Isaiah Back-Gaal, ’15
This June, the annual Celebrate Brooklyn festival is scheduled to return. Celebrate Brooklyn brings together an eclectic group of entertainers—from top-of-the billboard musicians to lesser-known spoken word artists. Throughout the summer, bands, poets, and theatre troupes perform, films are shown, and hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers dance, cheer, and picnic in the audience.
Although Celebrate Brooklyn has gained increasing popularity and recognition in recent years, few know that the festival actually began in 1979. This year’s festival will be the 36th Celebrate Brooklyn.
Celebrate Brooklyn was originally started in order to create a performing arts scene in Brooklyn, as well as to incentivize people to visit Prospect Park. It has since become an enormous attraction and has helped to bolster many of the borough’s artists. The performances take place in the Prospect Park Bandshell, which was renovated in 1983, enabling the festival to grow. The Bandshell was redesigned once again in 1998-1999, making it one of the best sites for outdoor performances in New York.
This summer the opening artist of the festival is Janelle Monáe, performing on the evening of June 4. The Telegraph describes Janelle Monáe as “a super-musical cross between James Brown, Judy Garland, André 3000 and Steve Jobs.” While, abstractly, this is incredibly hard to imagine in one singer, Monáe promises to be an exciting first performer of the season.
Jack Johnson, The National, and Neutral Milk Hotel are three of the more famous artists to be performing at the Bandshell this season, with benefit concerts that are quickly selling out. Their shows are among the few that have entry fees at this summer’s Celebrate Brooklyn. Free concerts include Yellowbirds, husband and wife duo Shovels and Rope, Argentine Illya Kuryaki & the Valderramas, Nickel Creek and many more. The festival also includes dance performances by groups including the Dance Theatre of Harlem and Shen Wei Dance.
On July 11, the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 will be remembered with a project called “Vote, It Ain’t Illegal Yet!” This will be a combination of film, music, and spoken word examining the recent history of American voting. It focuses on past triumphs for voting equality, as well as the inequalities that remain today. In addition, its director Nelson George and Celebrate Brooklyn asked the public to submit personal voting stories to be included in the project (the deadline for submissions has already passed).
The festival will end on August 9, but it is planning on going out with a bang. St. Vincent and San Fermin will perform for the closing act of Celebrate Brooklyn. St. Vincent’s new album, “St. Vincent,” demonstrates the confidence that she imbues in every electric song, and fans await her performance at Celebrate Brooklyn with anticipation and excitement. San Fermin is a fairly new band, started by Brooklynite Ellis Ludwig-Leone, with only one album but much praise.
While Celebrate Brooklyn started in Prospect Park, today many of its performances take place at Brooklyn Bridge Park in Dumbo. Brooklyn Bridge Park is a relatively new (and unfinished) park right on the water with a stunning view of Manhattan. Brooklyn Bridge Park hosts dance parties, movies, and other events throughout the summer, some directly connected to Celebrate Brooklyn and others independent.
From June 13-15 for example, there will be a free performance of Shakespeare’s King Lear at the park. While the play is bound to be great, the view behind the actors and over the water is often distracting.
The Brooklyn Bridge Park movie schedule has also been announced. The Park Conservancy and Syfy Movies set up a giant screen at one end of the main green, in front of the Manhattan skyline. Audience members can bring picnics to enjoy with the free movies that begin at sundown. This year the movies include Sharknado, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and The Birds. The last film of the season is determined by a public vote, and is yet to be decided upon.
Celebrate Brooklyn has certainly helped to fuel amazing performance arts initiatives, helping artists of all kinds achieve acclaim. Even if you have never heard of the artists performing, it is worth visiting the Bandshell or Brooklyn Bridge Park one evening. Chances are you will see a good performance, and at the very least you will be surrounded by fellow New Yorkers just enjoying themselves and the city in the nice weather. Plus, it’s (mostly) free.