On October 12th and 13th, five New York City rappers — Pop Smoke, Casanova, Don Q, Sheff G, and 22gz — were scheduled to perform at Rolling Loud, the popular rap festival that was finally making its debut in the birthplace of hip-hop after dominating Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Miami. But three days before their appearance at Queens’ Citi Field, festival organizers received a letter from NYPD Assistant Chief Martin Morales, citing each performer as “public safety concerns.”
“The above listed performers have been associated with recent acts of violence citywide,” Morales wrote in the letter, dated October 9th. “The New York City Police Department believes if these individuals are allowed to perform, there will be a higher risk of violence.”
On Saturday, the first day of the festival, Karen Civil, an influential hip-hop digital marketer, shared a photo of the NYPD’s letter, alerting fans and the general public. Each listed rapper was subsequently removed from the Rolling Loud lineup, with no reason given as to why these particular artists were deemed a higher risk compared to other festival performers. Tariq Cherif, a co-founder of Rolling Loud, wrote on Twitter that all artists would receive their booking fees in full and receive offers to perform at future Rolling Loud events in other locations. “All the public sees is the letter,” Cherif wrote. “Way more happened behind closed doors. If we want [Rolling Loud] to return to NYC, we have no choice but to comply. That’s the position we’re in.”
The long-term financial and social repercussions of the NYPD and Rolling Loud’s decision are still unfolding. It’s unclear why the festival waited two days to inform the affected artists about the NYPD letter. For Don Q (a signee at A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie’s Highbridge the Label) and his team, the news came far too late. According to Michael ‘Emm’ Acheampong-Boateng, A Boogie’s co-manager and COO of Highbridge, Rolling Loud contacted them about the NYPD’s stance on Friday evening.
“If [Rolling Loud] let us know earlier in the week, we would have been able to employ some kind of strategy to try to get them to reverse that stance.” Emm said. “When it comes down like that, Friday evening, close of business, there isn’t much you can do about that.”
“It was done purposefully on a Friday evening when there isn’t much recourse that you can have to combat that,” Emm claims. “It was quiet. Everything was cool and then late Friday evening after the close of business there’s a letter circulating that they’re petitioning Rolling Loud to remove those five artists off a show. When you do it like that, even if you want to get lawyers involved and see if you can try to petition or anything, it’s hard to do on a Friday evening going into the weekend. It was done that way so there would be no recourse. The weekend’s over. The show’s over. Everything’s done and everybody’s on to the next thing.”
A source with knowledge of the festival agreed that Rolling Loud organizers waited until close of business Friday to tell artists’ camps they were no longer on the lineup; a move that hampered any chance of recourse. “We had zero time. They didn’t give us any options,” the source said. “It wasn’t like we could make a phone call to the legal department of NYPD and talk to them about this.”
Rolling Loud organizers declined multiple requests for comment from Rolling Stone. A rep for the NYPD did not reply to multiple requests for comment.
Founded in 2015 by Matt Zingler and Cherif, Rolling Loud was initially home to lower- and mid-tier rappers that were beginning to bubble up to the mainstream on platforms like SoundCloud. The festival soon ballooned to dominate hip-hop, attracting marquee talents like Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole. According to The New York Times, the New York City stop of the festival sold 60,000 tickets for each day of the festival.
For an upcoming artist like Don Q, opportunities to perform for a crowd of this size are rare. “A lot of people was going to be there,” he tells Rolling Stone. “You get to see a lot of new faces. People get to see you. A lot of your fans get to see you. A lot of exposure. It was something big for the city, especially for a lot of artists that wanted to be involved.”
Although the NYPD’s letter was written as a request, Emm and the source close to the festival interpreted the letter as a demand. What is clear is that many camps are unhappy with the way both the police and Rolling Loud went about rolling out their decisions.
“[Rolling Loud] said the police sent the letter to them,” Emm explains. “They wanted Don and some of the other artists not to perform on the show. They didn’t say they can’t perform; they just requested that they not perform. You have to read between the lines: Rolling Loud needs to be in lockstep with the NYPD in order to have a successful show. When they make a request like that, that’s basically telling Rolling Loud that they can’t perform. If the festival went against the NYPD, they could try to shut down the entire festival or the entire weekend. Or they’ll never be able to come back to New York City again. It would be a catastrophic thing for them. They had to capitulate.”
The source with knowledge of the festival suggests both the NYPD and Rolling Loud are to blame for a poorly handled situation. “Bottom line, it’s supposed to be a hip-hop festival, right?” the source says. “It should be standing up for hip-hop. When you have to do what’s right, that’s the hardest thing to do. It’s very easy to go with booking acts and putting them up … If [Cheriff] says that he wouldn’t have gotten permits for next year, he should be fighting that.”
The NYPD offered few hints as to why it targeted only five up-and-coming New York City acts on the Rolling Loud lineup. The rappers included in the list have experienced run-ins with police in the past, but it’s uncertain if their previous arrests factored into the decision for law enforcement to target them.
In April 2018, Casanova’s crew was the target of a shooting at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, orchestrated by members of rapper 6ix9ine’s entourage. In August of that same year, Casanova was arrested on robbery charges for his connection with an attack at a Manhattan diner, which “left a woman unconscious and bleeding on the floor,” according to NBC New York. In 2017, Don Q was arrested for possessing a gun and marijuana during a traffic stop. (Rolling Stone reached out to both Casanova’s and Don Q’s reps on the status of those cases, but have not received updates at this time.)
Pop Smoke was recently released from a diversion program stemming from a weapons charge that’s since been dismissed, according to The New York Times. When Sheff G was in high school, he was arrested and went on probation after firing gunshots at Brooklyn’s Kings Plaza, reported Pitchfork. In 2017, 22Gz was arrested for murder in Miami before the charges were ultimately dropped.
“I’ve been out of the system for a while and still wasn’t able to perform at Rolling Loud,” 22Gz wrote in a statement to Rolling Stone. “All of the artists that got banned have put our pain in the booth and in our music. I wasn’t convicted of my charges and I’ve steered clear of any trouble since then. I definitely won’t let this stop me from doing what I do.”
But the NYPD’s decision appears to be having repercussions beyond the Rolling Loud lineup: Future shows by some of the five acts have already been postponed or potentially cancelled. A December 4th Casanova show at New York venue SOBs is no longer listed on their website, while a Pop Smoke show at Sony Hall was recently postponed. (Reps for SOBs and Sony Hall did not return requests for comment.)
Don Q and his team are adamant that he’s never had an issue with the NYPD at a show since they began performing in 2016. Emm goes as far as to say that he wants to “foster a better relationship” with the NYPD going forward, even if he’s clear that the police’s decision sets a bad precedent for one of his ascending artists.
Don Q just wants a chance to prosper in his new career. “They can’t be doing this to us,” the rapper says. “We worked to get out of this situation. We came from these situations where we had violent pasts or people went to jail or whatever happened in the past. Now we’re trying to change our life, and do the right things and all they’re doing is holding us back. They’re not making anything better. They’re not even giving us a chance.”