You can read our day two coverage of the gospel festival here.
DCASE Keeps Gospel Tradition Going Strong
Maybe apocryphal, maybe an exaggeration, or maybe a personal story repurposed for public consumption, Mahalia Jackson, the queen of gospel, was said to have ditched a husband who pressured her to move beyond gospel music to more secular and presumably more lucrative genres.
Watching the supersize talents – some beginners, some veterans, and everyone else in between – it’s easy to imagine that many of the entertainers at the 32nd Annual Chicago Gospel Music Festival share Jackson’s unwavering faith in the music.
We were there feeling the spirits swelling around us, building to a pitch with each performance. It doesn’t matter if you are an atheist or follower of a religion with a totally different liturgical music style – GOSPEL ROCKS! In this festival, DCASE went to great lengths to showcase gospel in all of its modern forms, from traditional hymns to Christian rap to blues-inflected soul.
The Chicago Gospel Music Festival begins in the Cultural Center with Hip Hop, R&B, Dancing and More
Before the performers took the stage, we had a chance to meet a few people in the Chicago Cultural Center, where the 32nd Annual Gospel Festival began on Friday, June 2, 2017.
Chris and Meg Eady of Chattanooga are vacationing in Chicago and happened to hear about the festival. “Yes, we listen to gospel music; we grew up with it,” explained Chris. At one point he even sang in a gospel choir.
Cathy Freeman of Atlanta is also on vacation. “I came to Chicago for the festival; I’m a big fan of gospel music,” explained Freeman. Two of the headliners, Travis Green and Anthony Brown, are among the many gospel singers she listens to frequently. Freeman says, “Chicago is the home of gospel music—going back to the days of Tom Dorsey of Pilgrim Baptist Church and Mahalia Jackson. Chicago’s gospel heritage is rich. Originally, gospel’s Stellar Awards were held in Chicago.”
When asked what she would most like Picture this Post readers to know about gospel music, Freeman summarizes, “Gospel helps you stay alive.”
"Gospel Helps You Stay Alive"
That sentiment was echoed by Chicagoan Glenda Peace in the short break between performances from Iliana Morales and St. Sabina’s Selah Choir. Peace has been coming to the Gospel Festival for “a very long time – at least five years in a row.” To Peace, who took a day off of work to come to the festival, “gospel music is spiritual and makes you feel good. Look at everyone here – all races, all kinds of people, and everyone is happy.”
Meanwhile, in the wings of the hall, Catholic priest and social activist Father Pfleger wore bright orange as part of a nationwide campaign to fight gun violence, a project of gun control nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety.
While only a warm up for the big-name performers in Pritzker Pavilion later that evening, the Chicago Cultural Center was already buzzing with arms waving, hands clapping, bodies swaying and smiles all around.
The kick-off by Iliana Morales certainly set the tone. Backed by a four-piece band and five backup singers, Morales performed four songs: “Strong Enough” (Free Worship), “Oh Come to the Altar” (Elevation Worship), “Buen Buen Padre” (Free Worship) and “In the River” (Jesus Culture).
Poised and vivacious, Morales seems to have performing in her DNA. Raised in a predominantly Hispanic church, Morales began seriously singing gospel around 20 years old. Morales’ third song, “Buen Buen Padre,” is sung mostly in Spanish. This reflects one of Morales’ favorite aspects of gospel music: its ability to “bring diversity to a church setting.” For Morales, music, and gospel in particular, is a way to “be who I want to be.” The audience – singing along, snapping photos, and jumping to their feet – certainly felt her enthusiasm.
Then, wearing blue t-shirts with “Selah” emblazoned across their chests, the dozens of members of St. Sabina’s choir, ages 5 to 18, filled the platform. The singers displayed a talent well beyond their years as choir leader Samuel Williams jumped in the air, swung his his arms forward and back, and at times seemed to do the old dance called the chicken.
Chicagoan Teresa Jackson, who also has been attending the festival for many years – at least six by her recollection – says that some of the festival’s performers originally came from her one-time church, the Apostolic Church of God at 6320 South Dorchester. “This music is about connections to the spirit and soul. The words are the ministry of music. If you give it a chance, you can find a song personal to you... I grew up with the music of Mahalia Jackson and then Aretha Franklin.”
After the St. Sabina Youth Choir was the hip hop duo R&R, consisting of brothers Russ and Roe. Over beats ranging from old-school boom-bap to rattling, modern instrumentals – many of which are produced by their father and uncle – Russ and Roe rap about, in their own words, leading a “holy life” and “following Christ.” They are accompanied by the three backup dancers, whose moves were choreographed by the Martin brothers’ uncle, a pastor. Through their music, Russ and Roe hope to reach their peers, who may be more familiar with rap music than traditional gospel. According to Russ, “you can listen to rap, but it can be gospel, too.”
After a performance by Neicy Robertson, four of Chicago’s next aspiring gospel artists took the stage. The 2nd Nature Band played with flair, emphasizing the instrumental over vocal aspect of their music. Denton Arnell Harris sang deep hymns and Jazmine Jones gave a soothing gospel.
