Citizen of the Week: Bigga Dre

A grassroots Black empowerment activist who has long flown under the mainstream radar is one of the reasons Juneteenth in Philly is the harmonious, artful and joyous celebration it is today

Citizen of the Week: Bigga Dre

A grassroots Black empowerment activist who has long flown under the mainstream radar is one of the reasons Juneteenth in Philly is the harmonious, artful and joyous celebration it is today

Bigga Dre, born Andre Mack, is one of those Philadelphians everybody seems to know. But don’t just ask everybody. Ask him to talk about himself, and he’ll take you down a stream of names and memories of the dozens of people who have been significant in his life: his mom, his mentors, his role models, his inspirations, his collaborators.

Dre’s a musician and an activist, a mover, a shaker, an organizer and a planner — and one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. He’s also one of the main reasons Philadelphia’s Juneteenth has become the major, citywide, harmonious deal it has become, from Germantown to 52nd Street, Center City to the Rotunda at Penn, where he hosts his signature event today.

Kinda makes sense: At 33, Bigga Dre has made celebrating Blackness his life’s work.

Says elder and longtime community organizer Amul Jabar, “Bigga Dre is a great brother who does great things for our community family, and children. He represents the beautiful meaning of Kwanzaa, and not just one principle but all seven principles.”

A kid from Chester

Dre grew up in a pro-Black household in Chester with four brothers. When he was a teen, his parents split, and he and his brothers moved to West Philly with their mom. She’s the first person Dre credits for whom he’s become. She always made sure he knew that Black is beautiful and encouraged him to celebrate his African roots and to fight racism.

“If you aren’t part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem,” she’d say before advising him to become one of her favorite words: “solutionary.”

Dre loved to read books about his ancestry; he really loved to make music. According to his family tree, he’s a distant relative, on his dad’s side, of Count Basie — the Count Basie. When he was 10, he was wowed by the talent at a show by at-risk Black youth. As a teen, he joined the ensemble at the Walnut Street Theatre. Around the same time, Dre and one of his brothers released their debut hip-hop album, “Evolve or Perish,” which caught the eyes of the New York music scene, and landed him a distribution contract with Babygrande Records.

He was on his way, for sure, but still rooted in Philly and Chester, working in sales for Walnut Street then the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Arts and activism

To Dre and his family, pro-Black meant more than anti-racist. It also meant advocating for your community. He has a cameo in “Laid to Waste: A Chester Neighborhood Fights for its Future,” environmental activist Zulene Mayfield’s 1997 documentary about the neighbors fighting Covanta’s massive solid waste incinerator. He saw what raising your voice as a community could do — and admired Mayfield for her work, going on to work with her organization, Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living, or CRCQL.

He’d also go on to found a group he called the Tween Development League, connecting youth at rec centers from Philly to Camden, NJ. He and vocal educational activist Mamma Gail Clouden grew close, and with the mentorship of the late, Robert Dickerson (known for founding the Universal African Dance & Drum Ensemble and South Jersey’s Unity in the Community), Dre became the instructional support specialist for Khepera Charter School. Eventually, he joined the cultural committee of PCOL, the Kenny Gamble co-founded Philadelphia Community of Leaders, an organization working to tackle systemic issues plaguing the Black community — and lifting up Black culture.

A Juneteenth for PA

At PCOL, Dre shadowed longtime community organizer, educator and activist Kofi Asante. Together, the elder Asante and Dre undertook a major project: Advocating for a Commonwealth-legislated celebration of the final act of emancipation of the enslaved African Americans. They started lobbying to make Juneteenth an official holiday in PA.

Harrisburg had its challenges, and not only among legislators. There was, if not infighting, then generational disagreement about how to go about convincing politicians that Juneteenth was a holiday Pennsylvanians wanted and deserved. For his part, Dre wanted to move quickly, to speak truth to power, to work “organically,” he says, with community members in various neighborhoods to organize Juneteenth celebrations that would help build momentum for a larger, state-sanctioned holiday.

Some of the senior members of the lobby wanted to go a more traditional route. Dre respected their approach, but also knew if the leaders wanted true buy-in, they’d also have to recognize the efforts of his demographic. State Rep. Dwight Evans was an early sponsor of the state’s Juneteenth legislation, and Dre became somewhat of a generational go-between, supporting efforts on both sides.

“This is why Juneteenth is important: We have to let people know we fought for our freedom. We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors.” — Bigga Dre

Dre worked with PCOL to host events year round – a Kwanzaa celebration, an #IBuyBlackInitiative, and the Universal Kwanzaa Pageant for high school students — that centered Black heritage, Black businesses and Black pride. But the big one was Juneteenth, a holiday that not even some of the community’s most revered elders knew about.

