Celebrating Juneteenth with Black Rodeo Disco

Join artists Wildcat Ebony Brown and Hank Willis Thomas this Monday, June 19th, for the celebration of Juneteenth with “Black Rodeo Disco” at Le Bain. What are the origins of Black Rodeo culture? How is the representation of the Black West evolving in pop culture? How does art help us understand Juneteenth and American history? We sat down with Ebony and Hank for a chat.

THE STANDARD: Ebony, how did the idea of "Black Rodeo Disco" come about, and what specific meanings and inspirations does this expression hold for you?

WILDCAT EBONY BROWN: The idea for "Black Rodeo Disco" was conceived last fall during a conversation with Sanford Biggers in Madison, Wisconsin. We were collaborating on the re:mancipation project, which explored the problematic sculpture "Emancipation Group" by Thomas Ball. As part of that project, I connected my involvement with the 2020 Wide Awakes collective previous civic action. After a day’s work, we would hang out chatting over dinner and drinks, and during one of those conversations, my nickname "Wildcat" came up. It represents the legacy of my ancestors and elders who carved their own black western identity in America. Reflecting on a surreal rodeo after party I experienced, where horses and low riders coexisted – suddenly it clicked. That moment of resonance, pride and authenticity inspired the desire to re-create it, energetically as a “Black Rodeo Disco”. The name embodies my essence as a warrior woman, born with equal parts, glamour, grit, and guts. It’s in my blood, my bones, my DNA, passed down for generations, like my grandmother’s recipes.

Could you share more about the roots of black rodeo and your family's deep involvement in this culture? 

W: The history of Black Cowboys dates back to Texas ranchers relying on slave labor, to maintain their land and herds during the Civil War. After the emancipation proclamation, the same previously enslaved Africans were no longer available for free and subsequently hired as paid Cowhands for their invaluable skills. I grew up in Prince George's County, Southern Maryland, but I was born in Tulsa to "Okie" parents. My mother is from Grayson, one of the remaining historical Black Towns in Oklahoma formerly known as Wildcat Junction. Every year, we would travel there for family reunions or vacations, and the highlight was always the rodeo. It was a moment of pure joy, with trailer after trailer arriving, friendly faces from neighboring towns, soulful music, and the smell of barbecue brisket in the air. Originating as the Wildcat rodeo club my uncle and aunt owned and operated the C&W rodeo, creating a safe space and new opportunity for black cowboys and cowgirls. The arena was built by hand out of love and necessity. The Grayson rodeo continued for over 40 years, a gift to the community. Its significance grew even greater after the loss of my aunt, captured in the 2012 short film "WILDCAT." The Black Rodeo phenomenon categorically transcends sports. It is a noun, a verb, a lifestyle, a place of  gathering, brimming with hope, excitement and freedom. 

Wildcat Ebony Brown by Carlos von Der Hyde 
“The Black West is no longer a novelty; it's a movement.” – Wildcat Ebony Brown

The Black West and its cultural contributions have often been overlooked or marginalized. In what ways do you see this changing through the recognition of contemporary pop culture?

W: Black contributions to the West have been intentionally excluded from mainstream historical narratives. Trailblazers like Nat Love and Bill Pickett are often omitted. That's why it is crucial for us to narrate our own stories. Since the '70s, there have been movies portraying the West from the Black perspective, like "The Buck and the Preacher" and "Posse." More recently, "The Harder They Fall" elevated the Black West with its star-studded cast. Artists like Beyoncé and Megan Thee Stallion embrace their roots through aesthetics, and there is a rising crop of Black Country and Western singers. The success of "Old Town Road" by Lil Nas X was groundbreaking. These cultural shifts communicate an undeniable truth: "We are Americana." With increased visibility and recognition, the Black West is no longer a novelty; it's a movement.

How do you envision "Black Rodeo Disco" participating in the celebration of Juneteenth, which marks freedom and the end of slavery?

W: "We are our ancestors' wildest dreams," Hank Willis Thomas would remind us while discussing the vision and purpose as contemporary Wide Awakes. "Black Rodeo Disco" represents the untold stories of our unsung ancestral champions, expressed through art, dance, fashion, and music as radical love and liberation. As a child, I remember people leaving the rodeo and heading to "The Matchbox," a juke joint built by my grandfather, who is from Galveston, Texas. Though too young to partake, I could hear the sounds and see the revelry. In my mind, Brown bodies swerved and swayed to the sounds of The Gap Band, reminiscent of Ernie Barnes “Sugar Shack” painting. That little speakeasy was my family’s country version of a nightclub. It is an honor to present “Black Rodeo Disco” a continuation of unbridled joy, bridging the gap between the Black West and the Big Apple, while connecting to broader themes of liberation and resilience in celebration of Juneteenth. 

Artist Hank Willis Thomas by Jeff Vespa
“I believe I reclaim the narrative every time I wake up and I say the words ‘I am’” – Hank Willis Thomas

Hank, as an artist who explores themes of identity, history, and social justice, how does the concept of "Black Rodeo Disco" inspire and resonate with your artistic practice?

HANK WILLIS THOMAS: I've always been interested in expansive, multifaceted, and nuanced notions of identity, and I feel that Black Rodeo Disco celebrates various elements of the American experience, including the black American experience. That is exciting. Ebony and I have had extensive conversations about her family in Oklahoma, being black cowboys, and the connection between that and emancipation. I'm just really excited to introduce that space into our work.

The concept of the party draws inspiration from the black West and its influence on contemporary culture. How do you approach reclaiming narratives and bringing visibility to marginalized stories through your artistic expressions?

H: I believe I reclaim the narrative every time I wake up and I say the words “I am”. With projects like The Wide Awakes, we tap into a broader notion of who we are by inviting others into awareness of our interdependence and how celebrating our diversity, as well as our unity, is actually essential to our salvation.

Your involvement with art collectives like For Freedoms and The Wide Awakes is notable. How does your participation in these collectives complement your work as an artist?

H: I don't separate my practice as an artist from my practice of living, and I live among other people. So it's natural for me to work with others, both within my studio practice and in various other ways. Collaboration, as I mentioned before, allows me to fully express who I am by sharing space, time, and hearts with others. I have been fortunate to be nurtured among some brilliant, kind-hearted people, and together we have been able to bring forth some truly epic creative ventures. I can't stop and won't stop.

Wildcat Ebony Brown by by Benjamin Lozovsky 

Juneteenth has recently been recognized as an official holiday. In what ways do you believe this recognition can deepen public understanding, engagement, and reflection on the history and legacy of slavery in America?

H: There is so much work that needs to be done when it coming to terms with our complicated path as the United States of America and acknowledging the emancipation of a large portion of our population. It is really just the beginning of acknowledging all the harm that was done and the centuries of trauma that have not been given space for healing. Perhaps, even acknowledging that there was a wound through a national holiday like this, we can begin the triage and, hopefully, eventually move the actual intentional healing process. 

How can art play a role in that process? 

H: As artists, we challenge the status quo and the stories told about history, what’s important, who’s important, and finding different ways to commemorate, whether through celebration or solemn practices in the studio, or even through various forms of social practice. I believe that artists are essential civic leaders who don't have a fixed role in society. And maybe that's why it's even more important for us to work in a space that is undefined and that’s where magic can happen.

Monday June 19th, join us for the "Black Rodeo Disco" Dance Party to celebrate Juneteenth. Presented by Wildcat Ebony Brown and Hank Willis Thomas with special guests: Wide Awakes. Music by DJ Spinna w/opening set by DJ Huggy Bear. Disco and Western attire encouraged but not required. Doors 8pm. You can RSVP HERE

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