by Akeya Dickson
NNPA Washington Correspondent
So far this year, there have been 263 murders in Chicago, a 39 percent increase over last year’s 189 homicides. More than 200 of the victims were Black. And much of that carnage has taken place on the Windy City’s predominantly Black South Side.
On one recent day, there were no gun deaths in the neighborhood. It was the day of the Chosen Few Old School Picnic, an annual event so revered that even the criminally inclined observe an unofficial ceasefire.
“The music has a lot to do with it. House music almost by nature is very positive,” explained Alan King, one of the major organizers of the event and a member of Chosen Few, the DJ collective that hosts the picnic. “It’s really been incredible to have 22 years here, particularly with what’s going on on the South Side of Chicago. To have absolutely no significant incidents, that’s something we’re surprised and happy about.”
That is surprising when you consider that at least 30,000 people – some say as many as 50,000 – attend the event each year. But it’s not surprising to Michelle Simmons, a public relations professional who lives in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago.
“Who brings a gun to a house music event? In my opinion, people who carry weapons and grudges aren’t going to the park on a sunny day with a bunch of folk,” said Simmons. “They know themselves well enough to know that that’s not the place for their short tempers to be.”
House heads line up by the hundreds, if not thousands, to get a good spot to set up when the gates open at 6 a.m. And once the party gets started, they two-step from one tent to the next, bartering barbecue wings for bottles of beer.
“Overall I just think that the house music picnic is seen as an older crowd and even the hooligans don’t bring that mess around them,” Simmons, who represents some of picnic’s younger attendees. “The thugs see this as a gathering of their aunts and uncles.”
She also believes that the relaxed police presence and simple pragmatism also keep away those inclined to mischief.
The Chosen Few group heard a few grumblings about the ticket price increase to $20 from being $10 at one point and free before that. King said that they die down once people see where the money goes.
“I think our charge is still very reasonable, especially for a music festival where we’re talking about 12 hours of DJs and live performances.” he said. “The reality is the cost goes up because we keep trying to invest in the experience. For example, we had a huge Jumbo Tron because there are so many people now and they’re so far back in the crowd that they can’t see the stage.”
Because of its phenomenal growth, there has been some suggestions that organizers move the event.
“People have suggested taking it to the North Side or to bigger parks downtown since we’re outgrowing our space,” King said. “We’ve resisted that since we are South Siders and we want to keep it here. People bringing their grills and cooking out, I don’t think we’d be able to do that in Soldier Field [on the North side].”
The picnic was held in Jackson Park July 7 and and is always held the Saturday after Independence Day.
It serves as an epicenter for all manner of reunions. Fifth Ward Alderwoman Leslie Hairston has been attending the festival since its inception, and serves as sort of a godmother to it. She coordinates with the park district, the police department, the production company and hosts friends from Los Angeles and New York who come to town especially for the event.
And although the crowd is older, this might be the only event where people in their 20s and 30s are eager to crash their parents’ party.
“I’ve been watching it happen more and more over the years. Maybe five years ago, I saw one of my summer interns at the picnic and I was like, ‘What are you doing here, this is my group,’” she said with a laugh. “It’s positive and everyone is moving to the music. You know, ‘Rock Your Body,’ those are the ones that get everybody up and out on the dance floor.”
King welcomes the influx of the next generation.
“That’s crucial for house music to survive and carry on,” he said. “It is really important to expose the younger generation to the music and the culture.”
King was first exposed to house music in the late 1970s at a time when he was a DJ and hanging out in record stores. Chosen Few co-founders Wayne Williams, who got R. Kelly signed by Jive Records, and Jesse Saunders exposed him to more of the music, and invited him to join the group in 1980.
“House music is one of those things that can be difficult to define for certain people. It means one thing for some people and another thing for other people,” he said. “I came up in a generation where it was a term used to define a club called The Warehouse, where Frankie Knuckles was playing. We called it ‘The House’ for short, and referred to the music being played there as house music as a result.”
The event originally started as a reunion for the DJs and the people who supported them. About 40 people would gather behind the Museum of Science and Industry the Saturday after the Fourth of July. Since then, it’s grown through word of mouth and in recent years through social media. They’ve shied away from radio advertising because it’s already packed and they don’t want to ruin their streak of a good atmosphere by attracting a different element.
“I miss the old days in a lot of respects. Not only is it about setting up the tents, but it’s hard in a sea of people to find your friends,” said King. “When we started, we didn’t plan for a 30,000 people picnic, we just went out to the park one year to have some fun and it grew.”