Originally published for Gothamist. Photos by Brian Fraser.
The first day of Kwanzaa may be focused around Unity, but the theme of the fourth annual Kwanzaa Crawl was Ujamaa: a Swahili word meaning “extended family.” The estimated 5,000 participants throughout Harlem and Brooklyn took the time on a balmy winter day to celebrate the Ujamaa of cooperative economics, investing in local bars, restaurants, and other venues owned by New York’s wide Black diaspora, from African-American to Caribbean to AfroLatinx.
Kwanzaa Crawl 2019 kicked off with simultaneous opening ceremonies at the historic Black Lady Theater in Crown Heights, the Brooklyn Masonic Temple and Mist in Harlem. “We don’t ordinarily do this,” co-founder Kerry Coddett quipped alongside her fellow co-founder and sister Krystal Stark. “Black people don’t be outside in the cold. These businesses don’t usually open on these days. People don’t usually come out after Christmas.”
There was a great incentive for businesses to open their doors earlier than planned—last year’s revenue was reported at over $250,000, with this year’s projections marked to be even higher. Now with an established brand behind Kwanzaa Crawl, the demand has brought in an influx of Brooklyn neighborhood staples such as Essence Bar and Social Butterfly, as well as newer venues like Nostrand Station Bar and Lounge.
Certain venues, such as Negril, had established reputations as the places to be by the end of the night, with lines around the corner (that were only made tolerable thanks to the systems that the organizers had put in place to manage teams and rotations).
The kickoff ceremony made it clear that while, yes, as the proclaimed “largest black bar crawl,” alcohol could, and likely would be consumed, it was merely the entry point to facilitate their vision. The focus of Kwanzaa Crawl was still on fellowship and reinvestment in neighborhoods and black-owned businesses, with the founders already committing to give a portion of the proceeds to nonprofits such as Barbershop Books and Seeds of Fortune.
At the close of a decade that has reinvigorated awareness in the value of Black Lives past and present, the theme of the evening was “Black to The Future—they keep trying to kill us but we keep getting stronger.” To that end, the ceremonial kinara was lit as participants expressly called out to ancestors loved and lost, both personal and communal, from Elijah Cummings to Nipsey Hussle to Toni Morrison. A rendition of the Negro National Anthem, James Weldon Johnson’s ‘Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing’, was performed by The Voice Box singing choir, uniquely arranged with melodies from Coolio’s ‘Gangster’s Paradise’ and Lil Jon’s ‘Snap Yo Fingers.’
The Ujamaa was palpable as revelers from different teams ran into each other in a celebratory embrace walking up and down Bedford and Putnam Avenues, keeping warm in between shift changes by dancing alongside each other, and recruiting older Black locals to sign up for future years, emphasizing the number 1 rule of the day: #positivevibesonly. The idea of not only engaging in leisure, but moving into the next decade with intention was a significant part of the appeal, especially supporting spaces specifically catered towards their clientele: from Frankie Beverly and Maze (alongside Beyonce) to the Milly Rock, it was a comfortable space for most, even at its most crowded.
“I discovered black-owned bars I hadn’t been to before but definitely plan on patronizing in the future and got to drink and party with dope people” said one crawler named Jennifer, who declined to give her last name. “It was a great way to start the holiday and end the decade,” Jennifer added, echoing a common refrain across teams and venues.
As the bartenders at Bedford-Stuyvesant bar Bedford Manor remarked, “the energy was beautiful to see.”