I grew up in a world of gospel artists steeped in the Southern tradition. My mother is a gospel guitarist who met my father, who was a drummer, at a gospel revival in our small Louisiana town. While my mother’s nimble fingers commanded her electric guitar and astounded the audience, her brothers electrified the air with their original quartet songs. My sisters, cousins and I rounded it all out by beating our tambourines as loud as we could.
Last weekend, Disneyland Resort’s Celebrate Gospel event transported me back to the drum-beating, organ-playing, tambourine-shaking, soulful singing of my youth. While my teen son and his friend stood in long lines for rides in the parks, I stayed on my feet inside Fantasyland Theater while enjoying the sounds of artists such as Spirit and Truth Ensemble of Riverside, KJLH Radio Free Voices (founded by Stevie Wonder) of Inglewood and Friendship Baptist Church Choir of Yorba Linda. These and other groups carried us on the waves of foot-stomping gospel classics and contemporary numbers. Kierra Sheard, a Stellar Award-winning singer, songwriter, fashion designer, actor and author, closed out the night.
This year, Disneyland expanded its one-day event featuring local Black gospel artists during Black History Month by introducing a larger — and longer — activation: Celebrate Soulfully, which invites guests to celebrate with experiences that pay tribute to Black heritage and culture through music, food, art and more. Celebrate Soulfully, which began during Black History Month, is one of the ways Disney Parks is reimagining tomorrow, its campaign to “amplify underrepresented voices and untold stories as well as champion the importance of accurate representation in media and entertainment.”
Princeton Parker, associate manager of content programming and synergy at Disneyland, has worked for the resort for six years and was a key player in expanding this year’s programming. When I chatted with him in between concerts, he was still brimming with excitement. “What I love about Celebrate Soulfully is that it is an invitation for all people to celebrate Black culture, Black heritage through incredible offerings of food, music and even events that happen here in the parks, and so you can think of Celebrate Soulfully really as this big cultural party that we’re allowing people to step into all month long,” he said.
While Celebrate Gospel has taken place for the last 10 years, “we’re always asking what else can we do to tell a larger story, because that’s who we are as a company, as a storytelling organization,” Parker said.
The Celebrate Soulfully story threads throughout Downtown Disney and the parks. Thirteen wall panels in front of Fantasyland Theater tell the history behind gospel music. At Downtown Disney, more wall panels highlight the stories of Black artists, including artists employed by Disney. Other elements include:
- A live chalk-art installation comes to life each week as Disney cast member and chalk muralist Marcella Swett reveals a new artistic creation near the Downtown Disney LIVE! stage. Swett, a senior production artisan with Disney Live Entertainment, is an award-winning visual artist and native Southern Californian.
- Art inspired by Disney and Pixar’s “Soul,” created by emerging Black artists Bee Harris, Bianca Pastel, Arrington Porter and Cory Van Lew, are on display near the Downtown Disney LIVE! stage.
- The new Post 21 cart brings a collection of modern merchandise from Black-owned businesses, curated by a Los Angeles-based mother and daughter duo. On Feb. 27, Post 21 will host a book signing with twins Channing and Chelsea Moreland, authors of “B is for Black Girl.”
- WonderGround Gallery is featuring artwork and collectibles inspired by the films “Soul,” “Princess and the Frog,” “The Lion King” and more. Artists Joey Chou and Fenway Fan will sign their newest “Soul” artwork from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Feb. 26.
- Pelé Soccer is debuting a new sweatshirt design featuring an iconic image of Pelé and a call to “empower the culture.”
- Lovepop honors Black History Month with special “We are Black History” and “Black is Beautiful” cards.
In addition to gospel, musical performances include jazz, reggae, Do-Wop, R&B and more. “There’s literally every genre of Black music you can imagine,” Parker said.
While filling your soul with music and art, you can fill your belly with soul food and Cajun cuisine as well as with wines, beer and spirits from Black-owned businesses at Hearthstone Lounge through February. Sip wines by the glass from the McBride Sisters Collection or the Brown Estate Napa Valley, enjoy craft beer from Crowns & Hops Brewing Co. or a cocktail made with Uncle Nearest 1884 Tennessee whiskey.
“I’m excited most of all for this event as a cast member because to me it’s an opportunity for me to see all the sides of myself and my identity come together in a way that is culturally authentic to who I am and to my experience, but also still celebrates the heritage of the Walt Disney company,” Parker said.
As a Black American who is also a storyteller, parent, music and food lover, I, too, felt seen. I’ve never had as much fun at Disney as I did during Celebrate Soulfully. At the end of the night, I reconnected with my son and his friend. They were beat from all the walking, standing and rides, I was still high from Sheard’s closing number.
While other activations to celebrate Black culture and history will occur throughout the year, park officials say, there’s one more weekend of Celebrate Soulfully. Scheduled performers for Feb. 26 include:
- Jonathan McReynolds, a contemporary Christian artist from Chicago, whose album “Make Room” debuted No. 1 on Billboard Gospel. McReynolds and Mali Music won a Grammy Award in 2021 for their song “Movin’ On.”
- Mali Music, a contemporary Gospel artist whose musical style layers uplifting lyrics over a versatile mix of gospel, R&B and hip-hop. His first mainstream album, “Mali Is…,” peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard R&B chart.
- The Singers of Soul, an acclaimed gospel choir. Los Angeles-based artists from this group will perform with inspiration from their common goal: to spread love, hope and joy through the power of music.
- Community groups include Amazing Grace Conservatory, Rhythm and Moves Children’s Youth Community Choir, Greater LA Cathedral Choir and LA Inner City Mass Choir.
Entertainment schedules and details are available on Disneyland.com.