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Love within the masses

Posted: June 26th, 2015 | Features, Top Story | No Comments

By Morgan M. Hurley | Editor

Local couple work to make everyone’s lives count

Local powerhouse duo Danielle LoPresti and Alicia Champion — co-producers of the popular IndieFest — were both musicians and activists long before first crossing paths in 2003, but their bond became an explosion of creative artistry and progress.

Born in Bellflower, California, but raised in San Diego, LoPresti said she made a soul connection with music very early on.

“As a child, I never knew a quiet house,” she said. “My mom constantly filled the house with sounds of Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight … whether she was busy, relaxing, joyful, grieving … she had music for every feeling and played it loud and constantly. I fell in love with music from the inside out.”

Champion, a native of Singapore whose parents were both skilled musicians, moved to the San Francisco Bay area at the age of 9 and was already writing her own songs. She quickly became adept at recording and engineering the music and before enrolling in Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, had released her first album.

(l to r) Alicia Champion, Lucian and Danielle Lo Presti hanging out in the same City Heights park where the couple recently produced IndieFest 2015. (Photo by Morgan M. Hurley)

(l to r) Alicia Champion, Lucian and Danielle Lo Presti hanging out in the same City Heights park where the couple recently produced IndieFest 2015. (Photo by Morgan M. Hurley)

Four years later the couple met, appropriately, at San Diego Dyke March in 2003, where they were both set to perform, fronting their own bands.

“I was sound checking … when her band started loading in,” Champion said. “She introduced herself to me after sound check and I completely lost my breath upon laying eyes on her.

“We switched emails and started working together musically and becoming friends,” she continued. “I started courting her almost immediately. She took some time though. Eight months later she finally came around.”

The couple forged a relationship and merged their musical lives, with Champion soon joining her partner’s band, Danielle LoPresti and The Masses.

The couple then moved on to create an annual performance space for “so much more than music,” as LoPresti has been quoted, and the women have since worked to establish a family both within the festival and together at home.

“IndieFest was created to be a feast,” LoPresti said. “A little over a decade ago, we built a table, and have brought magnificent things to it that we’re passionate about and want to share, and we invite others to do the same.

“The result has been a celebration of indie music, art, film, food, ideas … a day when non-corporate-backed artists, businesses and visionaries gather together so more people can discover and hopefully support them — at the very least, be inspired by them,” she continued. “Every year is like a family reunion. These people work really hard and give so much of their talent to make the event run as well as it does.”

Launched in 2004 at The Abbey in Bankers Hill, San Diego Indie Music Fest outgrew the space after the next year and in 2007, it landed on the streets surrounding the Birch North Park Theatre, where it stayed for the next four years. By 2010, the newly renamed San Diego IndieFest had grown so big so fast that they had to turn away 1,000 people at the door.

“That was painful,” LoPresti said.

A move to Liberty Station in 2011 offered the space they needed for expansion, but the trade-offs were a concern.

“The venue was beautiful — and huge — but we lost some of the culture and diversity that we cultivated all those years prior,” LoPresti said.

It was around this time that their lives were also about to change quite drastically.

“[Our son] Lucian was born on Pride weekend 2011 and it was magical,” Champion said. “We opened for Margaret Cho on the main stage that evening and then immediately drove to the hospital to pick him up as soon as we got off stage.

“All the joy and celebration that we feel at Pride-time was amplified one-thousand-fold by the birth of our son,” she continued. “It made the feeling of Pride even more extraordinary than it already was.”

The couple had spent the last seven years on a worldwide search for a child to call their own. Champion called it a time “filled with disappointments, scams, discrimination and bureaucracy.”

The endless search had left them emotionally spent.

“After every attempt fell through, Danielle would tell me that she could feel her heart breaking — that she could literally feel the weight of that sadness cracking open inside her,” Champion said.

A year after Lucian came into their life, LoPresti, who had been breastfeeding the newborn, began suffering from exhaustion and a very aggressive cough. They chalked it up to the trials of motherhood and doubled up on LoPresti’s natural resources, but did seek out the advice of two different doctors, both who simply gave her antibiotics and told her to “wait and see.”

It wasn’t until a trip to her acupuncturist, who pressured LoPresti to go to Urgent Care and “not leave until they take a picture of your lungs,” that the couple got answers. The diagnosis was a “wildly aggressive” form of lymphoma. The CT found tumors all over LoPresti’s torso, the largest one lodged between her heart and breastbone.

