Photo: Nate Hertweck/The Recording Academy
Photo: Nate Hertweck/The Recording Academy
Photo: Roots Picnic Facebook
In a music world saturated with festivals, full of massive multi-day, multi-genre experiences, Philadelphia's Roots Picnic just feels different. Perhaps it's the local-heavy lineup, the laidback atmosphere, or the soulful spirit of the city, but more than anything, it's the music.
"There's no egos, everybody really just comes to have a good time, that's what's perfect about the Roots Picnic," says producer/engineer and Philadelphia Chapter board member Dilemma. "You get exposed to new music, new artists and you come to be entertained."
While the gravity of its hosts, GRAMMY-winning Philly band The Roots, and their many musical collaborations and connections may be what attracts the masses to the festival (you never know who will take the stage,) most of the day's music rings out with vibrant discovery of new sounds coming from each of the Picnic's three stages. From burgeoning local rappers on the Cricket Stage, to breakout experimental artists like Tank & The Bangas on the Mann stage, to upcoming queens like Asiahn and Ari Lennox holding court on the Fairmount Park stage, the festival boldy faces forward, embracing its historical ties to the black community.
"This is my first time at Roots Picnic. It's been a beautiful experience, nice and black and soulful," said Lennox. "I love Philly, so it's a dream—I've been hearing about it for years, so I'm glad I can finally be here and sing!"
Since 2008, Roots Picnic has brought together Philly's staggeringly talented music community to host artists from across the nation for what basically is one big party.
"To me it's like a big family reunion," said rapper and official Philadelphia music ambassador Chill Moody after performing with his new project &More. "There's people you may only see at the Roots Picnic every year, but when you see them, it's like you've been hanging with them every day. it's just love and everybody's having a good time… It's bigger than the stage, it's just the camaraderie. It's just family."
Where many festivals find themselves too corporately lucrative to stay focused on a family atmosphere, Roots Picnic has managed to keep this in perspective. This energy is perhaps best exemplified by the unique Live Mixtape, presented once again this year by J.Period and The Roots' Black Thought featuring a string of guest appearances honoring and celebrating hip-hop, including an iconic mini-set with the great Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def.) All afternoon, the Mann stage at Roots Picnic feels like a backyard family party, excpet the bass thumping isn't shaking a house, it's shaking the walls of the dressing rooms below.
A Philly music mainstay in her own right, Donn T spoke concisely as to why the event feels familial: the mutual support.
"[It's] artists supporting artists, as well as the public supporting us," Donn T said, adding, "It's history, It's an institution."
The Roots have been able to create an atmosphere that doesn't just show love to local artists, but different kinds of artists from all over.
"Everybody's here. The DJs are here, the artists are here, the producers are here, the fans are here, and there's great energy when other top artists come to Philadelphia," said Dilemma. "When everybody's under the same Picnic roof there's a great energy, it's always a good time. The Roots always know how to show Philadelphia and on a great scale."
But like any party, there's nothing like showing love to the hosts and this year Roots Picnic main event celebrated none other than the band's 20th anniversary of their classic fourth studio album, Things Fall Apart, with a whole performance of the album that included a surprise appearance by Common. The album, released in 1999, is in many ways The Roots' breakthrough and a major part of their journey towards becoming household names with critically acclaimed, GRAMMY-winning albums and a high-profile gig as the house band for "The Tonight Show."
"The lyrics and the songs still relate to today," said Dilemma. "Seeing how well it was put together… the production, and just seeing how young they were when they created it—it's Philadelphia's Illmatic," he says referencing rapper Nas' renowned debut. Donn T, hesitant to even begin to articulate what the album meant to hip-hop, to Philly, to her as an artist—not to mention as Questlove's sister—brought it down to something simple: "It means everything."
The Roots' influence continues to ripple through so many genres and communities, and with Roots Picnic have been able to create a festival that does too in its own way. Truly providing something for everyone with performers ranging from rap superstar 21 Savage to R&B prodigy H.E.R., the fest has grown into a major event, complete with compelling features like sing language interpreters for the hearing impaired, an arcade with ping-pong, video games and skee-ball for kids (of all ages), and a podcast stage with a silent disco party up on the hill, which features a serene view of the Philly skyline not to be missed.
But the focus at Roots Picnic remains on the music. For instance, when the crowd at the Mann Auditorium went wild for surprise guest Musiq Soulchild's performance during Raphael Saadiq's set, the look on many faces in the audience captured how that moment alone was worth the price of admission. A similarly pleased yet more determined look could be seen on the faces of the various young local artists that took the stages throughout the day who knew that performing at Roots Picnic is a true turning point.
"The Roots, with this platform, sets a certain standard for all Philadelphia creatives," said Dilemma. "Once you make it to the Roots Picnic, you're good."
