Chicago

Gospel Music Unifies Damp Festival Goers

#ChiGospelFest was hit with a storm as the main artists took the stage, but that didn’t stop the celebration.

By Katelyn Skye Bennett

A special bond is formed through the sharing of music, especially when the music expresses one’s religion or faith. Then it becomes a spiritual experience that brings together people of different races and nationalities.

As May turned into June, Chicago celebrated its 34th annual Gospel Festival, celebrating the Black worship and praise tradition, and the weekend was energizing. June 1 began African-American Music Appreciation Month, formerly titled Black Music Month, and the Gospel festival fit right in between the prior weekend’s house festival and the next weekend’s blues one.

The Friday events, including a praise party and tribute to Aretha Franklin, were held in perfectly balmy conditions at the Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park, but cloudy, rainy skies were predicted all day Saturday. 

Saturday morning, however, the sun shone over the Spirit Stage, a white tent containing face paint, crafts, and balloon art. Festival goers cheered for local artists like Bridgette Hurt when the concerts began at noon.

Festival goer Nicole Martin, who previously sang background for James Fortune and Maranda Curtis, said it was her first time at Chicago’s festival. Martin googles Chicago events each weekend to see how she and her family can be involved. “I was like, ‘Shut up, Gospel music? We love Gospel music; we’re there.’”

Around 4:30 p.m., the rain rolled in. Thunder crackled overhead at the start of the main events in the Pritzker Pavilion at 5:00 for the announcement of the Stellar Awards, and a drizzle had already scared some people away. Nonetheless, others broke out ponchos and endured the intermittent rain.

I attended the festival with a couple friends, who had popped home to change clothes when the weather worsened. My umbrella broke during that time, so I huddled under two scarves, waiting for their return. A kind Black lady saw me shivering and offered to share her umbrella when the raindrops grew fatter. 

The audience filled the front section of the fixed chairs in Pritzker and trickled out into the rest of the seated area, the grass abandoned by its afternoon guests when the rains joined them. 

We squeezed to the front left side together and began to dance under the umbrella. “Are you having fun,” she asked? I nodded as I danced and sang. 

Charles Jenkins emceed with ABC7’s Terrell Brown, a flirtatious man resembling John Legend who wasn’t afraid to interview the crowd between acts, sit on the lap of a lady as he did so, and point out his butt as he climbed back on stage.

The music was led by Charles Jenkins himself, who is in his last year of pastoring at Fellowship Chicago; Maranda Curtis with her screaming vocals; Brian Courtney Wilson, who seemed fatherly in his love for the audience; Anthony Brown and Group TherAPy, who sang one of my personal favorites, “Worth,”; Casey J., whose sweetness was evident in her voice and smile; James Fortune, who actually kicked off the music at the 5 p.m. session; and Zacardi Cortez.

All the artists performed without pay. The festival, sponsored by the CTA and put on by the Department of Cultural Affairs, supported the institution of the Gospel Music Museum being built in historic Bronzeville for September 2022. To the performers, the night was all about worship.

Two sign interpreters shared the music on one side of the stage, their hands singing beautifully and joyfully.

Anthony Brown and Group TherAPy introduced “for the first time ever, here in Chicago” a dance routine for “Blessings on Blessings.” 

Jenkins later led the crowd in singing, “Ain’t no party like a Holy Ghost party ‘cause the Holy Ghost party don’t stop!” Rain or shine, those in attendance partied.

They also worshipped to hits like “Fill Me Up” by Casey J, “A Great Work” by Brian Courtney Wilson, and “My God Is Awesome” by Charles Jenkins. 

It felt like surround sound, with powerful voices coming from the stage and the crowd’s mixed-ability but passionate vocals roaring to lyrics about healing, faith, and grace.

Saturday night, I was surrounded with the gracious smiles of Black women, people worshipping and praising through Gospel music, some tambourines, and a multitude of umbrellas. I was surrounded by faith in the God the songs spoke of and, as a default, in the people around me. The music enabled us to share a spiritual bond. 

Had the music not ended and had my toes not been numb from almost 9 hours on my feet that Saturday, I could have stayed there forever.

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