Rapper Niko Brim & Opal Lee Take Long Strides to Make Juneteenth a National Holiday With Special Sneakers: Exclusive

What shoes are fit for an 89-year-old woman trekking nearly 1,400 miles from Fort Worth, Texas to Washington, D.C. to fight for Juneteenth, the day slavery ended in America, to be recognized as a national holiday?

Ms. Opal Lee, who’s 93 now, made the four-month journey on foot from Sept. 16, 2016 to Jan. 10, 2017 to symbolize what Juneteenth, or Freedom Day, really means. On June 19, 1865, Black Texans, who were the last remaining enslaved Americans, received news from Major General Gordon Granger that they were free at last, two-and-a-half years after then-President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation that went into effect on Jan. 1, 1863. So Ms. Lee walked two-and-a-half miles each day before arriving at the nation’s capital with a pair of beat-up tennis shoes she’d rather not be photographed wearing.

“These are going to the dogs!” she told Billboard while smacking her shoes over the Zoom interview, still hiding them from the web camera. But her shoes are the only thing she’s hanging up for this journey. Ms. Lee has dedicated most of her life to putting Juneteenth on the calendar — which is only recognized as a holiday in 47 states and Washington, D.C. — while putting herself all over the U.S. map. She organized a petition to make President Donald Trump and the U.S. Congress make her dreams, the dreams of her ancestors and the dreams of her successors, come true. 

We’d like to have a million!” she exclaimed about the number of signatures she hopes to see. “You young people are bridging the gap! We get communication, people sign and we will have a national holiday come hell or high water!” 

One of the young people she’s currently mentoring is Niko Brim, a 23-year-old rapper and son of ’90s hip-hop stylist Misa Hylton-Brim and V Records CEO JoJo Brim. Like Ms. Lee, he’s also finding unique ways to uplift Black culture. His latest single “Hard to Believe” speaks to systemic racism, his weeklong Instagram Live show “Power Hour” debuting today (June 19) spotlights Black movers and shakers, and his new customized Nike Air Force 1 sneakers elevate Juneteenth as not just a notable date but a pathway to longterm freedom. Plus, the Sierato-designed kicks give Ms. Lee a much-needed upgrade for her shoe game.

She’s the one who chose red, white and blue for the color scheme “because we built this country!” Niko proclaimed about the Juneteenth flag hues, which by design emulates the American flag. The black raised fist logo, a powerful emblem of Black power and liberation, harkens back to the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City when sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos hoisted their clenched hands while accepting their medals, a timeless silent protest that ended their running career. The number “2.23” across the toebox honors Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was fatally shot by two white men while running in his Georgia neighborhood in February of this year.

Brim and Ms. Lee assured Billboard during this special Juneteenth interview that these shoes aren’t just made for walking: They’re made for jumping for joy in honor of today’s celebration the two hope to be recognized on a major scale.

Billboard: Ms. Opal, how did you and Niko work on this goal together to make Juneteenth a national holiday?

Lee: Well, I haven’t heard his music lately, but I think music and art and literature and all these things play into what we are trying to get people to understand. It takes all these kinds of things and we have these things representing at our Juneteenth festivals…. We all should have the same goals: Juneteenth is a unifier. We advocate, I do, celebrating from the 19th to the 4th of July, because slaves weren’t free on the 4th of July. And everybody celebrates the 4th of July. So if we put ’em together, that would give people some understanding about what we are about.

Brim: Even for me, coming together with Opal, I was so honored to have somebody who has been doing the fight for as long as she has. It was just a reminder for me to get involved as early as I can and to stay on it as long as I can. Here now in 2020, hopefully, this is the last year that we have where it’s not recognized on the federal level. Like she said, from Juneteenth being the unifier. Activism and community service happens through all the arts, not just actual politics. And I think that this was just a way for me to use everything that I have on the mic and just transmute it into something else. So it’s all one-in-the-same for me. And here we are coming together to make it happen.

Of all the years that people have petitioned and like Ms. Opal have walked to have Juneteenth be recognized for a national holiday, there seems to be a lot more steam for this campaign in 2020 in light of all the protests. How have you felt specifically this year as you’ve seen the country shift more toward your common goal?

Lee: I think that the virus thing has made people stop and reflect. They’ve had time, their schedules aren’t nearly as busy, and they are home with their children. And heaven knows I hope they are teaching them something. But the fact that we have had to slow down and maybe look around and see what’s happening. And Juneteenth is happening. You have a president who had to change what he was doing from the 19th of June to the 20th. Hey, that got a lot of coverage! And I bet you some people said, “What is Juneteenth?” Well, I hope somebody told them. I hope they let them know that slaves were not free until June the 19th, 1865. And that when we learned about it, we started celebrating, and we’ve been celebrating ever since.

Brim: I’m a pretty spiritual person too, so I also think outside of just the corona and stuff, I feel that the Earth is changing. And I feel like with each generation, people are becoming more aware of who we are. And I think now in 2020, yes, because we’re all in the house, we’re all seeing this. But I think it’s much more than that, because everyone is fully being affected. Everybody’s really being affected. And I think that now with Juneteenth becoming a holiday, that gives us something to celebrate. That gives us something to come together with love and community.

It reminds me of what one of my friends said: The coronavirus pandemic made all of us think if you’re not helping to stop the problem — if you’re not wearing your mask outside, if you’re not social distancing — then you are part of the problem. And she said it translates to systemic racism in this country as another pandemic. If you are not doing your part to stop the problem — if you are not training your family members to be antiracist, if you’re not donating and signing petitions — then you are part of the problem. It takes a whole village for change to happen.