Mary J. Blige
Photo: Erika Goldring/Getty Images
New Orleans' Central Business District looked starkly different Monday morning as city locals hurried to work in ties and business attire. Gone were the crowds of people walking around in the heat of the southern city in their most fabulous summer outfits as R&B, hip-hop, soul and more took over the Big Easy's Superdome once again for ESSENCE Fest 25th anniversary.
This year locals and those from far and wide came together to watch performances from iconic artists like Missy Elliott and Mary J. Blige and hitmakers like Pharrell Williams and Timbaland to emerging artists like Normani and H.E.R at the biggest festival celebration of black culture in the country that took place July 5–7. But the festival was more than just music, it was a space where conversations around food, politics, business and more.
While the fest has happened in New Orleans since its inception, this year was different for great reason. The fest, born out of ESSENCE magazine aimed mostly to its black female readership, celebrated 25 years of brining different parts of black culture under one roof and the musical artists performing reflected on the milestone. MC Lyte, who curated one of the ESSENCE events that took over the venues all over the city, with women in hip-hop broke down why the fest means so much.
"Being able to celebrate black culture at this magnitude means everything because we've never had anything like this. Growing up, we certainly didn;t at least in my era and even now to date. The ESSENCE Music Festival is truly one of a kind," she said.
For some performers like New Orleans native PJ Morton, the 25th anniversary was a very special moment as it brought him back full-circle.
"I've been going to this festival since I was 14 years old and really changed my life as far as wanting to be a musician and seeing how it was presented, " he said. "When ESSENCE asked me to be a part [of the festival] again, I said 'I just don't want to play it again, I've played it before, let's do something special. Especially to kind of commemorate all these things, winning the GRAMMY award this year and me being able to come home. Part of winning that GRAMMY and writing those songs and making that album was me leaving L.A. and moving back home to new Orleans three years ago, so for me it was just a perfect full-circle moment to do a recording."
The singer made history during the night of his performance by recording a live album at the fest for the first time ever.
— Recording Academy / GRAMMYs (@RecordingAcad) July 8, 2019
But he wasn't the only local with special ties to the fest. Rising star Normani, also a big easy native and first time performer at the fest, shared why the fest is so special to her.
"I'm grateful that I can finally be a part of it. For as long as I can remember growing up ESSENCE was ESSENCE and it's just really coolfor me to be a prt of it. My grandmother, she came, my nanny came, my uncles they came out too and it's beautiful for me to be able to really represent my city in such a way, she said."
The opportunity to talk and have conversations with other women in particular is what excites singer Mumu Fresh the most about the festival. "[Women] who are affirming you and just sharing their stories."
"It's like a family reunion even though you don't know everybody here.They've shared your experience and everyone's just loving and gorgeous, all day long I've been walking by strangers who have been like 'YES hair, YES shoes YES face' and I'm like 'Awww heeyy, you too.' It's really fun, it's really beautiful."
In 2015, Rotimi stepped into the New Orleans Superdome for the first time to experience the magic of ESSENCE Fest. Four years later, in 2019, the "Love Riddim" singer returned to the celebration as a performer, something he said was spoken into existence.
"Last year me and my manager had a conversation and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be on the [ESSENCE] mainstage this year. 365 days later, we did it," Rotimi told the Recording Academy at the 25th annual ESSENCE Fest.
Rotimi, also an actor on Starz' "Power," has evolved since his last album, 2017's Jeep Music, Vol.1. The singer said he really hit home with its follow-up, the recently released Walk With Me, a project he worked hard for, putting in hours in the studio after filming on set.
"Walk With Me is the first time I actually felt like I was giving myself as an artist, and personally I feel like with everything else I have going on I wanted to show people that this is really what I do," he said. "I wanted people to understand who Rotimi is, who Rotimi was before, who I want to be and just understand my growth and the journey and my passion for what I do."
Part of why the album felt like such a representation of him is because it embodies beats of his African roots, something he said was very present growing up Nigerian-American.
"I grew up with a lot of Fela Kuti and I grew up with Bob Marley," he said of his musical roots. "But I also grew up with Carl Thomas and Genuine and Usher, so there was a genuine mixture of who I am and what I've grown up to listen to. The actual Walk With Me project was a mixture of influences of Akon and Craig David."
British artist NAO was all smiles backstage during her first time at ESSENCE Fest. Although from across the pond, the "Another Lifetime" singer brought perspective to the event celebrating black culture in New Orleans.
"I'm British, we have a whole different scene out over there. To be black and British and a singer is actually quite new," she told the Recording Academy. "There's only a handful of people that have really been able to stand out, but with the change of how music's been listened to and the fact that we do have the internet, artists like me are able to find our way and sell out tours around the world... It's a really amazing thing."
Through her two albums, For All We Know and Saturn, the singer has transitioned from a sound she callled "wonky funk" (because there was no other way to describe her mix of R&B, electronic and funk) to what she called a more solidified sound on her sophmore effort.
Throughout her music making, she has been afraid to be raw.