When I arrived at Rolling Loud Festival at Citi Field in Queens, I was skeptical. Music festivals are almost never what they advertise. It’s always too crowded, too expensive, and too overstimulating. Even so, the lineup for this year’s event wasn’t half-bad. 42 Dugg, Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Durk, and Moneybagg Yo are all artists I have paid to see live on my own dime, so even if festival performances typically pale in comparison to conventional shows, the math would surely work out. And yet, even with my expectations sufficiently subdued, the first night of Rolling Loud Festival in New York was a worse experience than I could have imagined.
For one, there was an insultingly high number of police officers present. There were so many boys in blue that the festival grounds looked like the opening scene of a dystopian film about a future New York. And the excessive police presence isn’t even subtle in its racial anxiety. Just a few weeks ago, another festival, Governor’s Ball, took place in the exact same location with a markedly smaller police footprint. As a rap fan, it’s nothing short of a slap in the face to have the genre of music you enjoy be so blatantly criminalized.
Despite touring and playing shows with little incident, it seems that a number of artists end up walking into a trap when they play at this particular festival. At Rolling Loud Miami earlier this year, EST Gee was arrested after federal agents allegedly found guns in his vehicle. Fredo Bang was arrested ahead of the same event on an outstanding warrant from Louisiana. Kodak Black was arrested on weapons charges ahead of the 2019 festival. That same year, Pop Smoke along with another Brooklyn drill stalwart Sheff G, were banned from performing because, according to NYPD: “these individuals were involved in citywide violence and if these individuals were allowed to perform, it would lead to more violence.” Then, last night, New Jersey rapper Fetty Wap was arrested by federal agents on drug charges, which explains why he was a no-show for his set yesterday. It’s a pattern that’s become uncomfortably common with Rolling Loud.
As for the music itself, the performances weren’t particularly memorable. And 50 Cent, a Bush-era rapper, was the night’s headliner. You could call it a halfway decent play on nostalgia. 50 Cent is a Queens native, from Southside Jamaica, who became one of the biggest artists on the planet and a mixtape legend. But the fact remains that the Rolling Loud crowd, full of kids from 17-25, no longer listens to 50 Cent. Not even ironically. And 50 clearly did not feel like being there, his performance was bland and rushed. He played a few hits, including “Many Men” and “What Up Gangsta”, but it pales in comparison to the 50 Cent that we grew up with. And then, idiotically, 50 brought out DaBaby during his set for reasons that I am struggling to pick up on.
Even DaBaby’s recent controversy, yet another Rolling Loud misstep, feels like the kind of thing the festival feeds on. There’s a cynical undertone to the seemingly endless hoopla the event creates. Somehow, every year, it becomes about everything but rap music. Or, rather, it becomes about everything that outsiders think is rap music. Arrests, violence, unchecked sexism, and homophobia.
Rolling Loud should be for hip-hop fans of all types. For young people looking to celebrate their favorite artists. When the festival was created, it rode the rise of the “Soundcloud Rap” movement that was thriving in South Florida. Now, as it has expanded into a corporate behemoth, the festival’s ethos couldn’t be further from the reality on the ground.