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Emanuel budget revives Gospel Fest

The Chicago City Council is set to vote on a budget next Wednesday, and one of the proposals could make fans of a musical genre with deep, local history sing out loud.

Video via Flickr/Tim Wilson

Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to spend more money on the Chicago Gospel Music Festival, otherwise known as Gospel Fest. But as happy as proponents are about that, they worry the proposal might cost the Chicago music genre its best showcase.

Gospel music was born here. Thomas Dorsey first combined the blues with sacred words in a church on Chicago’s South Side. Mahalia Jackson made her home here, and so did Albertina Walker and a host of others.

For years this art form had its own showcase: the Chicago Gospel Music Festival. That is, until former Mayor Richard Daley balked at the price, dismantled the stand-alone affair, shrunk it to a day and shoehorned it into Taste of Chicago.

When that happened, Pam Morris had this reaction: “Oh it hurt. It was a sting, a bite.”

Morris is a gospel host on WVON and the long-time former organizer of Gospel Fest. She was excited to hear Mayor Emanuel wants Gospel Fest to return as a stand-alone next June.

“There is still so much history in Chicago, it deserves its own platform, and, yes, I am standing on the sides saying, ‘Thank you Lord’,” Morris says.

Tony Tidwell and Favor perform a preview show for the 2010 Chicago Gospel Fest. (Flickr/John W. Iwanski)
But there’s some debate about Gospel Fest’s new incarnation.

The new commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, Michelle Boone, wants to move the festival from downtown to the South Side because of the area’s rich gospel heritage. She says it’s also part of Emanuel’s initiative to bring arts to the neighborhoods so everyone has access. The festival could be based in Bronzeville, but it could include activities in other venues across the city, such as the Garfield Park Conservatory.

“We’re just really trying to blow the lid off and think as creatively as possible and involve as many communities as we can and use this as a template to see what can be done in the future,” Boone says.

If this works, Boone says the city will explore reviving other music festivals by moving them to the neighborhoods. Those weekend festivals also were cut and were given a day each during Taste.

One gospel enthusiast who’s watched this development is Effie Rolfe,  a radio host at V103 and Inspiration 1390, where she’s also assistant program director and music director.

Rolfe says Gospel Fest’s return is wonderful news and she's heard that  community members are ecstatic. But she’s also a bit concerned about Gospel Fest leaving the spotlight of downtown, where the Blues and Jazz Festivals still play.

“I did think ‘Wow, it would be nice if it were given the same platform,’" Rolfe says. “But you never know, maybe this would be even better.”

She says it’s possible that having the event in the neighborhoods will attract people who are leery of going downtown or who avoid crowds. Mainly, Rolfe says, she’s happy it’s coming back, “Trust me, I’m not complaining too much.”

The city’s cultural commissioner says critics shouldn’t worry; she says gospel music is tied to Chicago neighborhoods, and if the new festival attracts the biggest acts, the location will be moot.

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