Brim: What I realize, too, with a lot of white people that I do know is that a lot of them just aren’t aware. They weren’t brought up on the same conversations that we were all brought up on — how to handle police, what the true history of this country is. And so even with some of my friends, they trust that what the media tells them with Black statistics and numbers and the likeness of our image. They just run with a lot of that stuff…. I will say is I am thankful for the people that I turning the page. I am thankful for the people that are learning, but… is all of this genuine? Are people just trying to stay face? It raises those questions, but I think with things that are being led by Ms. Opal over here and whatever we can continue to get involved in as a community, we can help continue to be the narrators and just making sure we’re making real changes. No more Kente cloths, I need legislation! [Laughs]

There was so much backlash on the Kente cloth. But I do think that it brings up an interesting conversation about fashion and how it can either be a major advocate for racial justice or it can completely wrong. You both designed a sneaker with Sierato to commemorate Juneteenth. How did Sierato help bring that vision to life, and what special specs does the shoe have?

Brim: For the Juneteenth shoe, me being a sneakerhead, like in African American culture, shoes are just important, it’s a big statement. And so with hip-hop and everything that I was doing, I wanted to find a way to find my voice through the activism, but I wanted to create like think pieces and art that reflects the time. And so what happened was me and Sierato, we linked up and I just got on FaceTime with him. I was just pitching this idea of… I wanted to create a shoe that because people always say, ‘You wouldn’t be able to walk a mile in my shoes. You can’t take a foot in my shoes.’ And I wanted to create a shoe that personified the African American experience.

And so when we were making the shoe, I wanted the shoe to be uplifting and not too heavy. I didn’t want us to feel like, ‘Ah I’m wearing this shoe and it’s like I got chains on my feet.’ [Laughs] I still wanted it to be fun and I wanted to be vibrant because we’re still celebrating this Juneteenth. So some of the things that we did was we actually kept the colors of our flag, the red, white and blue, because we built this country! And it’s important to show that we have the fist from the legendary moment in Mexico with the two brothers lifting their fist up. We also have a quote of the 12 freedoms, not like all of them written out, but we just have the 12 freedoms in the shoe.

Did having your mother, an iconic ’90s hip-hop stylist who dressed Lil Kim, Mary J. Blige, Missy Elliott and more, influence the creative direction for this footwear drop? If so, what did you learn from her? 

Brim: So when I first had the shoe, I ran the idea by her, but I didn’t show her like what I was working on just because you’re like, “I want to impress my mom so she knows.” …. She definitely keeps me inspired. And she’s pushed so much for not just the ’90s culture and hip-hop but even for women and how women are allowed to express themselves through the way that they wear their clothes. Your outfit is the way that people identify you first when you walk into a room. So I think that my mom did a lot on changing the narrative and being the difference. So I think when I came into the shoe, I just kept that in mind, but I allowed myself to go through my own creative process.

You’re also creating a weeklong Instagram Live show on Juneteenth called “Power Hour” at 6:19 p.m. ET, which is a really cool detail. 

Brim: Pretty much it’s a seven-day program and I just want to touch on the seven pillars of culture. And I want to emphasize particularly Black culture in light of Juneteenth. So I’ll be sitting down and I’ll be having interviews with young people, people that generations before us, and I just want to start creating conversation around what it means to be Black in these different pillars of our community. How can we show up and what can we do or what conversations can we start having amongst ourselves to make sure that the narrative is going and that the ball keeps rolling?

How do both of you feel about activists using artists’ platforms specifically to educate other people? 

Brim: I think that that’s imperative, it’s so important. It has to be something that’s done, and I feel that anybody who rises to that much social impact, and you’re able to make change, you have to take into account the inherent responsibility that comes with it. If you’re not able to really have 50 million people following you or have this type of outreach, if you’re not willing to be responsible, then you completely defeated the purpose of reaching all of those people. 

Even with my music, I just dropped a single “Hard to Believe.” …But that was something that I wanted to do to utilize my platform and really share a message and take a page out of this book of truth that America has, that the rest of the world doesn’t even know about. That was a way for me, through my music, was to share that with people. Because I feel like all the great music, it’s a conversation starter. It may not tell you the end all be all, but great music always leaves you with something that you can sit with and that you can ponder on. So I was just trying to do something like that.

What Black artists do you both look up to because their music stands the test of time and has always spoken about this?

Lee: I’m a Duke Ellington person and I like Prince! Aretha Franklin, Lena Horne… I go way back with those people. And that music was so fun. Ooh wee! And it had so much meaning too…. [Billie Holiday] sang that song about “Strange Fruit.” It took me a long time to understand what she was talking about. And she was talking about in the South, there were men being hanged, and she was saying it was strange fruit.

Brim: For me, I love Bob Marley. I feel like he’s someone who’s always representing…. 2Pac absolutely… and I even say Nas also is another one who’s very pro, like he always stood for it. Kendrick [Lamar] and J. Cole. I think Kendrick for me, he’s made like some of the biggest statements around politics in the music. And so I definitely feel like there are artists out here that still keep the ball rolling and even with Noname. I think Noname does a dope job. I think Joey Bada$$ does a great job. 

If you could describe this movement in history right now in five words or less, what would they be?

Brim: Accountability, love, power, hope, organization.

Lee: Unity, perseverance, empowerment, fearlessness.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.