'Celebrating America,' Oklahoma dancers, singers, landmarks featured in President Biden's inauguration day special
A version of this story will appear in Friday's The Oklahoman.
'Celebrating America': Oklahoma performers appear in primetime inaugural special
Brandon Graves almost forgot to tune in Wednesday night to "Celebrating America," the star-studded primetime special heralding the inauguration of President Joe Biden.
The insurance adjuster finished up at work, hit the gym and tuned into CNN as he was sitting down to eat, which happened to be just a few minutes before he appeared on television dancing on the rooftop of Midtown Plaza Court along with Demi Lovato's cover of the R&B classic "Lovely Day."
"I can't even really explain how it felt. I knew that I recorded the dance, but it didn't hit me that it was actually going to be aired. So, I'm sitting there ... and the second verse hit, and there I was. And I was like kind of in shock. I just stared at it for a little bit, like 'Is this really happening right now?' And then right after that my phone started blowing up. It's surreal, I guess, to think about how historic of a moment that I was a part of. It meant a lot, though," Graves said Thursday.
"It's hard to put into the words how important for me being a part of this was."
The Enid native was among at least six Sooner State performers filmed at different Oklahoma City locales who were featured on the "Celebrating America" special as part of a musical montage to accompany Lovato's cover of the late, great Bill Withers' classic hit.
“It was a pleasant surprise and a great source of pride to see Oklahoma City so well-represented in our nation’s inaugural program,” OKC Mayor David Holt said in a statement. “From our neighborhoods to our Indigenous culture to our skyline, OKC was all over it. My gratitude to everyone who made it possible!”
Oklahoma icons were well-represented during Wednesday's daytime swearing-in ceremonies for Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, with Yukon's own Garth Brooks crooning "Amazing Grace" and pop star Jennifer Lopez singing Okemah native Woody Guthrie's seminal anthem "This Land Is Your Land."
But the primetime special featured a diverse group of everyday Oklahomans, while also showing off the skill and resourcefulness of the state's creative community.
"The diversity was just so beautiful. I think that's just one of the most exciting things about the project, about the upcoming administration as a whole. I felt like ... when we were looking at that video, we were looking at what America looks like. ... This is our beautiful, diverse tapestry of multiculturalism - and Oklahoma is a big part of that," said Stephanie Pena, a Latina singer who hails from Midwest City and appeared in the montage.
"I'm such a proud American. I'm a third generation Mexican-American, a proud Oklahoman, and something that's just really important to me ... is to just show an accurate representation that this is what a Latina looks like. English is my first language; Spanish is my learned language. I'm very of my culture, but I'm absolutely as American as everyone else. It just was a beautiful experience to be a part of that."
Pena, who is in the process of moving back to OKC from the Dallas area to become the new events coordinator with Calle Dos Cinco in Historic Capitol Hill, said she was invited to participate in the montage by a California-based producer she has worked with for 20 years as the National Anthem singer and announcer for UnidosUS, the country's largest Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization.
But she got the call just more than a week before Inauguration Day and had to move quickly. So, the former dean of deadCenter Film's education program immediately called up Oklahoma filmmakers Lance McDaniel and Don Sherry and made a quick OKC road trip to record her performance in front of the historic Farmers Public Market.
"It was incredibly humbling and just such an honor. I've been a part of productions that have been on international platforms ... but not that carry that kind of significance. (It) was such an incredibly emotional, wonderful, positive day for so many reasons," Pena said.
When OKC producer Hillary Self got a request from someone in her network of contacts to produce Oklahoma content for possible use on the special, she turned to a collective of other local producers and filmmakers she has collaborated with on several projects.
"From greenlight to delivery, it was less than 24 hours. We kind of knew she was talking to the guys planning the inauguration and they were like, 'We may need some footage; we're not for sure.' ... But they were still trying to build their program, and then they were like, 'We need this - go.' So, it was 'call up all your friends and let's see if we can get this to happen,'" said Brandon Kobs, of Mortimer Creative, with a laugh.
"Our goal all along was 'we want to bring the quality up to the highest level so we can give our people the best shot at being featured,'" added Ty McMahan of Fencerow Productions. "I think that's part of the reason we were able to really make Oklahoma shine, not to mention the sort of uniqueness and the character of the people here. It's just amazing that we were able to bring together such a diverse group ... on short notice."
About a week before the inauguration, a group of six filmmakers spent a full day hauling equipment across OKC to film about a dozen performers.
"We had to carry around a boom box to make sure people had the music ... so it was a really fun day bopping around Oklahoma City blasting 'Lovely Day,'" Kobs said.
"It really was a 'Lovely Day,'" McMahan added.
When they sat down to view "Celebrating America" Wednesday night, McMahan said it was like the Super Bowl, with the producers shouting with glee as five of the performers they filmed made the "Lovely Day" montage. German immigrant Petra Germany, of Yukon, could be seen biking in Heritage Hills; Lenny Hatchett, of Choctaw, was playing at the downtown OKC basketball courts; and Jaclyn Gass, of Midwest City, was hanging out at Carl Albert High School.
Perhaps the most eye-catching of the performers they filmed was Sgt. Denny MedicineBird, who adapted the Native American Southern Straight dance style to the R&B song. A member of the Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes who is also Kiowa, the Jones resident danced across the Skydance Bridge for the musical moment, his first time to attempt adapting the tribal dance style to pop music.
"They call it the gentleman's dance, and I've danced it ever since I could walk. ... It's one of those things where you dance to the beat of your own drum. So, I was able to make it me with my spirit and how I feel. It was just an amazing experience," he said.
"I think whenever you appreciate your culture and your identity as much as I do, any opportunity such as this is just a huge accomplishment. I love dancing, so it made it super simple."
An Operation Enduring Freedom veteran in his 15th year serving with the Oklahoma Army National Guard's Medical Detachment, MedicineBird said he felt true patriotism - a concept that has taken on some negativity lately - as he performed and watched his dance.
"This will be a concrete and a long, everlasting memory for me and my family. ... Hopefully, this type of experience can unify people on our beliefs and our thoughts and just open the eyes that American Indians are still here and we have a very vibrant culture," he said.
Now, he has been seen by millions of people who watched "Celebrating America" on ABC, CBS, NBC, Spectrum, PBS, CNN, CNBC, BET and MSNBC as well as online on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Twitch.
"My Facebook has been outrageous just with people saying so many kind things about me and really appreciating what I did," MedicineBird said. "Overall, I hope it uplifts people because we're in a time with this COVID and the pandemic that a lot of people in our communities are dying. So, I hope it brightened somebody's day."
Although his freestyle dance differed in style, Graves echoed the pride MedicineBird expressed in representing his home state, especially on the historic occasion of Harris' inauguration as the first woman, Black and Asian American vice president.
"This is something in history, so for me to be a part of it, I can't even really fathom or put that into words. It makes my day, but I'll be smiling about this forever. I'll be keeping some photos and saving videos. I gotta show my kids in the future. ... I don't have any kids yet, but I plan to in the future. So, I'm definitely going to save these to say, 'Yeah, this was your dad. He was cool,'" he said with a laugh.
Features Writer Brandy "BAM" McDonnell covers Oklahoma's arts, entertainment and cultural sectors for The Oklahoman and Oklahoman.com. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/brandybammcdonnell and twitter.com/BAMOK. Please support work by her and her colleagues by subscribing at oklahoman.com/subscribe.