By Katelyn Skye Bennett
The Friday and Saturday of Memorial Day weekend began Chicago’s summer music season with the fourth annual house music festival. Though the crowd was thin as the festival began, the freedom the music provided was tangible.
“We’re here to celebrate the legacy that Chicago started,” emcee Duane Powell said in reference to the house genre as he introduced the night. Teenagers and young adults from the Southside and Westside of Chicago created the genre in the late ‘70s, he said. It’s a danceable and unifying genre to this day.
With house music, you are neither confined nor defined by others. You can express yourself freely. Everyone is welcome at the party.
Chicago summers are famous for their many festivals and concerts, particularly at Millenium Park. The house festival, sponsored by the Chicago Transit Authority, was the first of the summer events held in the Pritzker Pavilion, an outdoor theater built to fit 4,000 guests on in the seated section and 10,000 more on the lawn. That Friday was the first night using a new sound system, a gift to the park.
The festival was preceded by some house education on Thursday evening at the Chicago Cultural Center, and the performances took place on the Friday and Saturday of Memorial Day weekend.
That Friday, only a few people dotted the grass, and the many chairs were empty. “D,” a born-and-raised resident of the city who preferred to use her nickname, started listening to house as a teenager and still enjoyed the genre at 49. She compared last year’s turnout to this year’s, saying, “I’m concerned. Where is everybody?”
“I just like to see people come together and unify in peaceful gatherings… I’m kinda disappointed tonight. A lot of people didn’t come out,” D commented. “I hope that everything is well. This is unusual to me.”
Nonetheless, the festival goers or “house heads” present were enjoying themselves. “I’m into dance and movement and rhythm, so [house] gives me the room to move,” D said.
Close to the stage, a few attendees danced with abandon, including groupie Tish Zadar, who traveled from Denver, Colorado, to see Frank Orrall of Poi Dog Pondering, who performed in the opening act, 8fatafat8. Everyone appeared free and happy.
That’s part of the history of house being lived out in 2019. With house music, you are neither confined nor defined by others. You can express yourself freely. Everyone is welcome at the party.
Alma Austin experienced this as a teen in Chicago. These days, the youthful grandmother wants to take advantage of the opportunities in Chicago since she didn’t get the chance to explore her city when she was working and raising her daughter.
“House music was something I grew up with,” Austin shared. “Actually, I snuck out of my mother’s house just to go to a house party. My mom was like, ‘Oh you are so bad, you so bad,’ but I didn’t think I was so bad; I thought I was wonderful. I thought it was a wonderful thing that I was out and about and enjoying something that was new to me and around new friends.”
Austin grew up in the Robert Taylor projects on Chicago’s Southside, high rises full of families and kids which she deemed “kinda dangerous.” Nonetheless, she continued, “My family always said, ‘We gonna watch one another,’ so when it came to the house parties, it was like, ‘You gonna watch me; Imma watch you. ’”
That night, Chip E, the only artist to be featured on all three major Chicago radio stations, was awarded the Chicago House Music Legacy Award. Upon accepting the iron, he spoke of the genre’s origins and the space house opened for Black, Brown, and queer people.
“Like me, house music is from Chicago,” Chip E said. “It started at a lot of venues that were supporting house music when others were saying disco is dead.”
“But what they were really saying is, when they were saying disco is dead, they were showing their disdain and their dislike for minorities and for the lesbian, gay, transgender and queer communities, whereas house music embraces everyone,” Chip E explained.
He continued to applause, “House music is about inclusion. House music doesn’t care if you’re Black or white, Jew or Gentile, and yes, I wanna see a world of all house music where we’re not judged by the color of your skin or the partner you choose for life but you’re judged by how hard you can jack on the dance floor.”
Regarding the positive lyrics, Chip E concluded, “For over 35 years, we have been partying, and there have been no incidents. There has been no violence. It’s all been love.”
You can see a video of his full speech here.
Mr. A.L.I., the band’s name an acronym for Afro Latino infusion, performed as the main act on Friday night. Originally formed after 9-11, they had taken a break and were now back together again. Audience participation picked up with the live band’s entrance and with the group leader Carla Prather’s energy and inclusion of guests.
Saturday held an exercise session to house music in the morning and concerts on five stages at night, including musicians Gene Hunt, Reel People Live, Antonio Ocasio, Mark Farina, and Sean Alvarez. But with the Friday dusk enveloping the small crowd in humidity and the slight scent of alcohol and body odor, the next day was still a dream.
The first night of the house music festival and the summer music season as a whole concluded with the Voices of Thornton school district choir joining Mr. A.L.I. on stage and singing what felt like an anthem: “Follow me, follow me to a place where we can be free.”