“When we started, there wasn’t enough people rallying for it in Harrisburg,” says Dre, “People didn’t really know why it was important that we have our own holiday. It was more of getting the people to receive what Juneteenth means; that’s why it’s important we did these events, because I could see the power of educating and informing our people … A lot people of people were under the spell that July 4th was enough for us.”

Black activist and longtime educational reform advocate Mama Gail Clouden recalls that time. Although she is responsible for introducing Dre to a multitude of city activists and had been a longtime community leader, she wasn’t always aware of the holiday or its origins. She first learned about Juneteenth nearly 20 years ago at one of the first Juneteenth events at Congo (aka Washington) Square organized by Ron Brown, known as “Mr. Juneteenth”.

“It was the most incredible experience ever — I’ll never forget because all the leaders of the small grassroots community groups were there, and I knew many of them from different things that I had been involved in. All I can say is it was joy; it was pure joy,” says Clouden.

Juneteenth in Philadelphia

Ron Brown is widely considered the father of Juneteenth in Philly. He first brought Juneteenth — also known as “Emancipation Day,” “Black Freedom Day,” and “Jubilee Day” — celebrations to Germantown in 1997, where the holiday spanned three days of education and celebration. In 2006, the all-free event began to include tours of the Johnson House and Cliveden, which both played significant roles in the Underground Railroad.

In 2017, with Dre’s help, the PCOL and Gamble hosted their first big Juneteenth event, which included a parade from the African American Museum in Philadelphia (AAMP) to Congo Square. The newcomer event garnered attention, and Brown and organizers of the first event weren’t altogether pleased. In 2018, PCOL’s Juneteenth celebration moved to Spruce Street Harbor Park.

Meanwhile, all those trips to Harrisburg were paying off. In 2019, then-PA Governor Tom Wolf declared Juneteenth an official holiday. In 2020, then-Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, and, in 2021, the federal government, followed suit.

In the intervening years, Dre made sure things worked out. He stayed close to Brown, inviting him to the PCOL annual honor of the ancestors ceremony, building and strengthening connections between the events’ organizers, building momentum in small community groups. Now, Philadelphia’s Juneteenth celebrations have expanded, taking place on different days.

This year’s Germantown event took place June 15. The parade moved dates and locations — to 52nd Street, where it now lays claim to being the biggest such procession in the country, and comprises more musical performances, a children’s village and a community vendor village at Malcolm X Park, on June 16. The block party-style AAMP event is June 19, Juneteenth itself.

As for Dre’s signature event at The Rotunda, it features guest speakers, a fashion showcase, a youth talent showcase, small business vendors, vegan food, conscious music, a financial intelligence workshop — and overall unity and celebration. It’s free, and, in a way, a culmination of everything Dre has learned and cherishes.

Still, he wants to do more.

The future of Juneteenth

Dre knows June 19 has come a long way. But he also feels that celebrating the holiday is a huge opportunity to look forward. He wants to draw attention to the connection between slavery and modern-day crimes against humanity. Juneteenth should be about honesty, the hard truths of where African Americans come from — and what parts of that heritage linger still.

“Our ancestors were brought here in the 1500s by way of the Maafa — that’s human trafficking. Human trafficking is still affecting us and the numbers are significantly disproportionate as it relates to Black women,” he says. Dre curated a PSA titled, Eschatology Bring our Girls Back to bring awareness to missing Black women and girls. He makes sure to note that human trafficking not only includes sex trafficking, but is also related to the school-to-prison pipeline and mass incarceration.

As always, Dre is pushing for more change. “This is about education and entertainment, arts and activism,” he says, “The same way I was inspired by Kenny Gamble, and how he used this platform as a musician and an artist to bring people together, I want to use my platform as a musician, as an artist, as an influencer, to bring something that’s culturally relevant, to educate our young people.

“This is why Juneteenth is important: We have to let people know we fought for our freedom. We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors.”


Bigga Dre, center, holding the sign that says "BLACK DOLLAR IS POWER" at a community procession.

The Philadelphia Citizen will only publish thoughtful, civil comments. If your post is offensive, not only will we not publish it, we'll laugh at you while hitting delete.

Be a Citizen Editor

Suggest a Story

Advertising Terms

We do not accept political ads, issue advocacy ads, ads containing expletives, ads featuring photos of children without documented right of use, ads paid for by PACs, and other content deemed to be partisan or misaligned with our mission. The Philadelphia Citizen is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan organization and all affiliate content will be nonpartisan in nature. Advertisements are approved fully at The Citizen's discretion. Advertisements and sponsorships have different tax-deductible eligibility. For questions or clarification on these conditions, please contact Director of Sales & Philanthropy Kristin Long at [email protected] or call (609)-602-0145.