Guitarist and singer Isaiah Freeman played more rock and R&B-centric tunes. “Prince, PJ Morton, Maroon 5, Blink 182, those are my inspirations for my kind of music,” Isaiah told us. Along with many other artists, he noted the difference between playing at the Cultural Center and at church, saying that “it’s good to be outside of your environment.” The performances at the Cultural Center concluded with a wonderful performance from Arthur Sutton and The Gift of Praise.
Festival Headliners Take the Stage at the Pritzker Pavilion
Performances at Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion began with a set from Glenn Johnson and the Voices of Innerpeace. The choir, aged 15 and up, repped all of Lake County (and part of Wisconsin). Much like our original profile of the Voices of Innerpeace, the group expressed that, even in a different environment like the outdoor festival, they’ll still give “100% no matter what.”
When some of the women in the chorus stepped up to do solos, many in the crowd might have been thinking of Aretha Franklin back in the day. For some of us in the audience, struck by the historic nature of the event, gospel’s progression from the era of Thomas Dorsey and Mahalia Jackson to today were telegraphed on the Jumbotron screen behind the performers, with their pierced tongues, long dreadlocks and all.
One of the highlights of the festival was undoubtedly the University of Illinois Black Chorus, led by Dr. Ollie Watts Davis. Emerging in collegiate robes and performing with the intensity of a classical orchestra, the Black Chorus’ set marked a stark departure from the free-wheeling music of prior performers.
Dr. Davis arranged the set as a brief history of black spiritual music, progressing from hymns such as “Lift Every Voice and Sing” to the rousing contemporary gospel jam “Jesus Will” (the latter of which Dr. Davis describes as a “Chicago favorite.”) By ordering the set in this manner, Davis hopes to “let people know where the music came from” as well as show that “every text has a narrative.” Under the tutelage of Davis, the U of I Black Chorus does an excellent job of conveying this idea.
Malcolm Williams & Great Faith
Up next was Malcolm Williams and his group Great Faith. Audience members stood to their feet, sung along, and even played tambourine to Williams’ boisterous music. The 21 members of Great Faith handled most of the singing, letting Williams dash across the stage and riff over their harmony, showing off an incredible vocal range including moments of breathtaking falsetto. Dressed in a bright red plaid suit and wingtip shoes – a sharp contrast to the black-and-white wardrobe of his group – Williams worked the crowd like a natural entertainer, joking with the audience, tossing out free t-shirts, and urging the crowd to show their love for God.
Following Malcolm Williams’ raucous performance, four groups performed as a celebration of the gospel quartet. First were the Gospel Crusaders, a group formed in 1988 with one remaining original member, Tommy Patrick. The group, much like other artists at the festival, grew up on gospel music “in the house, on CDs, in church.” They also noticed the stark contrast in performing at a large festival and a church, both in that it was outside and that everything is bigger. Bigger crowds, bigger stage, bigger expectations – which they all took on in stride.
After the Gospel Crusaders was God’s Posse. A tour de force performance from lead singer Tim Henderson hit a feverish pitch before backup singers moved to the front, only to ramp up again. After completely exhausting himself, Henderson – much like James Brown – was dragged offstage by a group member whose duty was to do just that.
Then came the Stars of Heaven, five women in flounced turquoise-hued matching suits. For some in the crowd, the short musical riff so emblematic of Tina Turner inserted into their performance likely encapsulated their moment on the stage. Like Turner, they took us “higher and higher," with the backup singers kicking off their heels and moving to the front.
Next up were the Detroit-based Evelyn Turrentine-Agee & the Warriors, sporting black t-shirts saying “God Did It.” The red-haired Evelyn regaled the crowd not only with song but with talk of how God has blessed her family, which now counts 58 grandchildren.
Each group brought the stage to life with a new type of energy. Ray Burnett of God’s Posse said it best: “you got to give to the crowd what the crowd gives you.” This sentiment was echoed by Malcolm Williams, who claimed that “the crowd isn’t supposed to be an audience, but working alongside the group, enjoying the music and worship together.”
Wrapping up the night was a performance by Jonathan McReynolds, along with Anthony Brown and Travis Greene. Combined, they created a joyous conclusion to a long day of gospel. McReynolds, a rising star in the gospel world, was both the finale and the future of the genre. Phone cameras went up every time he sang as the crowd enjoyed a buzz that was unlike the rest of the day. They could tell they were watching something great for years to come.
One imagines that Tom Dorsey, Mahalia Jackson and all the great gospel legends are looking down on the 32nd Annual Chicago Gospel Festival with both pride and amazement. How wonderful – and how surprising – to see performers backed by hip hop dancers and sporting pierced tongues, long dreads, and G clef tattoos peeking out of costumed arms. While certainly rooted in tradition, gospel music remains a fresh, relevant, and constantly evolving genre.
MORE: read other profiles of gospel performers, including Glenn Johnson and the Voices of Innerpeace, God's Posse, The University of Illinois Black Chorus, Isaiah Freeman, R&R, Neicy Robertson, and the Selah St. Sabina Youth Choir.
Photos: Peter Kachergis, unless otherwise indicated.