Notes on a Peak-Black Pitchfork Fest

On July 18, 2016


We sent Michael Penn II to Pitchfork Fest this past weekend, and he had trouble separating another tumultuous week/weekend, with trying to enjoy a party in a field in Chicago. He ended up finding some kind of peace.

Every third weekend of July, for the last decade, Union Park removes itself from the Earth for the Pitchfork Music Festival. Several thousand people - with their vices and suntan lotion intact - congregate to bask in an eclectic selection of sounds while bearing the unforgiving humidity of a Chicago summer. This being my first Pitchfork, it wasn’t long before Union Park’s charm threatened to consume my body, as I sauntered stage-to-stage in search of a reprieve from the world still threatening to consume my body once I leave the gates.

Back on Earth, outside Union Park, we watched cops kill citizens in front of their children and heard rumblings of terrorists driving trucks through town squares. These moments, though engulfing, may prove to be mere footnotes at the end of a chaotic 2016, but they left me like many an attendee: dangling in the crosshairs of personal pleasure vs. civic responsibility. Where does a Black body fit in the privilege of Pitchfork at a time where ruins continue to pile and damnation appears evident?

Space was the focal point of the weekend, defined loudly and often. I recall several epiphanies when Black performers demanded their respect by simply being who they are. Truth became a medium for pain to be put to action. Miguel’s band was dressed in all-white rockstar chic, but in-between his accounts of good drugs and better sex, he surely took 10+ minutes to freestyle and talk that talk about his frustrations with Black bodies being reduced to hashtags and temporary outrage. 

BJ the Chicago Kid demonstrated a mastery of the pain surrounding him, managing to trigger a Holy Ghost reaction from me when he did a mere minute of “His Pain.” The thought of hearing it lingered in my mind, though it felt unlikely. I had to clutch my neighbors and hold my tears, tucked away in Union Park thinking of every dark day with that record on 20-minute loop. I’ve played “Martyrs” by Mick Jenkins on those days as well, and Mick did not come to play. His pain is a sermon given unflinching and grave, and this set was a matter-of-fact run-through of his catalog that felt like the preamble of something bigger, which he teased through a record called “Spread Love” and a moshpit induced by the world-shaking “Social Network” where he salutes the “GANG! GANG! GANG! GANG!”

This euphoric use of space returned to me upon the persistence of intergenerational dialogue displayed at Pitchfork. That looks like Kamasi Washington soloing alongside his father Rickey, who schooled him on the game of letting loose the rhythm. It feels like the electricity of RP Boo and Jlin, their footwork sets featuring full congregations of Black bodies in rapid-fire cypher to find their freedom as they do when thousands aren’t at their whim. It’s the sudden flooring of figuring out the Digable Planets classic “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” - a song I first engaged with through Freedom Writers and a Tide commercial from 2009 - actually came out the year before I was born. It’s the presence of Sun Ra Arkestra, complete with ancestors (a 92-year-old saxophonist among them) gracing us with moments of peace and appreciation for the sky above us through multidimensional jazz that felt like it cast the thunderstorms away on Sunday.

Anderson .Paak & The Free Nationals are technicians of this dialogue, with the digital bounce of a Kaytranada beat one moment, and Anderson rapping while drumming the next, with a monologue of getting his first pair of Js at the age of six. Anderson’s childhood vignette holds true for many like myself, obsessed with the first time you felt fresh. His act threatened to snatch the festival, feeling like something we’ve never seen yet something we don’t see anymore; proving how the band catalyzes a youthfulness hellbent on preserving their nostalgia, yet unafraid to persevere into stranger terrain as long as the beat keeps everyone in motion.

Sometimes, this dialogue is Jeremih, riding high on his 29th birthday, inviting his mother onstage to dance to “Step in the Name of Love” like the good ol’ days on 109th and Loomis. I missed out on Thundercat to catch this, but soon became the envy of my group chat. Jeremih had plenty in store, using his homecoming to champion his younger contemporaries as well. Chance the Rapper popped out for “No Problem,” “Pass Dat” and “Angels” to an applause and crowd-push that only solidified how beloved he’s become to the youth of his home. G Herbo made an appearance for “Rollin’” as well: a moment leaving most white patrons confused and leaving for Miguel while a brown-skinned moshpit ensued in several patches of the crowd to my delight.

Indeed, there was plenty of Black joy at Pitchfork while the Earth we left behind continued to burn. Shamir’s Friday performance outshined Beach House with the theatrical flair of his pop, purple and yellow lights radiating on the crowd like a vibrant showtune. Though Moses Sumney wasn’t in the happiest mood, he captured the crowd from his loop pedal, in an all-black outfit with a cape, his falsetto reeling everyone in like a soundtrack for going to heaven. Blood Orange didn’t explicitly mention the violence of the past month in his set, but began with the opening poem from Freetown Sound and shimmied through the rest of his set through guitar solos, dance breaks, and plenty of coordinated denim from his backline. This set was his first in the U.S. since the album’s release; he even summoned Empress Of and Carly Rae Jepsen to grace us with their features.

NAO was another hidden gem of the festival: I was introduced through the aux cord of one of my best friends this summer, riding in 90-degree Maryland heat. The joy I felt then matched the Black Girl Magic she projected on Sunday: dancing barefoot, curls in the breeze, never missing a note of her synth-pop love songs. Her being from London, she seemed surprised the Chicago crowd showed up for her since she hasn’t popped in the U.S. just yet, but Sunday was a surefire indication of that crossover coming sooner than later.

But the penultimate Black Girl Magic moment of this Pitchfork is best personified by the final moments of FKA twigs’ phenomenal festival closing set: she reclaimed an artifact - which the dancers fought over in the choreography throughout the 80 minutes - and made the other stage players bow to her power. A Black woman with white dreadlocks making someone bow to her power, headlining Pitchfork? It’s an ultimate act of disruption from an unparalleled talent; where Black women remain severely unprotected and erased from our national dialogue back on earth, twigs’s every motion was a coordinated act of rebellion.

This weekend in Union Park, I didn’t check much of the news. I didn’t wallow in another non-indictment, or scroll incessantly through my timeline to dissect the next shooting. But I knew, we knew, better: that the world outside those gates was still burning. I heard amazing music across the spectrum, but I needed the recharge of vibing with those who understand what this skin means once the litter’s cleaned and the wristbands fall. I didn’t envision a music festival as a healing space, given the sea of bodies who frolic about without a damn to give about the Earth we left behind for a while, but those notions were quieted by an unrelenting soulfulness that was merely paces away on the hour.

This Pitchfork was a Peak-Black Pitchfork, because anything else was unacceptable. Three days evaporated before my eyes, leaving my limbs sore and my skin a deeper tint than before. In the sea of Perrier bottles and reggie smoke, I focused on my Black body through what I elected to see. The regimen proved a fantastic substitute for an agony I’m well acquainted with; ergo, the Black acts at Pitchfork kicked fuckin’ ass. In spite of a world that’d gladly grind any melanated celebrity through its teeth, the Black artists I saw during the 11th Pitchfork unanimously kicked ass with a fierce resonance that sounded something like survival, like a necessary weapon to keep pushing through the bullshit.

Profile Picture of Michael Penn II
Michael Penn II

Michael Penn II (aka CRASHprez) is a rapper and a former VMP staff writer. He's known for his Twitter fingers.

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