The live performance is used now more than ever to determine an individual’s degree of artistry. The visuals, the choreography, the ability to control the audience and the atmosphere’s energy are all packaged into one category for them to be judged on and given some overall score. One that later influences a fan’s love or disdain towards the artist and desire to see them in concert again.
Take Travis Scott, for example. The Houston native is referred to as an “artist” equally as much as he is a “rapper” – if not more – and some of this is credited to the experience he delivers at live performances. His most recent tour, the Astroworld Tour, is living proof of this. An in-arena roller coaster meant to allude to attendees to the now-closed Astroworld Park presented a rarely-seen concert aesthetic to fans. It soon turns into a once in a lifetime experience as he rides the roller coaster throughout the arena while performing some of his many beloved songs.
This experience can only come to fruition through the artist’s own creative thought process, one that is only allowed to flourish in a setting that hands over creative control solely to the artist. Ultimately, this can only occur during their own tour while the present-day festival makes it unrealistic to bring this experience.
These days, festivals aim to make a plethora of music available in a small window of time. Through the purchase of a ticket to said festival, we trade our right to these meticulously curated experiences for the change to see, five, six, seven of our favorites in the span of a day as they cycle through 30-45 minute performances. Who is seen trumps what is seen for the modern-day fan experience.
What many fail to realize is the longevity of who is seen lasts for mere seconds. Seeing a given act holds only so much weight, that is until the same act goes to the next festival to perform the same set for a different group of people. Soon, a thousand people have taken part in this experience and its glamour is now minimal. On the flip side, the glamour of Beyoncé’s 2018 Coachella performance, for example, will never cease to exist. Its longevity is everlasting, most especially to those who witnessed it in person.
Ensuring the longevity of a fan’s experience was seemingly Red Bull’s main goal as they curated their latest installment of the Red Music Festival in Atlanta. Consuming fifteen days in total, seven of those days were used to unveil informative panels and specially curated performances, and it was these very performances that caught my attention.
Attending the back end of the festival, I was fortunate to see two of R&B’s best talents – Ari Lennox and Teyana Taylor – for the festival’s closing days. The decision to grant both acts their own day is unorthodox, to say the least, especially when the word “festival” is attached to it. Placing trust in each artist’s talent and ability to put on a show, the decision turned out for the absolute best.
Bearing a soul stained with a golden touch and a flower perched in its hair, Ari Lennox emerged from backstage wrapped in the vulnerability we’ve seen ladened in her music. Theo Croker’s trumpet blares from the speakers as “Chicago Boy” propels us into the official start of her performance. The night is dedicated to her debut album, Shea Butter Baby, an album that propelled her into the height of today’s R&B due to its strong messages of independence and empowerment towards the naturality of black women.
Before looking into the music played or the manner it was performed, this naturality is found in the stage’s presentation. Giving the aura of a living space in an apartment with a couch placed at center stage, warmly colored flowers sat in its front. Above the flowers was lighting that constantly changed throughout the set to accentuate the row of flowers through matching its warmth and finding balance through colder avenues. It’s almost as if Ari sought to find comfort onstage in order to comfortably deliver the near and dear contents of Shea Butter Baby.
As “Chicago Boy” came to a close, Ari would transition into “Broke” and “Up Late.” Slowly but surely, as if one were waving a newly produced Polaroid picture, the Atlanta crowd began to see what the Ari Lennox experience entailed. The careful patience of soul and the groovy freedoms of funk walked down the aisle with inspiration to seek independence and appreciate the God-givens in life. As “New Apartment,” “Shea Butter Baby,” “BMO” and more Shea Butter Baby cuts blared into the Variety Playhouse Theatre, Ari would find her way into our hearts as she voiced promises to move to Atlanta and shared more of her infectious and relatable personality.
Though simple in its appearance, Ari put on the performance the way she wanted. Time constraints as a result of respecting the time of other possible acts and conformity to some flat or minimally designed staged were both nonexistent. Just days later, Teyana Taylor would be given the same blank canvas and a paintbrush to produce her own strokes of artistry.
Originally an empty warehouse, the West End Production Park would be transformed into Teyana’s own Petunia Kingdom. Its stage boasted a long runway in its front and a massive curtain in its rear that served as a wall to the steps of her throne. Beginning the night, Teyana emerged from the throne to the tune of her KTSE intro, “No Manners.” Covered from head-to-toe in a beaming gold bodysuit, she stood like a highly sought trophy shining brightly amidst the room’s darkness.
Throughout the night Teyana carried herself exactly like a trophy, fully aware that all eyes were on her exclusively. Toying with our attention, she reeled it into extreme focus, then let it go just enough so it was still in grasp and seized it once again in a suspense swing of events. The overt confidence of her “How You Want It” performance would precede that of the later eye candy-filled “3 Way” set. As the night would later come to a close, Teyana displayed her down to Earth appreciation through “Gonna Love Me” and “Rose in Harlem.” Wardrobe changes also served as attention-grabbing moments as her trophy bodysuit look would disappear and out came a nearly stripped-down Teyana who stood comfortably as her melanin gleamed in the light. This look would later be traded for a throwback one as she soulfully ended the night.
Introduced as the House of Petunia, Teyana and The Aunties – her all-female production team – presented what at times felt like a modern-day Janet Jackson show. The choreography was executed to perfection as Teyana’s singing and stage presence varied from dominant to downright nasty. Her determination to deliver every song perfectly by translating its emotion flawlessly to the crowd and seizing the room’s attention with her empowering boss-like attitude were achieved without any hiccups. As the confetti fell during “Rose In Harlem,” the general sentiment from the crowd was an unfiltered awe at what had been witnessed.
It’s this unfiltered awe that festivals alike should aim to receive from its audience. Red Bull could have easily boxed off a weekend and brought out a random string of acts – or maybe if they wanted to throw in some effort they could’ve brought out some of Atlanta’s best for the city to enjoy. However, it was more than that. A clear goal to introduce quality content to a music hub like Atlanta was sought for.
If Red Bull aimed to curate something different they achieved that. If they aimed to inject endurance to the festival’s life once the last piece of confetti fell, they achieved that. This was far from your regular festival, for the first time in a long time, who appeared on the bill was not the main concern, rather what each individual brought was of greater worry. A step in a different, but a more innovative direction for festivals, hope for more attention paid to the content given rather than the creators present should be worth considering for many it. Whether that happens, remains to be seen, but with Red Bull’s next stop being Chicago, another opportunity to see well-orchestrated content rises to the surface.