Photo: Roots Picnic Facebook
What Makes Roots Picnic Different: Inside Philadelphia's Annual Musical Celebration That Feels Like "It's Just Family"
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."