“When we saw the image of that 12 cm wide tumor sitting on top of her heart, in the shape of her heart, we both thought, ‘Oh my god, that’s where all that grief went,’” Champion said.

“I think so many of us are hesitant to listen to our instincts, or hesitant to be a squeaky wheel when it comes to our health … I’m so immeasurably grateful that we kept asking, kept up our search to figure it out before it was too late; as it was, by the time we found out it was cancer, I was dangerously close to that too-late mark.”

The growth of IndieFest brought other issues to the table; ironically the reason the festival was created — to focus on the music and indie label musicians — was now flipping on its side as the big festival producers had suddenly come calling. They wanted Champion and LoPresti to “go big” and move their festival to the summer. With LoPresti’s cancer battle and motherhood as their priorities that year, Champion said they gave in.

“By the end of IndieFest 8, we walked away having learned a very powerful, albeit painful, lesson,” she said. “We knew how to produce our event in our city. We had been growing slowly, but wisely, and summer was definitely not the time for an event like ours.”

Champion and LoPresti took 2014 off to recharge and regroup, and were legally wed on their 10th anniversary in May of that year. Life had morphed into producing the festival, working as full-time musicians, balancing health concerns and motherhood, and the couple realized they had to make the festival sustainable if they were to continue.

They decided to get back to their roots; and IndieFest 2015, their ninth event, was not only “scaled way down,” they brought it to City Heights, the neighborhood where they are raising Lucian.

(left) Cameron Wright, Danielle LoPresti and (right) Alicia Champion perform during a #BlackLivesMatter tribute mash-up at IndieFest No. 9 in March. (Photos by Cali Greibel)

(left) Cameron Wright, Danielle LoPresti and (right) Alicia Champion perform during a #BlackLivesMatter tribute mash-up at IndieFest No. 9 in March. (Photos by Cali Greibel)

“Toni Atkins was very outspoken in her praise of IndieFest as a key player in the revitalization of North Park,” Champion said. “So we thought, ‘If we could do it there, we can do it even better here — in our own neighborhood.’”

They reached out to the City Heights Community Development Corporation (CHCDC); the response was positive and the decision was made. The festival would be held in the center of the new City Heights Urban Village.

It ended up being exactly the right place at the right time.

“The recent rash of profiling and deaths of unarmed African American men had our bellies in knots,” LoPresti said. “Racism, homophobia, sexism … injustice of all kinds has been something we’ve fought [through music] at every IndieFest; but now that we are raising our own beautiful, black son, there is a whole new level of urgency to our advocacy.”

Champion had been working on a mash-up of a song LoPresti wrote about racism in 1996, “Call Me Sister,” with Michael Jackson’s “They Don’t Care About Us,” and she said the move and the nation’s climate pushed her to finish the piece, which became a #BlackLivesMatter tribute.

Danielle LoPresti and The Masses performed the mash-up at the end of the festival — with LoPresti singing her words and musical guest Cameron Wright singing Jackson’s — from the main stage at Officer Jeremy Henwood Memorial Park on 44th Street, which faces the Mid City Police Station.

A video of the performance is now on YouTube and Champion said it’s their first YouTube video with “zero dislikes.”

Today, with IndieFest No. 9 now behind them and their tenth anniversary scheduled for March 25, 2016, the parents of 4-year-old Lucian have hope; not only for the rights of our community, but his future as well.

“You know as activists dedicated to social justice, it always seems that progress never comes fast enough,” Champion said. “However, it’s pretty incredible to see how quickly marriage equality has swept the nation since Proposition 8 became a national story.  I’m extremely optimistic that SCOTUS will strike down discrimination over this subject once and for all.”

For LoPresti, who has made racism a core issue of her activism, the tools of social media have enhanced the movement and she sees change ahead.

“We are raising a black man in America, and there’s not a minute we forget the intensity of this blessing and responsibility,” LoPresti added. “Both Alicia and I are working to do make things better — and we are taking this very seriously.

“[Today] we have the technology to see the abuse — in a way we never could before and it’s sickening,” she continued. “We now have more inspiration and more tools than ever before to fight it. This gives me hope.”

Watch Champion’s #BlackLivesMatter mash-up here:

—Morgan M. Hurley can be reached at morgan@sdcnn.com.

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