Pharrell Williams spoke at a press conference Tuesday in support of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s call to make June 19th, widely known as Juneteenth, an official state holiday commemorating the end of slavery.
Pharrell, who grew up in Virginia Beach, called the moment “very special” and “a big display of progress,” adding, “I’m grateful for Virginia and us leading the way.” (He begins speaking at the 22:15 mark in the video above.)
Calls to make Juneteenth a national holiday have increased in recent weeks amid ongoing protests against police brutality and systemic racism spurred by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. While the Virginia Legislature will still have to approve a bill to make Juneteenth an official holiday, Northam said that executive-branch state employees will have a paid day off in recognition of the event.
“From this moment on, when you look at the vastness of the night sky, and you see those stars moving up there, know that those stars are our African ancestors dancing,” Pharrell said. “They’re dancing in celebration because their lives are finally being acknowledged.”
While Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation ending slavery on January 1st, 1863, Juneteenth didn’t come about until two years later and months after the end of the Civil War. On April 9th, 1865, Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Virginia, but news of the Confederacy’s defeat spread slowly. There was still some fighting as late as May 1865, and it wasn’t until June 19th, 1865, that federal troops told slaves in Texas that they were now free, giving rise to Juneteenth.
Since then, Juneteenth has been widely celebrated around the United States, but it wasn’t until 1980 that Texas became the first state to officially recognize it as a holiday. Since then, nearly every other state has recognized Juneteenth — save Hawaii, North Dakota, and South Dakota.
But as Northam put it during the press conference, “Every year, as a nation, we mark the Fourth of July, Independence Day, celebrating our independence from English colonial rule. … But that freedom we celebrate did not include everyone.” He added, ”It’s time we elevate [Juneteenth], not just a celebration by and for some Virginians, but one acknowledged and celebrated by all of us because that’s how important this event is.”
Pharrell added, “I can’t say this enough — a paid holiday. It’s not the end of it, it’s merely just the beginning. Their lives matter. Their descendants’ lives matter. Black lives matter in the eyes of the commonwealth. I can’t say that it always has, but finally we recognize that black lives absolutely matter — and that’s not political.”
Pharrell also spoke about what Juneteenth means to him as the descendent of African slaves, and he called on the rest of the United States to follow Virginia’s example and for Virginia-based corporations to also give their employees a paid day off. “This is our chance to lead, to truly embrace the importance of Juneteenth and treat it as a celebration of freedom that black people deserve,” he said. “This is about proper recognition, it’s about observation, and it’s about celebration. This is a chance for our government, our corporations, and our citizens to all stand in solidarity with their African American brothers and sisters.”