Lakeside Pride’s Sweet Home Chicago “Yassifies” Concert Band Music

In early spring of 2020, another new term was popularized via social media – “yassification.” By the fall it had gone completely viral with countless memes, tweets, and TikToks. At first, yassification referred to applying makeup or beauty filters (most notably FaceTune) to a photo in order to give it an over-the-top glam look. Memes of historical figures, works of fine art, horror movie monsters, and more appeared #Yassified all over the internet. As all memes do over time, yassification morphed into an abstraction. Now absolutely anything can be yassified; or made into a more glamorous, charismatic, and alluring version of itself.

Lakeside Pride Music Ensembles (LPME) consists of several ensembles including a Symphonic Band, Marching Band, Jazz Orchestra, and newly created Pops Ensemble made up of Chicago’s LGBTQ+ musician community. Bookending the 40th annual Pride Bands Alliance conference on May 29 at Auditorium Theatre, LPME kicks off the beginning of 2022 Pride season and certainly yassifies the experience of seeing a concert band with their Sweet Home Chicago program. Led by conductors Kyle Rhoades, Manic Maxxie, Jon Noworyta, and Jadine Louie, over 250 musicians will perform an evening of works celebrating queer pride and identity, including world premieres of compositions by Evan Williams and Christen Taylor Holmes. What is especially unique about the program is that it will be hosted by RuPaul’s Drag Race superstars Denali Foxx and Angeria Paris VanMichaels, who will also give their own performance.

With a history dating back to 1979, LPME is recognized as Chicago’s premier organization for LGBTQ+ affiliated ensembles. In June 1997, in the aftermath of the tragic AIDS epidemic of the 80s, Jon Dallas organized a meeting for the (previously named) Chicago Black Lesbian and Gay Band, which no one attended. The organization slowly grew and began to establish itself across the city in the early 2000s. Fast-forwarding to 2008, the organization was renamed Lakeside Pride Music Ensembles under Kyle Rhoades, and was now home to over 100 musicians. Putting Sweet Home Chicago in context of this history shows a significant amount of organizational growth, social progress, and ever-expanding pride and acceptance of LGBTQ+ people in classical music, and in daily life.

Lakeside Pride Pops Ensemble conducted by Manic Maxxie--Photo by Daniel Eggert

Lakeside Pride Pops Ensemble conducted by Manic Maxxie–Photo by Daniel Eggert

Drag persona of Cleo Goldberg (they/them), Manic Maxxie, is the director of LPME’s newest Pops Ensemble. She conducts fiercely and confidently in drag, and takes initiative in “widening the breadth” of repertoire that the ensembles perform. Additionally, the Pops Ensemble is the largest ensemble of the organization based in Chicago’s South Side, and has allowed the opportunity for a more expansive membership.

“[Sweet Home Chicago] is a wonderful coming-together of LGBTQ+ music lovers from all over the world,” says Maxxie. “It will feature a wide variety of repertoire, four dynamic conductors, and two fabulous drag superstars that will keep us entertained throughout – both with their charming chatter and perhaps a twirl or two. I’m certain that the wonderful feeling of community from sharing music with our queer family will be palpable in our performance.”

Lakeside Pride’s long-standing commitment to celebrating and organizing around LGBTQ+ artistry comes before the 2020 Uprising, where many ensembles and organizations pivoted, shifted, and scrambled to reflect a more diverse, anti-oppressive stance on programming. An unfortunate outcome for many queer artists in the past few years has been the issue of virtue signaling and “performative activism” that is either exploitative, inauthentic, or unsustainable.

Evan Williams--Photo by Eric Snoza

Evan Williams–Photo by Eric Snoza

For composer Christen Taylor Holmes, there is a bittersweetness to programming by identity-markers. “My queerness definitely does play a roll in my creative work, but there are other identities that interact with my queerness and compositions, as well,” they say. “I identify as a Black, Genderqueer, Disabled Lesbian. While these identities are very important to me separately, there’s a lot of overlap between them that is difficult to separate. For example, there’s a big difference between being a lesbian and a Black lesbian. There’s a difference between being transgender and being Black and trans. I am also aware of the discourse related to ‘identifiers’ in music. It is common for some to acknowledge underrepresented composers as ‘women composers’ or ‘Black composers,’ but we don’t call Mozart or  Beethoven ‘white male composers.’ That conversation is a bit more complex and nuanced. But I take much pride in being an openly Black and queer composer. The music industry deserves to be more diverse, young, and colorful.”

While artists are not required or restricted to writing about issues surrounding their identities, both Evan Williams and Christen Taylor Holmes reflect on their connections to queerness in the works being premiered on this program. “This is actually only my second work to engage with queer identity,” notes Williams. “love words is based on the poem ‘Romance’ by Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay. The work is at times loving and gentle, sometimes regretful and lamenting, and at other times upbeat and exciting, reflecting the many moods of McKay’s poem. The piece, like the poem, embraces the messy side of romantic relationships, including sexual desire and impermanence.”

Holmes’ piece Griffin is rooted in Chicago’s history, focusing on the Chicago-born transgender activist Miss Major Griffin-Gracy. “I already knew that I wanted the piece to be celebratory and dedicated to the trans community, specifically Black transgender women. I thought it was very tragic that I had never heard of her before. So I was very intrigued and inspired by her bravery and impact on the queer community. I knew I wanted the themes to be powerful, brave, and triumphant. Griffins are known to symbolize strength, courage, and leadership. Alongside triumph, there are also moments of sorrow. One important aspect of this piece is the constant duality between ‘light’ and ‘dark.’ I wanted to represent what queer/LGBTQ+ identity means to me and how it should be reflected. While we still have troubles, we should always remain proud.”

Christen Taylor Holmes--Photo by Jeannie Holmes

Christen Taylor Holmes–Photo by Jeannie Holmes

It is exciting to think about how Denali Foxx and Angeria Paris VanMichaels will engage with the music being performed, and how their performance fits in. Lip-syncing is a staple mode of performance in drag culture, however Denali is also a professional choreographer and ice skater, and Angeria is known for being an all-around pageant queen and great singer. And both of them are hilarious. Maxxie notes that “drag is something that brings so much joy and spirit to the LGBTQ+ community. To have two of the most famous and fabulous drag divas in the world hosting our concert is not only an honor, but so very meaningful! They will not only share important information about the music throughout the program, but they will charm us with their intelligence, wit, and talent.”

While there have been a few instances of drag queens and classical music performances coming together, there is definitely not enough of this type of meaningful collaboration. Countless drag superstars have graced the infamous RuPaul’s Drag Race “Werkroom” and went on to achieve widespread success, including violinist Thorgy Thor who performed at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall (in drag of course!). And in 2021, composer Angélica Negrón released The Island We Made, a 10-minute lip-sync opera with Opera Philadelphia and Drag Race Season Nine winner Sasha Velour. These collaborations push the boundaries and illuminate the adaptability of both drag and classical music performance. The art of drag mirrors opera in its character-building, staging, and level of preparedness; and contemporary classical music continues to grow out in all directions, away from what has been considered “traditional.” Holmes exclaims, “Drag is definitely a practice that does not overlap with concert band music very often, so I think it’s wonderful — more music should be queer-ified!”

RuPaul’s Drag Race is one of the highest rated reality television shows in the world, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg in terms of drag culture and talent. There are boundless opportunities and possibilities for classical music and drag to come together to generate truly reinvigorating experiences; and Sweet Home Chicago is pioneering a new and yassified path for this interaction.


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