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The visage of Harriet Tubman herself will be watching over the fourth edition of the Auburn music festival in her name.

This year's Harriet Tubman Freedom Music Festival, taking place Saturday, will move to the New York State Equal Rights Heritage Center on South Street. As always, though, the event will consist of an evening of live music and the presentation of the annual Harriet Tubman Freedom Awards. The festival is presented by the center, the city of Auburn, the New York Institute of Dance & Education, Kaleidoscope Dance Theatre and choreographer Sean McLeod, of Auburn, president of the latter two organizations and executive producer of the event. 

After taking place at the State Street band shell its first two years, and the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park the year after that, the festival moved back downtown this year because its mission complements that of the new center, McLeod said. And not only can the festival help the center highlight the diversity and contributions of people of color in Auburn, he continued, but the center can provide the festival scenery that's relevant and resonant. Both a bronze statue of Tubman and a tile mural of the abolitionist will be within sight of the festival stage Saturday. And on nearby Exchange Street, McLeod said, his great-great uncle, John H. Waire, worked with Tubman's brother to open the first black business in the city, a barber shop. 

"We're helping the city (leadership) learn what it means to be inclusive," he said. "We're not an inclusive community yet, but we're trying to get there."

This year's festival will once again feature McLeod performing his "Soundtrack for Harriet Tubman," a selection of songs from a musical he wrote about her in the 1990s. However, Saturday's performance will be the first under musical director Noah Kellman, a central New York native who went on to learn at New York University and the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music.

Kellman is helping McLeod create a new iteration of the soundtrack, he said.

"He's one of the hottest things in the world of music," McLeod said. "A virtuoso of monumental proportions."

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Also performing will be singer-songwriter Jaylin Brown, whose set at last year's festival was rained out, and Grammy-winning gospel artist Estee Bullock. Area performers Edgar Pagan, Richie Melito and Jaquiel the Voice will take the stage as well. And one of the Freedom Award winners, pastor Bernard Alex of Victory Temple Fellowship Church in Syracuse, will sing with the church's choir.

The other award winners are retired Cayuga County Sheriff David Gould; former Auburn Enlarged City School District Superintendent Constance Evelyn; ballerina and New York City Ballet Associate Artistic Director Wendy Whelan; Eli Smith, managing director of E. Smith Contractors, of Syracuse; and Juhanna Rogers, director of community engagement and empowerment for CenterState CEO and producer of interview series "Behind the Woman." McLeod said he was pleased to see so many New York winners for the first festival at the state's Equal Rights Heritage Center.

The choreographer also praised Gould and Evelyn for their work in Auburn. He said the former sheriff was a comforting presence in the local community, and made law enforcement feel like an ally and friend. Evelyn, meanwhile, is "a great example of what people of color can achieve without having to sacrifice their soul," McLeod said. 

"When you look at this level of people, it's not about how well-known they are, it's about how good they are at what they do and how they reflect the characteristics of Harriet Tubman," he said.


VIDEO: An overview of the Harriet Tubman Freedom Music Festival

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Lake Life Editor David Wilcox can be reached at (315) 282-2245 or david.wilcox@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @drwilcox.

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