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Legendary 1970 Gay Dance Party Honored by Chicago Pride Concert

Blu Bone and Kidd Kenn

A Pride concert in Chicago this week will offer a mix of past and present — showcasing cutting-edge music from contemporary artists while honoring the queer pioneers who laid the groundwork for the freedom LGBTQ people enjoy today.

The Red Bull Presents: Renaissance One concert, happening Thursday at the Promontory restaurant and music venue in the Hyde Park neighborhood on the city’s south side, will feature a variety of rappers, DJs, and other performers in an event inspired by the first public gay dance held in Chicago, other than Halloween drag balls.

For much of the 20th century, in Chicago as in other cities, gay bars were often raided by police, and dancing with a member of the same sex could get you arrested for so-called public indecency. In hopes of keeping the police away, bar owners and managers would pull dancing couples apart. But in 1970, gay and lesbian activists decided to challenge this state of affairs.

In the spring of 1970, a group called Chicago Gay Liberation, which had some University of Chicago students among its members, held a couple of dances on the U of C campus where same-sex couples could feel free to dance together. Encouraged by the success of these events, Chicago Gay Liberation decided to hold a public dance off campus at the Coliseum, an arena that had previously hosted sports events and conventions.

“This was pushing the boundaries and taking a big risk,” historian John D’Emilio wrote in an essay published in the 2008 book Out and Proud in Chicago. “Would the police invade the place? Was there going to be a ‘giant bust’?” But Renee Hanover, an attorney for Chicago Gay Liberation, lobbied the police to assure they would not raid the dance. Two thousand people attended the April 18 event, “making it probably the biggest queer gathering in Chicago history up to then,” D’Emilio reported.

The following weekend, activists energized by the dance protested at the Normandy Inn, a popular gay bar, demanding that same-sex couples be allowed to dance and that dress regulations be lifted, as wearing clothing designated for the opposite sex was discouraged because it could set off police action as well. The owners agreed, and other bars followed.

Now the Renaissance One concert, curated by Red Bull in partnership with Party Noire, will pay homage to those who dared to dance freely in 1970. It will feature performances by out Chicago rappers Blu Bone and Kidd Kenn; Tennessee rapper BbyMutha; Baltimore’s TT the Artist, who is the founder of Club Queen Records; and DJ sets by three Chicagoans, DJ Rae Chardonnay, Hijo Pródigo, and Professor-Wrecks. The event will have both indoor and outdoor spaces and will feature art and production design by Chicago-based queer collective VAM.

The artists say they’re excited to participate in an event that uses current art forms to honor queer history. “In order for us to move forward, we have to learn where we came from,” says VAM founder and CEO Vincent Martell. The 29-year-old, who’s lived in Chicago since age 12, is keen on bringing this history to his generation. The design for the party, he says, seeks to evoke the sense of freedom found in gay bars in the 1970s and ’80s. “In a way we’re reimagining what we want Chicago LGBTQ history to look like,” he explains.

“Jordan Phelps, art director and founding member of VAM, is responsible for manifesting all of our visual elements for our events,” Martell notes. “Our concepts are big, and Jordan is able to infuse VAM’s sense of whimsy and adventure effortlessly.” 

It’s special to Martell to be involved in the event as a gay Black man in Chicago, he adds, as Renaissance One will be held on the heavily African-American south side. Most LGBTQ events tend to take place on the north side of the city, which is primarily white with some integrated neighborhoods. But the south side has importance to LGBTQ history, as the University of Chicago is in Hyde Park, and the Coliseum was located a bit farther north but still south of the city’s central business district, which is known to locals as the Loop.

Blu Bone and Kidd Kenn are likewise youthful Chicagoans eager to both honor and make history. Blu Bone, 21, a Black bisexual man, is a multidisciplinary artist who’s found great energy in the city since moving there three years ago from Minneapolis to study film and sculpture at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He’ll be rapping and presenting performance art at Renaissance One, and he’ll also have an art installation there.

“Chicago gave me a place to find dance music in a very rich and deep way,” he says, noting that the city was the birthplace of house music, a form of electronic dance music created by DJs such as Chicago’s Frankie Knuckles in the 1980s. The city also gave him a sense of rich and deep Black queer history, he notes.

The work he presents at Renaissance One will speak to the political climate in the nation and world, he says. “I’m very excited to push my boundaries as an artist, and I hope everyone enjoys,” he says.

Kidd Kenn is a 16-year-old Chicago native and high school student. The gay Black rapper, whose musical inspirations include Nicki Minaj, creates works that reflect everyday life and the voices of people who aren’t often heard, and he encourages listeners to be themselves and feel comfortable with who they are. He first won fame with online videos that won him a national following. Of performing at Renaissance One, he says, “It means everything. I can’t wait.”

Renaissance One will be held Thursday night at Promontory, 5311 S. Lake Park Ave., Chicago. Doors open at 8 p.m., and attendees must be 18 or older. Tickets are $15; order them and find more info here.

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