If you purchase an independently reviewed product or service through a link on our website, Rolling Stone may receive an affiliate commission.
Around the Oasis Tree, disparate worlds converge for one day a year. It’s an intersection of futuristic rave music, speakeasies with drinks that bubble and news of a girl gone missing, and adorable mascot DJs immortalized in stone. In other words, Porter Robinson’s annual Second Sky, which happened Saturday October 29 once again achieved an ambitious, and nearly immersive, feat of music festival engineering. But the heart of the event goes beyond it’s elaborate sci-fi trappings, and even beyond the music itself.
At the Oakland Arena Grounds in Oakland, California, the sold-out event featured artists personally curated by Robinson. The lineup featured EDM, dance, and hyper-pop mainstays like RL Grime, Virtual Self b2b G Jones, Bladee, Hudson Mohawke, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, Magdalena Bay, and salute. Skrillex even made and unexpected appearance as his first festival show since 2020.
For Robinson himself, this was undeniably a big year for the fest. The Billboard Music Award and Grammy-nominated artist performed for the first time ever with a full band (Together Live). The set included his recent single “Everything Goes On”, a song written for League of Legends’ Star Guardians he recently broke down in-depth with Rolling Stone. But even still, there was one, major part of the fest for Robinson that many attendees might have missed out on at a first pass around the grounds. And no, it wasn’t the easter eggs from his previous music videos, although there were plenty of those.
Buy Nurture (ULTRA CLEAR VINYL) $33.49
“You know, it is about the music, but it’s about so much more than the music as well,” Robinson told Rolling Stone. Onsite, a tent manned by volunteers (including his parents) were fundraising for the Robinson Malawi Fund, a fund he and his family started in partnership with UNC to improve the outcomes of pediatric and adolescent patients with Burkitt Lymphoma. It’s a type of cancer that, outside of Africa, is incredibly rare — but that his younger brother Mark was diagnosed with in 2016. “I hope that charitable spirit can really reach people, because it’s just really easy to get caught up or lost in your bubble.”
Robinson sat down with us to discuss what it took to put together Second Sky, and how his relationship with his brother through his cancer treatment informed his aspirations for the fest.
I know you worked with theme park industry vets Nassal to create this immersive experience. How did you essentially build a Porter-themed world for a whole day?
Well, that’s the funny thing about it. You try to build this theme park, and it needs to be set up, but it’s just for a weekend and then it’s gone. I like to think of it as almost being like a little oasis, a little mirage in the desert. For people to think, “wait, was that ever even really there?”. The way we think about it is we’re trying to create this really beautiful escape for people who are into some of the same things. I’m into people who are fans of the sort music that’s a blend of indie music influences and internet music. Japanese music, and electronic music together. Because there are a lot of people who are like me, who I think have similar tastes, and they can come to this place where all that stuff can coexist.
So I think about Second Sky is almost being like this world between worlds, where there’s these little portals into the universes of all the artists playing. Then in terms of logistics, my manager, Aaron and I were always thinking about what would be cool, immersive installations. Obviously, leaning heavily on Potaro is great — having the cute, marketable plushie. It could be the dumbest thing in the world, but then you put it on a towel, and it’s so lovable. Like, it’s Potaro! [laughs]. But we do try to make everything super, super high quality. The amount of effort that goes into coming up with all the themed food and activations like that, it’s more than people would think. We just really want to make it magical.
The specificity of the aesthetic is very impressive, even as you’re bringing together all these different artists into one space. What piece of “Porter lore”, or rather, overarching theme that’s inherent in your work do you hope that guests will pick up on when they’re here?
The “Easy / Speak” is going to be the big one this year, because it’s all based on the lore of this music video of mine, “Easy”, from 2013. There’s also cool, little nods to the Second Skys of yore, like around the merch booth area, or hidden easter eggs around the grounds. Last year, one of my favorite things — we don’t have it this year because we’re actually auctioning them off for charity — but in the “Look at the Sky” music video, I have this band of these ghosts, and all of their instruments were painted white. That guitar and drum set and those instruments were scattered throughout various places in the festival this year. But those are going for the Robinson Malawi Fund this year.
Can you tell me more about that fund, because obviously it’s very personal to you. How did that come about and how did you bring it to the festival?
It began with my younger brother Mark being diagnosed with with Burkitt Lymphoma. When Mark got sick in 2016, that whole time, all I remember is a little series of moments, like series of little pictures in my head. One of them was when I was very sore before a show, laying down and thinking, “okay, I gotta take ibuprofen before I get on stage today”. So I fixed myself a drink, but then I got a call from my dad. And whenever I get a call from my dad, it’s always like, alarm bells are ringing, because I’m like, “oh, God, what if it’s something horrible?” It never is. But this time, it was my mom and my dad on the phone. And they were talking very differently. They said, “so we’re in the hospital with Mark”. They just told me that he had basically collapsed in unbearable pain in his bedroom, from his stomach, and that they had done some initial scans. They found a very large mass in his stomach, and they were thinking it was very likely to be cancer.
I actually don’t remember how I reacted. It devastated the next several months of all of our lives. That moment…I feel pretty disconnected from it. Like, I know I was horrified, and definitely cried. But I don’t remember it. I don’t remember exactly how I felt other than this horror, maybe. Not to revisit all that trauma, and there’s ample to draw from, but one of the upsides was his doctor. I talk about this all the time, but it’s just an interesting coincidence to me. Because she’d barely ever seen that particular cancer in the U.S., but she’d seen it everywhere when she was in Africa, because there’s two ways that you can get Burkitts. One is if you get Malaria, your chances of getting it go way up. The other is just like, free radicals or whatever. And Mark, obviously never had malaria, so it was the latter. It’s just bad luck. But she had seen it a million times and treated it a lot of times, so she told us that Mark had very good odds of being okay. I think the five year rates are something like 90%. But even so, it doesn’t really matter what the odds are, it’s still harrowing.
They gave him an extremely, extremely aggressive chemo, because that particular form of cancer — it doesn’t sound real, but this is what I was told by them — it doubles in size every day. Which is why it came on so suddenly, and they told me it was about [the size of a grapefruit] when they found it. That, in his abdomen, was horrifying. But it responds well to aggressive chemo, so it was shrinking quickly. So great to see that. But what they put him on was brutal, and he was unrecognizable, basically.
But once Mark was okay, we all just thought, the survival rates for that exact same cancer in Malawi are much, much, much lower. Something like 30 or 40%. And even worse, that cancer is most prevalent in children, so as people are just getting their life started. We just wanted to help, so the fund pays for direct patient care for people who can’t afford it. That’s the essence of it. One incredible thing is that the dollar goes a really long way there. I can’t remember what the exact figures were, but we raised somewhere around $100,000 or $200,000 in the first two years, and it covered two years of every single chemo treatment, as well as an excess we were able to spend on supplementary care. Things like anti-nausea drugs, etc.
Our stretch goal we’re currently working towards is this idea of building a shelter. Basically, a Ronald McDonald House. We thought that if we could provide a place for the parents of patients to stay for free, that that would go a long way in saving lives, or at a bare minimum, just making the parents more comfortable while they’re there, too.
So I hope that charitable spirit can really reach people, because it’s just really easy to get caught up or lost in your bubble. There’s so much suffering that is invisible to us. I just remember what it was like to be a relative, not even going through it myself, of somebody who’s going through cancer treatment. I was in such such such bad shape. My whole family was, too. I was just having all these medical issues and psychological issues, and was just so worried about my best friend, you know? So I thought if there’s anything we can do to help relieve some of the suffering for other people going through a similar or worse scenario, that would be really great.