Red Bull Music Festival Chicago was a series of firsts for me — first time I saw an artist crowdsurf, first time I saw audience members get invited on stage, and the first time I felt connected to a city that I’m not from.
I went to three shows – Lupe Fiasco, Tierra Whack and Zero Fatigue, and each was unique. Unlike other festivals, RBMF lasts a couple of weeks and the venues change with each show.
This festival is truly cultivated for its audience, welcoming the guests with free Red Bull and complimentary wristbands. Most of the artists are Chicago natives or have a strong connection to the city. It’s evident that Red Bull aims to serve the community by inviting local artists to open the shows. When the rapper Kidd Kenn, the opener for Lupe Fiasco, took over the stage, I could see his fans rapping along and dancing in the crowd.
Fiasco’s show at The Riviera Theatre was my first stop, and I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction into the festival.
He performed his debut Grammy-nominated album, “Food & Liquor,” in its entirety. I was not very familiar with this album and its success, as I was a 6-year-old kid when it was released. By the end of the night, I was moved by how his music addresses issues of race and individuality in the most artistic way. The show follows the same format as the album’s, beginning with spoken word poetry performed. Accompanied by a full band and background singers who stood on the scaffolds, Fiasco took the stage with force. Screams erupted from the crowd while Fiasco embraced them like a hug from an old friend.
Throughout the set, his energy never wavered. It was nearly impossible to keep my eyes off of him and his dance moves. Even when the tempo was slower or the lyrics became more somber, he always pulled the audience closer like a magnet. As Fiasco continuously gave a shout out to his hometown, the crowd broke into “Lupe” chants whenever the music stopped. The artist reminded the fans of their place in his heart, pointing out people he’d seen at previous shows.
This didn’t stop with Fiasco. Zero Fatigue, a musical collective that features Smino and Monte Booker, failed to disappoint.
At Thalia Hall in Pilsen, Zero Fatigue made me feel like I was sitting in a jam session with my friends. Booker, who’s from Chicago, took the stage and played mixes of songs by Chicago legends such as Kanye West and Chief Keef. He kept engaging with the audience and asking for feedback on the pieces he was playing. His mixes, a blend of popular tracks and original beats, were unique and innovative, yet familiar.
When Smino braced the stage, the energy hit the ceiling with people throwing up his merchandise they were wearing to show they were fans since his first album. He then performed a soulful type of rap that is not common and harmonized his lyrics with his backup singer. From old hits to brand new songs, the audience seemed to know every single word.
My last show was Tierra Whack’s Whack Factory at Concord Music Hall, and it felt like a dream. From the neon green strobe lights to spinning mannequin legs in the stage, this set was psychedelic. Even the rappers outfit, a lab coat covered in reflectant silhouettes of cartoon figurines, matched this feeling. Her music reflected the energy through techno beats layered with human-made sound effects and fast paced raps, featuring a wide range of subjects such as female empowerment, and her beloved dog.
Whack truly embodied the idea of individuality as she was playful with the audience and told jokes throughout her set. She invited several people on stage to dance with her and freestyle rap. Before ending the show, the rapper made a remark to the audience and Chicago, describing the night as her best show of the year. Feeling like at home here, she said when she goes back to Philadelphia, they have some work to do.
It’s going to take me awhile to wrap my head around how incredible this experience has been. I’m not from Chicago, but now, I feel like a part of the city.