What started out as a humble, if somewhat ambitious, undertaking by The Roots in 2008 to highlight talented artists outside of the mainstream has become a formidable music festival that rivals some of the biggest events of the year. The ninth annual Roots Picnic, conceived by, and starring, hip-hop’s most versatile band, featured a eclectic group of 24 acts, including Usher, Future, Leon Bridges, Blood Orange, Anderson .Paak and Willow Smith. Thousands packed Philadelphia's Festival Pier on a humid, sun-soaked day for nearly 11 hours of music. From the perspective of the fans, the diversity of the artists has been the biggest draw.
"It seems like it's a pretty good mix of different genres from trap to experimental to soul to hip-hop that I grew up on," said Candace Meredith, who came all the way from Atlanta to partake in the festivities.
Some of that hip-hop she grew up on, and others there, was DMX. The embattled Yonkers MC has stayed in the news of late due to his arrests and erratic behavior, but on this Saturday in Philly, DMX was back in his element. As he ran through his hits like "Ruff Ryders Anthem," "Get at Me Dog," "Party Up" and "What They Really Want," the crowd was amped, screaming every lyric to every song. This all occurred just after Willow Smith shocked everyone by closing her set with her dad and DJ Jazzy Jeff performing "Summertime."
Also, Janelle Monae protégé Jidenna played a set of his new material along with his breakout hit "Classic Man," dressed in his notorious dandy attire with his band adorning fez caps as he danced, sang, rapped songs that were part EDM, trap rap and African dance. The mixture of various incarnations of rap was greatly appreciated by attendees. Harlem resident Kathleen Adams drove all the way up to Philly to witness it.
"It's nice to see the mix this year of mainstream hip-hop to conscious hip-hop, she said. Usually you don't see much live music with hip-hop but today's been full of it." Jidenna's label-mate, Nate Wonder of Deep Cotton, was reveling in the atmosphere as well. "It's exciting, it's progressive and peaceful and a lot fun. It's very inspiring to be here," Wonder explained. "It's not just that you know the big names; it's that you also know people that are not as well known but also so that they can influence you and give you valuable experience."
The Roots Picnic has been known for championing artists on the fringe of success and gave alternative acts like Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, Esperanza Spalding and Gary Clark Jr. a big platform they hadn't gotten at the time, but in 2016, the presence of popular trap rappers like Future and Migos was surprising. However, it didn't diminish the spirit of the festival’s original intent, but rather enhanced it. The sight of fans dabbing and jumping to Future's "Move That Dope" and Migos' "Versace" right after partaking in the talents of alternative dance/pop musician Blood Orange, the infectious reggae/rap of Bronx vocalist Tish Hyman or the explosive funk of Anderson .Paak, was incredible and necessary to fans like Lauren Pruit of Hyattsville, Maryland.
"I think it's a good platform for those artists who aren't mainstream yet," Pruit mentioned. "Some of them I haven't heard of before, so to be able to hear them and discover their music is interesting and I like it a lot."
Philadelphia resident Quintel Quick had been to the Picnic three years in a row and was happy to see the newer acts mixed in, conceding their presence had not changed the feeling of previous seasons. "The atmosphere seems to be the same," Quick stated. "It seems like they stepped it up a notch with the artists. The line-up is a little more current than it was last year and the year before. It's a great thing because we all want to see people who we're currently listening to at the time." Fans of the more prominent acts can now be introduced to a crop of musicians they never knew they’d love.
Despite the mixed field of performers, one constant remains: The Roots. One of the most anticipated aspects of the oicnic each year is seeing who the band will back up during the last set of the night. Over the years of the event, the legendary crew has played behind Nas, Snoop Dogg, Spalding and Erykah Badu. This year, Usher Raymond was chosen and it proved to be the best – and longest – set of the night. The Roots displayed their Tonight Show chops, converting many of Usher's biggest hits into new imaginings, which invigorated the superstar singer. They made "Caught Up" sound like James Brown, turned "Love in This Club" into a reggae turn-up, and flipped "OMG" Memphis soul style, while Usher returned the favor by singing on Roots classics “You Got Me” and “Break You Off.” The audience was frenzied and Black Thought gave them one more thing to scream about besides his impeccable free-styling, announcing the Roots Picnic was expanding to New York City soon.
"I think that speaks on The Roots' focus on diversity and how diversity shapes who you are," Wonder stated.
Grammy-winner and former Roots collaborator Jill Scott was among the attendees, and she confessed her admiration for the musicians and how The Roots have shaped this event for her hometown.
"This is what music needs, for real, everywhere. I love The Roots because they're such a preserver of the culture," Scott told EBONY.com. "I appreciate a lot of awesome artists that are here that I never heard of that have great music. This is the city of music; you must feed the city of music and The Roots are absolutely doing that."