A South Side gospel singer takes the hometown stage

Gospel singer Aaron Sledge will not have far to go when he takes the stage at the 24th annual Chicago Gospel Music Festival.

Sledge, a 30-something writer, producer and singer who does not provide his exact age, grew up in Washington Heights and still makes his home on the city's South Side.

Singer Aaron Sledge in his South Side studio. / Photo by Tom Perkins

His musical journey, on the other hand, has taken him a long way, from his beginnings as a shy church drummer to a stint singing backup in Los Angeles, to a debut album, "Da Light," released in March.

“I knew that I could always sing and had the talent and ability to sing, but I was just shy," Sledge says of his early years playing in the choir at Prayer Band General Assembly Church on East 69th Street.

"It’s easy to hide behind some drum sticks and some cymbals," Sledge recalls. "It’s another thing to stand out, in front of, you know, hundreds and thousands of people and sing and try to convey a message.”

He has since conquered his shyness, and says he tapped into his drumming roots for some programming and keyboarding on the album.

Sledge, who sat down for an interview in his South Side recording studio, says his entry into recorded music began on a visit to see his two brothers; musicians, writers and producers in Los Angeles who perform under the names "B.J.-The Chicago Kid" and "Scooter."

In the music business, Sledge says, it’s about who you know “as in everything.” He was asked to sing background for some well-known artists.

“My first major event in the industry was The Jay Leno Show," Sledge remembers of the 2005 milestone.  "I sang with Nelly, Murphy Lee, and Jazzy Pha.  The next major thing I did after that was [performing with] Christina Aguilera.”

Today, Sledge says he's been approached about several profitable deals to record R&B, but says his heart isn't in it.

“I would like to do something that my heart is in; that my soul is in.  It renders a much better product," he says.

He describes his music as "urban inspirational." This seems appropriate, since he grew up in a rough South Side neighborhood. A track titled "Paradise" references the El's Red Line.

“When the street hears gospel, they think of a more traditional, more churchy type of situation," Sledge says. "I’m the total opposite. My definition of urban inspiration means my sound, my look; everything about what I do is urban.  The Bible talks about how God went out and compelled them to come.  It wasn’t a forceful situation. You had options. He inspired you to come.”

Sledge says fellow Chicago singer Donnie Hathaway is one of his influences.  “When he opened his mouth and sang, it was like your soul connected to his soul. It was like he was able to pull something out of you that you maybe didn’t even know existed.  He was able to take you on a journey in his music.“

Sledge says his goal is to inspire his listeners to seek God and live better lives by sharing relevant experiences over polished harmonies and slick music.

“This is how you know your music is powerful: when you’ve got kids listening to your music and can sing you back your lyrics, and love what you do - not just sing it because that’s what they hear all the time, but because that’s what they are attracted to..." Sledge says.

The album was recorded in six months with basic equipment and a Mac computer. Sledge says his favorite song on the album is  the track “Closer” which he says was written about his desire to be closer to God.

“I’m saying the same thing that, you know Mahalia Jackson may have said, the same things that Albertina Walker said," Sledge says. "The only thing that’s different is my whole approach, my whole “swag,” my whole style is one that’s a universal style, sound: the lyrical content, the vocal arrangement.  That’s why I believe that it’s attracting the people that it’s attracting.”

Sledge’s Chicago Gospel Music Festival debut is scheduled for 7:20 p.m. Friday, (May 30) on the Jay Pritzker Stage at Millennium Park.

The festival - which includes performances by The Rance Allen Group, The Clark Sisters, Darius Brooks and Apostolic Church of God's Children's Choir, among others - begins at 6 p.m. Friday and runs through Sunday.