The Roots Picnic in New York City was like a buttoned-up Afropunk, but with white people.
On Oct. 1-2, the legendary Roots crew mesmerized New York City’s Bryant Park with the music festival known as the Roots Picnic. The event, which typically takes place in Philadelphia, is quite the institution to music fans. Despite the band’s affinity with New York, it is the first year that the picnic has made it to the Big Apple in the near decade since its inception.
And it was worth the wait. With performances by the Roots, Wu-Tang Clan, Alicia Keys, John Mayer, Common and Nile Rodgers, the festival didn’t disappoint (for the most part).
The Roots came suited and booted, with some classics up their sleeves. “You’ve Got Me” was a given, and the band’s daily routine on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon has paid off. Really, it did. Showmanship was high, the band was in tune, and they had the stamina to back all the headliners on the main stage. Surprise, surprise, they even had a huge French horn onstage. Yes, a French horn. One performance segued into the other (which made the festival relatively painless for the audience), such that the end of each day was akin to a jam session.
On day 1, John Mayer, who has been known to say some pretty racially problematic things, killed it. He was trying to come for Prince with an impressive guitar solo, but no one can touch the Purple One. No one.
The Roots crew rolls deep, so it was no surprise that Dave Chappelle made an appearance, saying, “Obviously, if I’m up here, two things must be true: Kevin Hart couldn’t be here and D’Angelo must be late.” The crowd went wild. He went on to take shots at comedic duo Key and Peele but left with a conscious note: “Black lives do matter, and the best way to show that black lives matter is to live a good black life.”
Then there was D’Angelo.
Parts of D’Angelo’s performance were like watching your drunk uncle at a family reunion. The Grammy Award-winning singer walked onto the stage (while smoking) clad in all-black everything—bandanna included. After taking a few puffs, the soul singer put out onstage whatever it was he’d been smoking.
D’Angelo seemed disoriented at best—nothing like the calm, cool, collected Questlove, who quietly played the drums in the background (one can only imagine what was going on in his head). D’Angelo often signaled to the audio technician to raise (and/or lower) levels, as though the technician were at fault for his jarring performance. C’mon, son. Still, the Virginia native pulled it together to perform songs from his Grammy-winning album, Voodoo, like “The Root,” no pun intended, as well as jams from 2015’s Black Messiah. D’Angelo did bring several songs to life—the preacher’s son took it to church with a soulful rendition of “Brown Sugar.” Indeed, there was a call-and-response sequence, folks. Everyone felt the Holy Ghost, including John Mayer, who backed the band on guitar.
On day 2 of the festival, Nile Rodgers (who has been cancer free for nearly six years), the Sugar Hill Gang and barefaced beauty Alicia Keys all graced the main stage. But the Wu-Tang Clan shut the show down.
Wu-Tang’s performance proved that gangsta rap and white suburban kids are still “a thing.” White millennials were beyond hyped to enter the Wu. Energy boomed for the group’s entire 30-minute set. Wu fans were reciting lyrics from albums going back as far as 1993, like 36 Chambers, word for word. I received the slow blink when I asked a white woman if ODB’s son, Young Dirty Bastard, was onstage. The shade was real.
By the end of the Wu’s set, there may have been 30 bodies onstage, and the crowd was going in—energy was through the roof. What a phenomenal way to end the Roots Picnic. The Wu, now a group of middle-aged dads, still performed like young men straight out of the Shaolin. But with age comes wisdom. They used the New York City stage to send a greater message: “Black lives matter, baby. Black lives matter,” said RZA, the Wu’s de facto leader.
And just like that, the festival wrapped.
Felice León is multimedia editor at The Root.