“Who’s Dave Chappelle?”
I overheard the question, asked by a teen to his friend — also a teen — while I was purchasing a beer at the Roots Picnic. I took the question as irony until I saw a genuine look of indifference on the kid’s face.
“I didn’t know who he was either,” the other teen replied, before talking about how she watched his infamous “The Niggar Family” sketch from Chappelle’s Show in anticipation of his headlining performance.
“It was pretty funny,” she said.
As I waited for the bartender to hand me my drink, I began to ask myself: How do these teens not know who Dave fucking Chappelle is? And why out of all the sketches to choose from this teen chose “The Niggar Family”? Not Charlie Murphy’s “True Hollywood Stories” of Prince or Rick James, or even “Frontline” with blind and black KKK member Clayton Bigsby. But “The Niggar Family.”
Inevitably, the teens’ indifference incited a personal, existential crisis — “Am I old?” I wondered.
“That’ll be $16.50,” the bartender said, the snapping of the beer’s cap bringing me back to reality.
Chappelle has had a storied career. His seminal sketch comedy series Chappelle’s Show turned 15 this year, a reminder of how timeless the show is as well as its undeniable influence on the sketch comedy shows that succeeded it. More recently, Chappelle has released several stand-up comedy specials through Netflix, two of which he received his first Grammy Award for.
Chappelle is a pop culture figure for a number of people. What he’s not, however, is a product of this hyper-connected generation — a time where technology — especially smartphones — have become so integral to our everyday habits. Chappelle has been overtly reclusive in this age. He has no social media presence; he enforces a no-phone policy during his live performances. He even had it enforced for his Roots Picnic set. This is a man who goes against the normalization of hyper-connectivity. Someone who, unlike other celebrities, doesn’t have their life consumed and viewed every second on social media.
As sobering as it was to have this revelation, there was also the beauty in realizing that this festival would introduce the comedian to a new generation of fans in a space they’re not used to. That they’d be able to watch Chappelle and The Roots without feeling the need to document it and enjoy the experience as is.
Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Severe weather cut the pair’s set short, with Black Thought only able to deliver a live rendition of his viral Hot 97 freestyle before the festival was bombarded by rain.
“Philly: this is a hazard. Of course, I can play in ANY situation but lives are on the line and it’s a hazard,” Questlove tweeted shortly after the set started. “If someone were to get electrocuted or worse — I can’t have that on my head man.”
Still, it’s fun to wonder what Chappelle would’ve talked about. Maybe Kanye West’s recently-released Ye album; Kevin Hart; the ending of Avengers: Infinity War; Childish Gambino’s “This Is America.” Maybe he would’ve covered a song alongside The Roots, too.
As I waited for an Uber I thought about those teens and others who wouldn’t get the chance to see Chappelle. I wondered if they’d Google him when they got home and spend the rest of their night watching some of his Chappelle’s Show sketches or one of his many stand-up specials throughout his career. Or maybe they’d remain indifferent, the elder statesman of comedy an afterthought having lost the opportunity to see him live.
See up-close-and-personal highlights featuring the stars of Roots Picnic 2018 below: