Photo Credit: TN
Chicago Pays Tribute To The Bud Billiken Parade
Chicago’s Art on theMART is the world’s largest digital art projection on the iconic MART building. This summer, it is screening a new film celebrating the Bud Billiken Parade. The film came to be after theMart opened a call for dance film submissions. Dance team leader Shkunna Stewart and Wills Glasspiegel responded with a proposal for Billiken. Billiken is a film about the largest African-American parade in the United States that takes place every year in Chicago.
To create the film, Stewart and Glasspiegel came together to co-direct this large-scale work. The film is composed of video footage and animated imagery celebrating the talented youth dance groups and marching bands that participate and compete in the annual event. Billiken is Glasspiegel’s second film to project on the 2.5-acre building. His previous film in 2021, Footnotes, won Time Out Chicago’s Best in The City Award for the category of public artwork. The film would not be made possible without the support of the Chicago Defender Charities, who also produced the film.
History of The Bud Billiken Parade
The Bud Billiken Parade is more than a procession of bands and floats marching down King Drive. Every summer since 1929, “The Bud” has united African-Americans throughout the city of Chicago in music, dance, food, and laughter. It’s one of the only spaces where Black people can openly and emphatically praise the historic roots of the South Side of Chicago. What is Bud Billiken? “Bud” a junior pen-name for a column in the Chicago Defender, and “Billiken” is a Chinese mythical character that represents a protector over children. Billikens bring happiness and joy throughout the land. It used to be a popular children’s doll back in the 1920’s and 30’s. This year, the parade is celebrating it’s 93rd birthday.
The parade was spearheaded by the Chicago Defender newspaper in 1929, and generations of south-side Chicagoans have participated in the event since. Myiti Sengstacke-Rice, the President and CEO of the Chicago Defender shares with Travel Noire that “The parade is a culmination of all the hard work of our community organization, the kids, the dance, drill and performance teams. It’s not just about one day. The work that goes into it is 365.” A big tradition at the Bud is barbequing. Everybody brings their grill. It’s one big family reunion, five generations of families have been attending this parade.
Shkunna Stewart, co-director of Billiken, comes from a lineage of dance leaders making her the fourth generation of Stewarts to win first place on several occasions with her dance group. Stewart recalls the traditions of preparing custom uniforms and themes, practicing with the kids, and preparing for the big day in general. Stewart shares “the last night before the parade is exciting, anxiety-inducing, and nerve-racking!” Stewart leads the dance group “Bringing Out Talent,” which was featured in the projection among over 100 local dancers. “Our new work for Art on theMART channels the long history of Chicago’s Bud Billiken Parade,” said Wills Glasspiegel. “Our work celebrates and extends the parade’s history from the south side to theMART downtown, inviting youth dancers and dance companies to shine at a scale that befits their brilliance.”
Chicago’s One Of A Kind Initiative
The Year of Chicago Dance is the first of its kind in the U.S celebrating the dance history of a city. The initiative is a citywide, year-long that has prompted Chicago to address critical social issues faced by dancers in the dance industry including funding, space, and capacity building — and to consider the sustainability of this work. The initiative features dance performances, social dancing, and special events for the public in dozens of venues throughout the city year-round. To join the conversation Chicagoans and visitors can use the hashtag #YearofChicagoDance.
About “Billiken" The Film
On view, through September 7 the Black youth dance groups, that prep for the annual Bud Billiken parade, take center stage in the projection. For the film, Glasspiegel and Stewart worked closely with animators, videographers, and local community groups. Glasspiegal shares that “partnership with Art on theMART is what makes this film possible as they were the ones that held a contest last year to see who would be able to make a dance film for their building.”
The music and dance history of the Bud Billiken Parade is what make the film come to life, especially two key sounds of the parade: marching bands and house music. Glasspiegel shares, “We wanted to celebrate and honor Black youth dance groups that have roots in the history of house music at the Bud Billiken Parade.” Additional collaborators for Billiken include DJ RP Boo, a legendary trailblazer in Chicago’s house music and footwork dance scenes. RP Boo was among the first DJs to spin live at Bud Billiken in the ‘90s, helping craft a musical tradition that continues at the parade today. RP Boo has assembled a house music soundtrack to accompany Billiken, punctuated with samples from Rich Township Marching Machine, a youth marching band from Rich Township High School in the south suburbs. Also involved in the project is Brandon K. Calhoun, reprising his role as an animator after his and Glasspiegel’s Art on theMART smash hit Footnotes.
The history of the Bud Billiken Parade and its dedication to Black youth is something that hasn’t really been told outside of Chicago. Sengstacke-Rice shared that the parade was “started by the Chicago Defender newspaper and Robert Sengstacke Abbottt. He had the kids sell the newspaper, rain, sleet, or snow. He wanted to do something for them, to prepare them for going back to school and also to showcase their talents. They formed the Chicago Defender Newsboys Band which included Nat King Cole and Lionel Hampton. This is part of the tradition behind the parade.”
When asked about the project Stewart spoke about the importance of the film and the impact she’s seen dance have on her young dancers. “Most people don’t understand the work that we do as dance presidents, CEOs, and organizers. We save lives through dance,” said Shkunna Stewart. “We give youth a place to be themselves, to build confidence and joy. Billiken shows that. It gives our kids something different and positive to focus on. Many of these dancers featured in Billiken have never been to the Riverwalk. They don’t know how beautiful our city is. This project is building bridges and broadening perspectives on all sides.”
How To Watch
The projection will be best viewed on The Chicago Riverwalk between Wells and Lake St. For more information on how to get to theMart, parking, and accommodations nearby you can visit theMart’s website.