How Detroit got the world’s largest Kwanzaa kinara

The new tradition came together thanks to ‘the best of the professionals in Black Detroit’

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click to enlarge Downtown Detroit now has a massive Kwanzaa kinara. - Courtesy photo
Courtesy photo
Downtown Detroit now has a massive Kwanzaa kinara.

For the first time, a large Kwanzaa kinara stands in downtown Detroit’s Campus Martius Park, joining the 65-foot Christmas tree and the 26-foot-tall Hanukkah Menorah that have marked the holiday season in the Motor City for years. The 30-foot tall kinara monument is believed to be the largest in the world, and it now stands in one of the largest Black-majority cities in the U.S.

Kwanzaa was developed in 1966 by activist Dr. Maulana Karenga as a new African-American holiday, based on various African harvest festival traditions. Detroit’s new kinara monument comes two years after Metro Times asked in a 2020 cover story why Detroit did not celebrate Kwanzaa with a large kinara downtown, as it has for years with a large Christmas tree and menorah. Gregory McKenzie, the business development coordinator at community organization Alkebu-lan Village, Inc., tells Metro Times that the gears started turning in December 2021, when Detroit City Councilman Scott Benson reached out to Alkebu-lan Village founder and CEO Marvis Cofield to see if they could work together on a large-scale kinara.

“He just sort of inquired what his thoughts were about having a kinara at the scale of the menorah, at the scale of the Christmas tree, to represent the nearly 80% Black African American population in the city of Detroit and their cultural celebration Kwanzaa,” McKenzie recalls. “Marvis Cofield said, ‘Of course we can — we built the pyramids!’”

McKenzie reached out to architects and engineers that he knew, and they started developing the idea further. By February of this year they had a final design.

The pyramids quip wound up being apt. The final kinara monument design is pyramid-shaped, with candles representing the principles of Kwanzaa, or the Nguzo Saba, like steps leading up to the Black candle at the peak representing Umoja, or unity.

“We always wanted a kinara that represented sort of like the graduated steps up to the unity candle, like a step pyramid, if you will,” McKenzie says. “So that was the spirit behind the design. We wanted to lean into a step pyramid look for the kinara.”

McKenzie says the initial concept called for a steel structure that was durable and could be used over and over again. The design was simplified to a wooden structure with a steel frame to keep both weight and costs down. He says the project cost about $100,000 to build.

“The question emerged, ‘OK, but who’s gonna pay for it?’” McKenzie says. “And then the question also emerged from that was, ‘Well, who paid for the menorah, who pays for the Christmas tree?’”

The group approached the Downtown Detroit Partnership, which helps fund both. “We said, ‘Would this be something that you would be willing to finance?” McKenzie says. “And they enthusiastically accepted to do so. And not only did they accept the responsibility to do so, they also stepped forward with the financial commitment in advance of the funds being raised, so that the project could happen. So they’ve been essentially forwarding the money to us to do this in advance of us actually really collecting that money from those commitments that we have out there. They’ve been a tremendous financial partner in this.”

McKenzie says the project was partially funded thanks to sponsors like the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, the Detroit Pistons, Target, and McDonald’s. “We’re probably about halfway there with the fundraising,” McKenzie says. “So we very much need other interested sponsors to jump on board.” (Those interested can reach out to Soula.[email protected] to get involved. People can also donate to Alkebu-Ian Village at alkebulanvillage.com/donatetoday, and more information about the kinara is available at alkebulanvillage.com/event/kinara.)

“It’s starting to get a lot of traction and interest, and folks are starting to call and inquire,” McKenzie says.

McKenzie also gives a shout out to Bryan Cook from developARCHITECTURE, Juan Snead of JMS Engineering Services, Kodjo Lee of Family First Solar, carpenter Steve Mason of Semi Energy Renovations, and wood carver John Cloud of Star 9 Quality Services for their work on the project.

“A team came together to produce this that represents the best of the professionals in Black Detroit, from architects, to engineers, to carpenters, to solar, to woodwork carvers,” he says. “This team assembled and made this idea turn into a physical reality. I can’t overstate the amount of work that’s gone into the project.”

The kinara will be on display for the entire seven days of Kwanzaa, which lasts from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1.

A Motor City Kwanzaa celebration is planned from 3-4:30 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 26 at Beacon Park with a live virtual presentation by Dr. Karenga, a performance by the African drum and dance group Nanou Djiapo, a demonstration from Alkebu-Lan Warrior Martial Arts, and remarks by organizers and sponsors. Officials will then lead a procession to Campus Martius Park for a kinara lighting ceremony at 5 p.m.

The events are free and open to the public.

McKenzie says he hopes the kinara monument will become a long-standing tradition in Detroit.

“Being really close to it, managing it, and sort of watching it develop and evolve, and you know, get modified, and then us learning as we go — nobody’s ever done this before,” McKenzie says. “There’s no blueprint. There’s nothing, no precedent to follow, and pioneering the way forward and letting the structure tell us how it needed to come out — it’s just been a tremendous experience.”

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About The Author

Lee DeVito

Leyland "Lee" DeVito grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, where he read Metro Times religiously due to teenaged-induced boredom. He became a contributing writer for Metro Times in 2009, and Editor in Chief in 2016. In addition to writing, he also supplies occasional illustrations. His writing has been published...
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