songs made the final album, which ultimately featured contributions from 34 artists and 27 producers.

Dreamers III, the third installment in the label’s Revenge of the Dreamers compilation series, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart and achieved gold status this past July. In addition to a Best Rap Album nod, Dreamers III is also nominated for Best Rap Performance next year for album track “Down Bad,” featuring J.I.D, Bas, J. Cole, EARTHGANG, and Young Nudy.

Championships – Meek Mill

In many ways, Championships represents a literal and metaphorical homecoming for Meek Mill. Released in November 2018, Championships is the Philadelphia rapper’s first artist album following a two-year prison sentence he served after violating his parole in 2017. Championships, naturally, sees Meek tackling social justice issues stemming from his prison experience, including criminal justice reform. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, his second chart-topper following 2015’s Dreams Worth More Than Money, and reached platinum status in June 2019. Meek Mill's 2020 Best Rap Album nod marks his first-ever GRAMMY nomination.

i am > i was – 21 Savage

Breakout rapper and four-time GRAMMY nominee 21 Savage dropped i am > i was, his second solo artist album, at the end of 2018. The guest-heavy album, which features contributions from Post Malone, Childish Gambino, J. Cole, and many others, has since charted around the world, topped the Billboard 200 – a first for the artist – in the beginning of 2019, and achieved gold status in the U.S. As well, nine songs out of the album’s 15 original tracks landed on the Hot 100 chart, including multi-platinum lead single “A Lot,” which is also nominated for Best Rap Song next year. 21 Savage’s 2020 Best Rap Album nomination, which follows Record of the Year and Best Rap/Sung Performance nods for his 2017 Post Malone collaboration, "Rockstar,” marks his first solo recognition in the top rap category.

IGOR – Tyler, The Creator

The eccentric Tyler, The Creator kicked off a massive 2019 with his mid-year album, IGOR. Released this past May, IGOR, Tyler’s fifth solo artist album, is his most commercially successful project to date. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, marking his first time topping the coveted chart, while its lead single, "Earfquake,” peaked at No. 13, his highest entry on the Hot 100. Produced in full by Tyler and featuring guest spots from fellow rap and R&B stars Kanye West, Lil Uzi Vert, Solange, and Playboi Carti, among many others, IGOR follows the rapper’s 2017 album, Flower Boy, which received the Best Rap Album nod that same year.

The Lost Boy – YBN Cordae

Emerging rapper YBN Cordae, a member of the breakout YBN rap collective, released his debut album, The Lost Boy, to widespread critical acclaim this past July. The 15-track release is stacked with major collaborations with hip-hop heavyweights, including Anderson .Paak, Pusha T, Meek Mill, and others, plus production work from J. Cole and vocals from Quincy Jones. After peaking at No. 13 on the Billboard 200, The Lost Boy now notches two 2020 GRAMMY nominations: Best Rap Album and Best Rap Song for album track “Bad Idea,” featuring Chance the Rapper.

Brittany Howard, Brandi Carlile, Leon Bridges, 2 Chainz & More Join Small Business Live Benefit Livestream

Brittany Howard

Photo: C Brandon/Redferns/Getty Images


Brittany Howard, Brandi Carlile, Leon Bridges, 2 Chainz & More Join Small Business Live Benefit Livestream

Proceeds from the event will be go toward loans to small businesses founded by people of color, with additional support to women-owned and immigrant-owned businesses, via Accion Opportunity Fund

GRAMMYs/Jun 16, 2020 - 04:13 am

This Saturday, June 20, artists including Brittany Howard, Brandi Carlile, Leon Bridges, 2 Chainz and more will come together for Small Business Live, a livestream fundraiser event for small businesses facing challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Proceeds from the livestream will go to Accion Opportunity Fund to support small businesses founded by people of color, with additional support to women-owned and immigrant-owned businesses.

“Entrepreneurs of color are denied credit more often and charged higher rates for money they borrow to fund their businesses. We need to accelerate support to underserved businesses in order to reach our full potential,” Accion Opportunity Fund CEO Luz Urrutia said. “We have to decide what we want our Main Streets to look like when this is over, and we must act decisively to keep small businesses alive and ready to rebuild. This is a fun way to do something really important. Everyone’s support will make a huge difference to small business owners, their families and employees who have been devastated by this pandemic, the recession, and centuries of racism, xenophobia and oppression.”

Tune in for Small Business Live Saturday, June 20 from 4:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. EDT on The site also provides a full schedule of programs and links to watch the livestream on all major digital platforms. To learn more about Accion Opportunity Fund, visit the organization's website.

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Rolling Loud Festival Los Angeles Reveals 2019 Lineup

Doja Cat

Photo: Scott Dudelson/Getty Images


Rolling Loud Festival Los Angeles Reveals 2019 Lineup

Find out who's bringing the heat to the hip-hop fest returning to L.A. this December

GRAMMYs/Oct 2, 2019 - 12:11 am

Today, Rolling Loud revealed the massive lineup for their final music festival of 2019, Rolling Loud Los Angeles, which is set to take over the Banc of California Stadium and adjacent Exposition Park on Dec. 14–15.

This iteration of "the Woodstock of Hip-Hop," as the all-knowing Diddy has called it, will feature Chance the RapperLil Uzi VertJuice WRLDYoung Thug and Lil Baby as Saturday's heavy-hitting headliners. Sunday's headliners are none other than Future, A$AP Rocky, Meek Mill, YG and Playboi Carti.

L.A.'s own Blueface, Tyga and Doja Cat, are slated to perform, as well as representatives from the diverse rap scenes across the country, including Wale, Juicy J, Lil Yachty, Megan Thee Stallion, Gunna, Tyla Yaweh, Machine Gun Kelly and Yung Gravy.

The lineup announcement follows the successful wrap of Rolling Loud Bay Area in Oakland this past weekend. The event's flagship Miami event took place in May this year, and the New York and Hong Kong debut editions will both take place later this month.

Tickets for Rolling Loud L.A. go on sale this Friday, Oct. 4 at 11 a.m. PST. The complete lineup and more info on this event and their other fests can be found here.

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