Disco singer Taana Gardner lighting up the crowd at the Chosen Few Picnic | Photo by Nelson Okunlola [The TRiiBE]

“I thought y’all was tired of this song by now,” disco singer Taana Gardner said as the Chosen Few Picnic & Festival crowd begged for an encore. She knew exactly what song they wanted to hear but, in true star fashion, she had to tease them a little bit. The slow beginning rhythm of Gardner’s 1981 jam, “Heartbeat” boomed through the speakers. Once the beat dropped, the crowd two-stepped, sang and swayed along with Gardner.

“I believe I am a Black icon in Black music,” Gardner told The TRiiBE. Earlier, during her set, Chosen Few DJ Jesse Saunders surprised Gardner with a Lifetime Achievement Award. 

“My impact [on house music] has been enormous,” Gardner said after her performance. “I had so much impact in improvisation. But for a long time, I never got credit for writing even though I’m improvising through the whole freaking song. That’s writing.”

This year’s Chosen Few Picnic put a spotlight on some of the trailblazing women of Chicago house. Since the birth of the disco-rooted genre in the 1980s, the story of house has centered mostly on Black men. With Gardner, Motown diva Thelma Houston and indie house vocalist Lady Alma on the bill, the Chosen Few DJs highlighted the importance of the Black woman to house music.

“Everybody knows house for the djs and even some of the male singers. We ladies do not get the shine we deserve. It be us that they be spinning,” Lady Alma said before her set. “I’m just grateful to be in the position that I am in because the Lady loves house.”

Lady Alma smiling during her performance | Photo by Nelson Okunlola [The TRiiBE]

Lady Alma is enjoying a new wave of interest after a July video of a South African fan lip-syncing and dancing to her track, “Let It Fall,” went viral on social media. On stage, Lady Alma put on a dynamic performance, encouraging the crowd to sing and dance along with her.

“The backbone of house was built on the Black woman because it started with a lot of gospel,” Lady Alma said. “Barbara Tucker, the godmother of house, was out there doing her thing. As a Black woman following underneath the greats like Thelma Houston and Taana Gardner, I’m just absolutely honored and I’m glad that I’m able to continue this thing here called house.”

Houston hit the Chosen Few Picnic stage for the first time. The crowd sang along to her Motown classic, “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” like the 1977 track had just come out yesterday.

Motown legend Thelma Houston singing her classics | Photo by Nelson Okunlola [The TRiiBE]

“For me, I started becoming aware of house music because of ‘Don’t Leave Me This way,” Houston said. Thanks to her late friend, and house pioneer Frankie Knuckles, Houston was introduced to Chicago house and learned the ins and outs of the underground movement.

“The remixes and things started to come out and it put a whole ‘nother life into it,” Houston said. “House was another way of getting your music out and getting it played.”

Meanwhile, everybody and their momma showed up to the picnic. Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx took the stage to wave at the estimated 40,000 people in attendance. She even stayed on stage and showed off a few dance moves during award-winning DJ David Morales’ set. 

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson made an appearance as well, hugging and shaking hands with the Chosen Few DJs and others on stage. Chance the Rapper popped out, too. He hyped up the crowd as he danced to the house classic “Brighter Days” by Cajmere feat. Dajae.

The picnic felt like a homecoming for many of the families out there dancing, singing and grilling. 

“It’s like a family reunion,” said Latisha Sanders, a 44-year-old Howard University alum.”I went to a Black college so it’s like homecoming all over again.”

A group of Black sororities and fraternities from the Divine Nine set up tents and decorations celebrating the legacies of Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

“Our theme is housecoming. It’s a play on Beyoncé’s Homecoming,” said Joi Basley, 46. She’s a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated. “We have a theme every year. We like to give the people an experience.”

This year marked Darius Beck’s fourth time at the picnic. The 36-year-old South Side native currently lives in Ohio, but had to make the trip back home for the Chosen Few cookout.

“I came here by myself and I’ve run into so many people I haven’t seen in years. This is one of the few things you can go to that’s really Chicago,” Beck, 36, said. “No nonsense. No drama. Everybody out here is having a great ass time.”