Officials celebrated Irene Penn-O’Neal’s contributions to the history of the August Emancipation Festival during the July 31 opening of the village. (Photo: DANA KAMPA)

The 69th August Emancipation Festival kicked off on the evening of July 31 with a steel pan rendition of Bob Marley’s “One Love” and tales about the storied history of pageants, parties and celebrations of Virgin Islands culture. This year’s festival features the return of many popular concert nights, morning tramps, family fun days and the iconic August Monday Parade. It also sees the revival of the Coney Island amusement park for the first time since before the Covid-19 pandemic.

The village, this year named after former legislator Irene Penn-O’Neal, officially opened on July 31. The guest of honour was joined by newly crowned BVI Prince and Princess Jeron Springette and De’Nya Winter; Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley; Junior Minister of Tourism and Culture Luce Hodge-Smith; Virgin Islands Festivals and Fairs Committee Chairman Dirk Walters; and Parade Marshall Reverend Yvonne Nibbs-Flores.

Ms. O’Neal was the first ever Miss BVI, formerly titled “Festival Queen.” She went on to serve as a VIFFC member for many years.

On July 31, Ms. Hodge-Smith thanked the honouree for encouraging her to enter the Miss BVI Pageant in 1981 — which the now-junior minister won.

The premier paid his compliments to Ms. Nibbs-Flores, who he said was an early teacher in his religious education.

She has long participated in the festival parade as a troupe member and director, leading her Sea Cows Bay group to victory in the early days of the celebration.

Culture ‘alive and well’

Dr. Wheatley also encouraged everyone to get involved in the cultural activities this year, while staying safe.

“If you have concerns about ensuring that our culture is alive and well, you’ll make sure that you pack those events, where we are celebrating in full effect our Virgin Islands culture,” he said.

He also prompted celebrants to take time this season to reflect on the sacrifices of enslaved VI ancestors who shed their blood in the pursuit of freedom.

“They sacrificed a lot so we could be free, and so that we could celebrate our freedom and celebrate each other,” he said.

Ms. Penn-O’Neal reflected on the history of the festival, recalling how there was little funding in the beginning to support the celebration.

“It was real, hard labour: cleaning 100 of pound of fish sometimes and 150 pounds of chicken legs to fundraise through fish fries, picnics and donations,” she said.

She added that she was proud to serve as a Miss BVI ambassador and was humbled to join those honoured as the village namesake.

Dominica Bouyon artist Asa Bantan brought a high-energy performance to Glow Night on Aug. 1 as the August Emancipation Festival picked up momentum. (Photo: DANA KAMPA)
‘Gospel Explosion’

The opening ceremony was followed by the “Gospel Explosion” show. The crowd began to swell as the praise team of Donna Clyne, Shanielle March, Gabrielle Denae and Tiffany George brought their spiritual energy to the stage.

They encouraged attendees to join in songs of praise, including “Lord, I Give You My Heart.” From there, Brent and Oneyke — a returning artist from last year — had people two-stepping, throwing up their hands, and proclaiming the occasional “Thank you, Jesus.”

Backed by the High Frequency Band, Brent and Oneyke engaged the crowd in a battle to see who could be the loudest, and a spontaneous party train broke out. Anticipation then grew for Guyanese headliner Samuel Medas and Kairos. Though it took Mr. Medas a gruelling 33 hours of travel to reach the VI, festival-goers offered him a spirited welcome.

Following the opening ceremony, the crowd began to swell as the praise team of Donna Clyne, Shanielle March, Gabrielle Denae and Tiffany George brought their spiritual energy to the stage. (Photo: DANA KAMPA)

With a cloud of smoke, the artist took centre stage, and fans spent the evening singing along with his hits including “Royalty.”

Mr. Medas also offered a few personal anecdotes about growing up as the son of a pastor and how music played a role in his spiritual journey.

Glow Night

During the village’s Glow Night on Aug. 1, festival-goers were treated to an energetic performance by Asa Bantan. The Dominica-born bouyon performer and his team tossed out water bottles to a packed crowd that proceeded to rain water down on fellow partiers.

Fans waved their green Dominica flags, sported their on-theme colourful outfits, and danced into the early morning.

Crowds drew closer to the stage as VIBE busted out pop hits. (Photo: DANA KAMPA)

A variety of VI-based performers also took the stage on the evening of Aug. 1.

UTB and Cool Session welcomed partiers as they filed into the village, many patronising the food and drink booths surrounding the grounds.

Host Hashim “ThaDream” Lewis called out the listeners who have been enjoying the music of the band for decades.

Crowds drew closer to the stage as VIBE busted out pop hits including Flo Rida’s Wild Ones.

For more photos, see the Beacon‘s Facebook page.