Summertime Chicago signals blue skies, beaches and the best music festivals.
I’m not talking about Lollapalooza or Pitchfork. I mean the Chosen Few DJs Picnic and Music Festival.
Never heard of it? Not surprised.
It’s an ode to house music every July. House heads, as they are known, fly in from around the country and globe to descend onto beautiful Jackson Park. Essentially, the picnic is a major dance party and barbecue with an estimated 50,000 people on the South Side that flies under the radar of the city and region at large. I’m constantly amazed at how many non-black people don’t know about the Chosen Few DJs Picnic, which I view as one of the more benign blowbacks of segregation. The (in)visible boundaries not only affect housing but culture, too.
“A lot of the people on North Side aren’t familiar with things going on South Side. Maybe they don’t think they have reason to cross Soldier Field. We think we have one of the best, if not the best music festival in any of Chicago,” said Alan King, a Chosen Few DJ.
The picnic started in 1990 with a group of house DJ friends who pulled out their grills and turntables behind the Museum of Science of Industry. The party grew organically with friends and friends of friends. Then they moved to 63rd and Hayes Drive for more space. Now it’s a two-day festival. I have friends who begin camping out at 4 a.m. the day of to ensure premium space to pitch their tents. My neighbors pack a generator. I’ve been told about people who hire cooks and red carpet.
More importantly, the day is about the music, revelry and gathering among friends.
“Seeing the pure joy on so many people’s faces. So many people who depend on this event quite frankly, it’s the highlight of their summer. I look out crowd and see people dancing, hugging smiling,” King said.
House music is one of Chicago’s biggest global cultural exports, nurtured decades ago in local clubs like The Warehouse under DJ Frankie Knuckles, South Side basement parties and the cabal of DJs who comprise the Chosen Few. For a long time, the city didn’t embrace this form of dance/disco music. In recent years, that changed under former cultural commissioner Michelle Boone. You can now see house heads jamming on their lunch break in the summer at Daley Plaza or at the end of May during a house music tribute in Millennium Park.
In Jackson Park, the crowd is by far mostly black. The Chosen Few DJs Picnic is a special wink and a nod to a South Side tradition. In recent years I’ve noticed glowing Facebook posts offer an additional commentary beyond sharing photos of a good time had by all. The gist is along these lines: Look at the amazing time the huge crowd of black folk are having and gee whiz no violence occurred. Why doesn’t the media cover that angle?
At first I winced at those social media entries. I wanted to push back on the idea that a white gaze was needed to legitimize congregation in a black space. But, of course, I understand the emotion. Black South Side communities continue to be painted with the broad stroke of nothing more than gun violence. The Chosen Few DJs Picnic is of course at its core about music and fellowship, but the powerful image of black bodies communing is more than symbolic. It’s a potent counter narrative.
“House music is spiritual,” said Chosen Few DJ Wayne Williams. “God executed our plan. Our music and what we do is for everyone. It’s inspirational. It’s about everyone being human. Right now we’re in a cycle of negativity and we’re the opposite of that. We’re the love fest.”
To be clear, the picnic isn’t unwelcoming to non-blacks. People of all races are and would be embraced — as long as they don’t feel like they are “Columbusing,” or discovering, something that’s a long-held tradition. The allure of house music is: freeing, uninhibited, divine and liberating.
Chicago is still known as the epicenter of blues. But I dare say that the grooves of house music is a genre that can bring people together better. And the Chosen Few DJs Picnic and Music Festival should be a local household name like the Taste of Chicago.
Sun-Times columnist Natalie Y. Moore is a reporter for WBEZ and author of “The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation.”
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