“Nigga, I live down the street. I’m playing one more song.” Chicago-based rapper Smino yelled this to a crowd of nearly 50,000 concertgoers, gathered at Union Park in Chicago for the 13th annual Pitchfork Music Festival.
The crowd had chanted a demand for one more song; Smino obliged.
“This is one of the biggest crowds I’ve ever played,” Smino gushed, later joining Noname and Saba for a Chi-fecta.
This year, the three-day concert series featured performances from acts such as Chaka Khan, Raphael Saadiq, DRAM, Tame Impala, Syd, Tierra Whack, Saba, Kelela, Blood Orange, and more. But the the pièce de résistance of the event would be the highly-anticipated headling performance from Ms. Lauryn Hill, as part of a tour commemorating the 20th anniversary of her landmark solo debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.
Chicago native and multi-instrumentalist Nnamdi Ogbonnaya kicked off Sunday’s festivities. Midway through the day, as the sun started to peak during DRAM’s set, the Virginia crooner looked up to the sky, smiled, and said, “Look at God.”
During his solo set, Smino screamed a shoutout “to all my black people.” He then laughed, “white people, y’all can rock too,” before giving a warning of the night’s unwritten rule. “Listen to me, white people. Listen,” he said, suggesting they not recite one word.
Chicago emcee Noname coincidentally did the same, calling for “lazy white, privileged people” to catch themselves before slipping.
“The song is gonna be like ‘this is for my nigga in the summertime.’ Y’all, do not say that part,” she ordered.
A trend that has permeated in live-show spaces in recent memory is black artists reminding white people in the audience not to say “nigga” while they sing along to their lyrics.
These sets were an iteration of younger rappers controlling what they can in the space that they’re allotted.
Like the time when Aminé told white fans: “If you ain’t black, don’t say it,” when singing along to the lyrics from his hit song “Caroline.” Or when Kendrick Lamar interrupted a white fan for rapping the n-word while reciting the lyrics to “m.A.A.d city.” These artists seemed not to worry about who people think their intended audience is, but who their unintended audience becomes.
The phenomenon of these black artists ordering white people not to cross certain boundaries, as it pertains to the black spaces they step into, might just directly correlate with how whiteness infiltrates and encroaches black spaces. Literally.
Pitchfork Festival took place in The Loop, one of the fastest gentrifying neighborhoods in Chicago. It’s an area that parallels Williamsburg in Brooklyn, Austin in Texas, and Harlem in Manhattan: there’s a striking juxtaposition of poverty and wealth, black and white, depravity and excess.
Black Chicago natives hovered at the gates of the park peddling ice water and candy. An elderly man paced past the entrances and exits and asked, “Excuse me, you got an extra ticket for tomorrow? I’m tryna see Chaka?”
“It’s good to be home,” Chaka Khan said with warmth in her tone. She donned a black, bewitching, flowy ethereal outfit that prompted one woman to say “I always forget she kind of dressed like Stevie Nicks.“
Y’all don’t look like y’all remember any songs from the 70s,” Khan said, pointing out the young faces in the crowd. She chuckled, as a middle-aged man shouted in her direction, “I remember!”
Khan’s presence anchored her set, backed by a band of instrumentalists and background singers with vocals almost as powerful as how listeners remember hers to be. Before leading her band into playing her 1978 hit “I’m Every Woman,” she said “This is an empowerment song.”
Then, the lingering question of the night surfaced: Will Lauryn Hill show up?
“She did soundcheck this afternoon,” someone said with concern. “It’d be pretty brazy if she didn’t show up.”
Another person joked, “If the chakras don’t align, it’s not happening,” alluding to her past statement addressing the criticism of her lateness. In 2016, Ms. Hill posted a statement to Facebook reading, “I don’t show up late to shows because I don’t care. And I have nothing but Love and respect for my fans. The challenge is aligning my energy with the time, taking something that isn’t easily classified or contained, and trying to make it available for others.”
The last uttered, “Do we even deserve her time?”
A DJ warmed up the eager crowd with classic hip-hop cuts. A band of horns stepped to the stage at around 8:50pm and literal gasps resounded. Ms. Hill had to be next. And she was.
Ms. Hill entered the stage, starting with a vibrant rendition of “Lost Ones.”
Throughout her set, a montage of images were projected on the screen behind her— from clips of Nina Simone, to school children, to old Busta Rhymes music videos, to live footage stills of Ms. Hill in concert. During her rendition of “Forgive Them Father,” those screens projected the widey circulated images of police brutality cases that have plagued the nation’s most recent history— the moments after Oscar Grant’s shooting, Sandra Bland’s fatal traffic stop, and the murder of Walter Scott.
She bounced through reworked versions of her now-classic songs. During her live shows, she’s been known to break down and rebuild the songs from Miseducation. Whether her opting to perform reworked versions of her songs stems from the infamous lawsuit surrounding writing credits and publishing rights for the album remains unconfirmed. But given what the world can deduce about Lauryn Hill, it could likely be a choice.
It was a far cry from the reception of her recent live show in Toronto, where she showed up over an hour late and rushed through her setlist. In Chicago, she hit the stage around 20 minutes after her designated start time and ended her set promptly at 10:15 p.m. with the loved “Doo Wop (That Thing).”
Everything was on point. Ms. Hill delivered an otherwise seamless show from her end— she was present, composed, and in control.
Fans seemed to dismiss anything that may have caught their concerns earlier in the day. “It’s Sunday and it’s Lauryn Hill,” someone said. “That’s really all that matters.”
During her performance, she defined what she believes of her musical legacy, delivering what seemed like an impromptu but poised speech about the conception, reception, and purpose of Miseducation.
This album was about my life, it was about my experience. But it was also about sharing the love of music— of bridging a generational gap for an entire generation of people… I felt a responsibility to my family, to my peers, to my children, to my generation to warrior through the resistant and deliver a piece of art that said that we can do this based on principle and integrity that art and commerce can actually get along if we don’t sell ourselves to the commerce; if we focus on the art.
We have to remember that the people who came before us struggled to make music as authentic as they possibly could… They fought hard. And I grew up with that legacy. I grew up with that musical tradition in me and I felt a responsibility to soldier through the adversity to deliver to my generation a sound that said that we are part of a magnificent continuum. A legacy that can’t be bought, can’t be sold, can’t be compromised. And must, must continue on.
Check out photos of Ms. Lauryn Hill and more Pitchfork Fest performers below:
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