The air was thick with anticipation as artists and music lovers gathered at the Los Angeles State Historic Park for Smokin Grooves 2022. It felt like a much needed family reunion, as folks came fitted and ready to be seen, eager to spark something and get a taste of live music’s medicine.
With two stages boasting competing lineups — the Smokin Grooves Stage and the Jupiter Stage — and festival attendees took different approaches. The Jupiter Stage featured an eclectic mix of hometown heroes like Blu & Exile to the legendary vibraphonist and genre-defying vocalist Roy Ayers. And while both stages faced significant sound and production problems throughout the day, Saturday’s special blend of moody skies, trees and soulful selections by way of Soulection’s Joe Kay kept the vibes high. Fans were blessed with classic cuts and new music exclusives from artists like Oakland R&B royalty Goapele to your favorite rapper’s favorite electronic band, Little Dragon.
As I made my way to the Smokin Grooves Stage after spilling out all my guts to Bilal singing an electrifying rendition of “Sometimes,” I spotted OG Dr. Chill, father of Jhené Aiko, suited and booted, giving out hugs freely and embodying the spirit of divine love. In that moment, it struck me that these small moments of spontaneous connection and fellowship are what we’ve all been missing. Live music has always created a necessary context for people to come together and unite through its spellbinding power. And even in the tedious moments of long bathroom and food lines, I observed people make new friends (even if it was bonding over shared complaints), reunite with old ones and find the silver lining in the inevitable messy swirl of festival life. During his performance, R&B powerhouse Miguel reflected back, “attention is the ultimate currency these days” and he’s right. It’s an increasingly rare experience to have that many people’s attention coordinated in one direction.
As “D’Evils” boomed from the speakers, Inglewood’s SiR suddenly stopped singing to request a medic for concert goers who had presumably passed out in GA. In the wake of last year’s Houston Astroworld tragedy, it was reassuring to see artists apply lessons in real time, prioritizing the safety of everyone over entertainment. Later in the night, Jhené followed suit, checking in with fans multiple times and eventually leading all of us through a collective breath and ending her set with a tender plea for eight hours of sleep.
In the evening, Nas lit up the main stage with nostalgic hits like “Made You Look” and “One Mic”. In the middle of his performance, nature conspired with him as the sky opened up and rain began to pour down on us.
The king of breath control and master of ceremony, Black Thought proved why he is one of the greatest MCs of all time. The Roots showed out with a massive display of talent from “Captain” Kirk Douglas shredding on guitar to Questlove killing on the drums.
The unanimously agreed upon mishap of the night was Erykah Badu’s headlining slot being cut short due to a strict city sound ordinance that took effect at 11 PM sharp. To make matters worse, the sound and tech problems during her brief 30 minute set compromised the integrity of her otherworldly talented backup singers (including my personal favorite crooner, Durand Bernarr). Yesterday, Badu took to Instagram to clear the air and say her piece:
“Questlove always told me the headliner spot at a huge 1 day concert festival is the worst slot. Because when curfew comes & you aren’t even 1/2 way thru the set, they will cut the mike. When things run behind that night, the headliner has to take the weight. But still, I give my all. Love you guys. Grateful.”
The graciousness and gratitude expressed in Ms. Badu’s caption embodies her beautiful spirit as an artist. At the end of her set, as all of us mustered just enough energy to slog back to the Metro or catch a ride share, it started to rain again — and this time, even harder. It felt less like a cleansing and more like a perfectly timed joke. Though in a strange way, the weather had been mirroring our collective mood swings all day. I couldn’t help but see the sweetness in the chaos: we were huddled together commiserating over bad sound and trading theories on why while scarfing down bomb bacon wrapped hot dogs. Maybe it’s not exactly the fantasy of a perfectly curated Instagram flick but it’s the poetry of an authentic moment in time.
Isa Nakazawa is an Oakland-based writer, organizer, educator, and radio host. No matter the medium, Isa leads with her curiosity, attention, and fundamental belief in the interconnected nature of the liberation of all people. Shake the syntax, shake the world.
Ashleigh Reddy is a photographer and content creator.
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