San Diego City Council President Tony Young is walking between music stages at San Diego Praise Fest, a street festival started and partially funded by his office.
“Let's put it this way: Atheists are not the best gospel musicians,” he says. “If you're going to have good gospel music, clearly these individuals are going to be who they are, right?”
This year's fest was held on Saturday, Sept. 17, on a closed block of Federal Boulevard between Euclid Avenue and 48th Street. Young's remark, given in a brief moment between greeting people who approach him, is a response to CityBeat's question about whether gospel singers are artists or evangelists. He says it's deeper than the lyrics.
“The uniqueness about it is the style of expression, the rhythms, the sequence between the beat and the vocals,” Young says. “It's unique and authentic to America, and it's something we should encourage.”
But the event poses a problem for the state Constitution, which prohibits the government from giving preference or assistance to a particular religion. Young says there's “no question” that gospel music is inseparable from its Biblical message, but that's not what Praise Fest is about. Gospel music, to him, is a part of American cultural and musical history worth celebrating, and the event—attended by an estimated 8,000 people in its fourth year—provides a positive venue for introducing Young's predominantly African-American district to a variety of services and opportunities.
“The only issue that we're promoting here is healthy living,” he says, noting that the festival features booths covering topics from colon cancer to financial literacy. Yet, even as he makes that claim, a gospel choir wraps up a song with the repeated call-and-response chorus, “I want Jesus.” Then the emcee promotes an event at Grace Covenant Church.
Last year, when CityBeat brought Praise Fest to the attention of the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties, the group sent Young a letter, asking him to refrain from further sponsorships, noting the prominent crosses on the event's promotional materials. Young says that was outside of his control.
“I told them not to do it in the first place,” Young says. “I tried to explain to them, ‘Listen, you don't even want to give the impression of that to what we're doing…. By the time [the promoted materials] came out, it was a little disappointing, but that's right: We shouldn't have any crosses.”
To date, Young's office has steered $28,000 to Praise Fest, including $10,000 in 2011. The money comes from the transient-occupancy tax, a levy on hotel rooms; each council office receives $25,000 to spend at its discretion. This year, Praise Fest scrubbed most religious references from its website (sandiegopraisefest.com), including the cross from the logo.
Nevertheless, God was almost omnipresent at the festival. There were hundreds of T-shirts with congregational catchphrases and slogans like “Jesus is My Boss” and “Bikers for Jesus.” Young women passed out cards with “GOD is greater than… ANY problem I may have” printed on one side, with a bail bondsman's phone number on the other. At least eight ministries led musical worship on the “Church House” stage, one of three at the event. Young asked people not to proselytize but says it's not his place to police what's said on stage.
He explains that when he helped set up the event four years ago, the idea was to create a street festival similar to the Adams Avenue Roots Festival but with music unique to his district. Young, who admits he's not a huge fan of the genre, compares the appreciation of gospel music to viewing religious art from the Middle Ages at a museum or watching a Native American dance performance in Balboa Park. Not everyone agrees.
“Yes, gospel is an art form like any other,” ACLU Legal Director David Blair-Loy says. “Art with religious themes doesn't necessarily amount to religious praise and worship. Context is critical. If the San Diego Symphony performs Bach's B-Minor Mass in concert, it's art. If a church choir does it as part of a worship service, it's religious. The question is where Praise Fest falls on that continuum.”
Young's office sponsored the main stage, with his name and the official city seal on two large banners behind the performers, who were mostly church groups and recording artists with M.A.N.D.A.T.E. Records, a local Christian-music label. According to its website (mandaterecords.com), M.A.N.D.A.T.E.'s goal is “to produce positive and inspirational music that is dedicated to spreading the Word of God with results that win and reclaim souls to His kingdom.”
M.A.N.D.A.T.E. CEO and President Leonard J. Thompson III is a childhood friend of Young and the lead organizer of Praise Fest. He says the event is about praising the community, not the Lord.
“So far as our focus as a record label—yes, we do gospel music; we do inspirational music, but we also have a civic-mindedness.” Thompson says. “So, we want to be involved in events that actually do things in the community that focus around health, education mentorships.”
Thompson says his staff works the event for free. He's proud that more than 50 people agreed to HIV screening. He highlights that before children could go on the carnival rides, they had to visit a series of secular booths and get their ride vouchers signed.
“I found myself there thinking far more about the various booths that were available to people…. So, I don't know if I could see it or square it in my mind as proselytizing,” says Carlton Floyd, an English professor specializing in African-American culture at University of San Diego, who represented the Catholic university at a booth. “Yes, the music was gospel, but I don't find that necessarily, as a form, one connected with the church. It's also a form that is popular, if you will, and certainly a strong part of the black community.”
However, on the stage bearing Young's name, Christianity was front and center. M.A.N.D.A.T.E.'s newest artist, 10-year-old Robynne French, performed her single, “Redeemer.” Tickets to House of Blues were given out to audience members who could name the four Gospels of the New Testament or could identify which church always answers the phone a certain way.
“I support and defend [Young's] right to sponsor religious praise as an individual, but not in his official capacity,” Blair-Loy tells CityBeat via email. “When acting as an elected city official, he is bound by the California Constitution to give no aid, tangible or intangible, to any religious purpose. It doesn't matter that the Praise Fest website was scrubbed of religious references; what matters is what happens on the ground. He should not have used his official seal to promote religious praise.”
Jeffery Archer, president of the Atheist Coalition of San Diego, says he's fought the government over these types of activities for years.
“I think it's quite outrageous; I really do,” Archer says. “I really don't care if they take the cross off their stationary.”
And as for Young's claim that atheists can't sing gospel, Archer calls that “bigoted.”
“I gotta give gospel its credit for being the roots of rhythm 'n' blues, which came to rock 'n' roll and became secular,” says Archer, who plans to self-publish a book next year about his lifelong love of rock. “I have nothing against gospel music—if we're inside a church.”
Correction: Originally, Young's office indicated an amount approaching $30,000 was provided to Praise Fest. The San Diego Union-Tribune subsequently reported that the official number is $28,000. We have edited the figure accordingly.