“Is There a Better Summer Festival in America Than the Roots Picnic?”

Nine years and change ago, I’d just gotten fired from this job in Indiana, so I did what anyone would do: took a Greyhound bus to Philly for the Roots mural unveiling on Broad St., just south of downtown. Little did I know, there was this thing going on in town that weekend called Roots Picnic, a festival which takes place every year (this would have been its sixth running, the 2013 installment, today putting it at 15) in Fairmount Park, an easy walk north of downtown. 

I couldn’t afford to go to the festival so I just kind of tooled around town after sleeping in my hostel but I could hear some of the beats from outside and it all sounded pretty high-energy and urgent. And this gets me to my main point about the Picnic: I know it’s not as big as, well, pretty much any other festival in America, but there seems to be like NO wack sh** at it. 

True, it’s almost all hip-hop, although this past year did see Kamasi Washington grace the proceedings, perhaps the premiere saxophone player in the world, today, at least from a creative standpoint. But the festival gets an incredible array of styles and perspectives from within the hip-hop art form, from The Roots, who still do their old-school boom-bap at the show, to Rick Ross, a trap spitter, to G Herbo, who makes gangster music very much of the cy borg new school, sung with a sinister, unfeeling detachment, the only way it could be. 

And when I look at all these different festivals, from Bonnaroo, to ACL, to New Orleans Jazz and Heritage (Coachella was a slight step up from them, but nowhere near the batting average of the Picnic), it all just seems to be these same cornball poseurs like Billy Strings and the Red Hot Chili Peppers making music that’s too bland even for the dentist’s office. And it’s obvious to me that these huge festivals are just money grabs, not curated with any sort of coherent artistic objective or vision in mind, but rather just courting the most commercially popular acts, for a paradigm that’s purely economic and not even really cultural, let alone artistic, or beholden to any particular zeitgeist or grassroots movement. 

In stark contrast, the Roots Picnic seems to staunchly prioritize urban music that’s been dispatched organically, written completely by individuals and not tainted by corporate record label objectives. And just because the festival’s rather small (and personally wouldn’t you prefer a smaller festival anyway) doesn’t mean it lacks in facilities or technology: the videos I saw on YouTube of the performances sounded great and the stage was adorned with a backdrop video screen and huge, lavish lighting beams for optimum visuals. I’m completely jazzed to see that the little old Roots Picnic, the American festival no one ever seems to talk about, is not only still in existence, but, also, still constructs an overall genus of music and creation that can actually come across as inspirational, and not just the dog-and-pony crowd-pleasing mechanism the rest of them seem to embrace. 


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