Over 25 years ago, the late Ron Hardy mixed down a huge track on Marshall Jefferson’s sprightly vocals that would rise to become an immense anthem for this new, titillating sound coming out of Chicago’s underground discos: “Gotta have house music, all night long/With that house music, you can’t go wrong.”
That mantra lives on vivaciously through Indigenous House, a free Atlanta-based music festival celebrating the roots of house music. Now in its seventh year of operation, this annual 10-hour musical marathon held at Piedmont Park has grown massively, becoming one of the largest outdoor events dedicated to black LGBT people in the nation.
John Dennis, founder of Indigenous House, is proud of its evolution and unique status of filling a specific void in black LGBT culture.
“There’s not another one. There are a few Pride [celebrations] and a few other events like it, but there’s not an event that brings out black gay men in public where they can be affectionate towards one other outside of Pride,” Dennis told Georgia Voice. “Indigenous is the largest one of its kind in the country.”
‘We are a cultural event’
Dennis, a native of St. Louis, has called Atlanta home for about 30 years and has been involved in organizing parties since the ’80s. It was during his days as a co-promoter with Greenhouse, a house festival he describes as “one geared more towards the straight crowd,” when he felt the urge to focus on designing an alternative for black LGBT Atlantans. The focus eventually grew to include an emphasis on house music’s roots in black gay culture.
“When you look at the audience of people in Atlanta, what you will find is a very mature conglomerate of all the gay men that really came from the great house clubs in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s around the country, from the Garage to the Catacomb [in Philadelphia], from Odell’s [in Baltimore] to Chicago’s Warehouse,” he said. “So you get to see a collective wave of energy that gay men had back in the day opposed to where we are now. And that’s probably the significant difference between Indigenous House and some of the other [house] events: We are a cultural event.”
Fostering a sense of family
Tim’m West, a faithful attendee and devout lover of house, feels that is what most separates Indigenous House from other house music celebrations in Atlanta and across the country.
“I think with Indigenous House there’s a little more intentionality about honoring gay contributions to house music,” he said. “In Atlanta, there are a lot of places that play house [music] that actually can be quite homophobic, which is kinda ironic to me.”
He also adds that the transgender population is often dismissed or ignored entirely at other events, but not at Indigenous, which he describes as bearing a “family reunion-like vibe.”
Dennis doesn’t hold back when mentioning the need to foster a sense of family at this event, especially at a time when Atlanta needs it. “In Atlanta, we have such a large black LGBT community, [but] it is so, so segregated between the L, G, B and T. And I felt led to bring them all together again,” he said. “I’m a lot more mature and inclusive of the trans, the bi and the lesbian community. I try to really stress on being inclusive of everyone, which most events – especially the club scene – doesn’t offer.”
Location change, special guests
This year, a few important changes will hit the layout of the fest. The most surprising of them all will be its move away from the WPA Picnic Shelter pavilion and a shift towards the Charles Allen Drive Gate at 10th Street. Due to a scheduling conflict from the Piedmont Park Conservancy with a previous renter, fans of Indigenous House will have to miss the popular shed this year.
The change of location comes with a bit of good news. There will be more space, a big welcome for the growing crowds.
“Last year it was so large that we had some crowd issues and they felt we needed a larger space,” Dennis said. “In addition to that, another organization had got the pavilion before me. I was real bothered by that because I felt we should have had top priority after being grandfathered into the park after three consecutive years.”
Other additions to the lineup include a flying drone feature and a lifetime achievement dedication to special guest Candy J.
“She was before Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox,” Dennis asserted. “It was Candy J in the ‘80s who was fighting with the record labels to try to be an entertainer and to authentically be who she was.”
Attendees are encouraged to bring their tents to help create a festival feel and to compensate for the lack of a pavilion.
West, who will once again be in attendance at this year’s fest, plans to dance his troubles away by fully immersing into the booming rhythms, especially in light of today’s political climate and tomorrow’s uncertainties.
“House music is actually about as close as I come to any sort of spirituality, where I feel all the emotions that I’ve felt in the last few weeks, from joy and pain to anguish and excitement,” he said. “It’s been a rough year – 45 [Donald Trump] is in office and people are really terrified about health care. I have several pre-existing conditions, among them HIV/AIDS, which has impacted the gay community. It’s why a lot of our DJs and dancers aren’t here anymore.”