How appropriate that the story behind Kingdom Bound is one of perseverance.
Kingdom Bound, which celebrates its 26th year at Darien Lake Performing Arts Center from Sunday through Wednesday, is a one-of-a-kind music event in Western New York. It's also one of the biggest Christian music festivals in the country, featuring about 80 music acts and guest speakers this year (see sidebar for more information about the lineup).
If the idea of a Christian music festival makes you scoff, the numbers speak for themselves. Kingdom Bound regularly draws between 40,000 and 50,000 visitors over its four days, even when the attendance took a hit during the recession. That means, in terms of popularity and endurance, Kingdom Bound is a unique success compared to any similarly sized music festival, religious or otherwise.
That's quite an accomplishment for a festival that, when it began, could have almost been considered blasphemous.
Kingdom Bound was started in 1987 by the late Fred Caserta, a music promoter, and Mike Caputy, a local musician and minister. At the time, "there was a void in the [Buffalo] area regarding Christian music," said Rick Cua, the president of Kingdom Bound. Cua, who now lives in Nashville, Tenn., and returns here for each year's festival, was a musician in Buffalo when Kingdom Bound started, and he participated in the emergence of the local Christian rock scene. He and fellow Christian rock artists "had a compelling feeling, as Christians, to spread the Gospel through music," he said.
It was a feeling that churches, at first, were not so compelled to share.
Music has been an eternally integral part of Christianity, through hymns, choirs and traditional gospel music. Rock music, though, didn't quite fit in with that mix. Nor did the culture that was associated with it.
"The old [church] crowd was legitimately afraid of it," said Brett Larson, general manager of the Christian music station 99.4 WDCX. "The music was well-intentioned, but people were scared of associating with that hard-rock culture, the sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll in the '80s."
As a musician, Cua experienced that opposition firsthand.
"You would bring a rock band into a church and they would be picketed," he said. "I couldn't play in a church years ago. The radio wouldn't play you. People thought the music was too loud, that you were bringing the devil in."
The first year of Kingdom Bound was a modest success, drawing about 6,000 visitors, though it was hindered by a few bits of bad luck. Back then, it was a three-day festival held over a weekend in October. To the surprise of few Buffalonians, it snowed during most of the festival. Even less surprising, the performances held on Sunday morning weren't very popular.
"It wasn't an ideal festival time," said Larson, who attended the first festival when he was in middle school.
So what changed? As the festival continued, Christian rock became too popular for mainstream Christian culture to ignore, or to outright dismiss.
"People would rise up and say, you shouldn't listen to X, Y, Z," said Donna Russo, Kingdom Bound's executive director. "But they didn't check out what X, Y, Z were first."
As Christian rock's popularity grew in Buffalo, the pure intentions of its artists overcame the stereotypes attached to the genre.
"When people got to know our music, when we would put the instruments down and start talking about Jesus, when they saw what was in our hearts, they saw that we were no different," Cua said. "The only difference was the medium."
Plus, he added, the kids liked it.
"Little by little, people realized: If we're going to reach the next generation, then we better wake up and embrace this," he said.
With that issue long settled, Russo said that Christian hip-hop is the latest genre struggling for acceptance.
"There's still resistance to hip-hop," she said. "It has not come full circle yet."
In that regard, Kingdom Bound is ahead of the curve, as it was when it gave a venue to artists who were being protested in churches. Kingdom Bound started incorporating hip-hop artists in the mid-'90s, and now, they have staked out their own place in the festival. This year, there is a stage devoted entirely to Christian rappers, including Dre, Tre-Z, Mahogany and Slave. For the generation following the one that first embraced Christian rock, "hip-hop has done a great job with opening a lot of doors," Russo said.
At this point, Cua said, the biggest resistance to Kingdom Bound, which is now a summer staple, comes only from people who wouldn't attend it in the first place. For them, Christian music still "has a stigma as something with organs and choir rows. Some people, when they hear about Christian music, they're not interested. Not in a nasty way, but just because they don't know what it is."
The festival is open to anyone who wants to attend -- "We don't want to be jerks and shove faith down peoples' throats," Cua said -- but the target audience is clear, and Russo said they "make no pretenses" about it.
"We believe in Jesus Christ and we want to present the gospel of Jesus Christ to the people. But we're not there to preach politics," Russo adds.
With that core audience, Kingdom Bound's popularity is likely to remain stable. But Russo said that the festival's success has another thing going for it: She believes that it is destined.
"The festival really belongs to God," she said. "It's His idea, we're just the facilitators who make it happen. If you look at the economy today, this is a luxury, not a necessity. I look at the longevity [of the festival], and I believe God has kept this going. I believe that if we are obedient and do what we're supposed to do, it will keep going."
WHEN: Sunday through Wednesday
WHERE: Darien Lake Performing Arts Center
TICKETS: $54 single day, $130 four-day pass