This weekend, thousands of people are going to descend upon our Benjamin Franklin Parkway for the first event of its kind: a ticketed Parkway festival curated by Jay-Z, one of the most successful rappers of all time. From the Marcy Projects of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn to a sold-out black-tie charity event at Carnegie Hall this past winter, the erstwhile Shawn Corey Carter has come a long way. He was 12 years old when he shot his brother in the shoulder for trying to steal his jewelry; now, he buys Cartier for his superstar wife, Beyoncé, and rhymes about wearing Hublot watches. The man is worth more than $450 million; he’s a living, breathing testament to the power of capitalism. Jay-Z is “made in America.” And with Budweiser’s help, he’s putting on a most-bangin’ two-day festival, and Philadelphia’s the lucky host city.
The last time the Parkway was flooded with concert-goers was a mere eight weeks ago, for Wawa’s Welcome America Independence Day extravaganza on July 4. As one of the nation’s biggest free fireworks and entertainment blowouts put on by a city, it’s no small feat of logistics. Despite a 16-year-old who shot two other teens, the night went off without a glitch, punctuated by a sizzling surprise set by Lauryn Hill. That is to say, Philadelphia’s no stranger to large crowds. Back in 1985, the star-studded Live Aid took place at what was then John F. Kennedy Stadium, down by a then-burgeoning South Philadelphia Sports Complex. At the U.S. half of a cross-Atlantic concert event raising funds to feed starving Ethiopians (the other was Wembley Stadium in London), about 100,000 people were in attendance. Then, 20 years later, Philadelphia was again the U.S. host amid a slew of simultaneous Live 8 anniversary concerts, an event that was a part of a Global Call for Action Against Poverty. This time, it was on the Parkway, and a densely packed crowd stretched out for nearly a mile from the Art Museum steps. The seven-hour attendance estimates ranged from 600,000 to 1.5 million people.
Now, for the first time in the history of the Ben Franklin Parkway and Philadelphia, the Parkway is being turned into a ticketable venue. Nearly 50,000 concert-goers will flood the Parkway on both days. This time, it’s sponsored by Budweiser, with a portion of tickets and concessions going to benefit the United Way. And while there’s a striking note of capitalism to Jay-Z’s festival, the money that the United Way will receive is no small check. Jill Michal, CEO and president of the United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania, tells PW: “In the contract, up front in lieu of a portion of ticket sales, a minimum of $500,000 goes to the United Way.” Some of those funds will go to the United Ways of Lancaster and New York City, but “beyond that, the United Way will get a portion of beer concessions and VIP ticket sales, with a neighborhood estimate of another couple hundred thousand,” explains Michal. The United Way was also given 600 tickets to give away, promote with and simply gift to volunteers and donors. Not too shabby, Jay.
There’s no denying the potential for a corporate-sponsored festival to smell like dirty money. Every time you’ve heard about this festival, it’s with the big ol’ Budweiser nameprint slapped in front of it. And in that clever commercial during the Olympics—with young, sexy, creative types running around getting ready to cross genres and cultural lines at the Made in America fest—they all happen to be sipping Bud longnecks. It looks so easy and natural. All that’s by design: Jay reportedly began working with Bud’s parent brewer Anheuser-Busch in late 2006 as an official “co-brand director” for Budweiser Select, according to a company press release that touted how he would “be involved in providing direction” on “upcoming Budweiser Select television ads, radio spots, print campaigns and several high profile events.”
Jay-Z is nothing if not a shrewd businessman, and there’s no question he’ll walk away with a fat paycheck. But in securing the talent that he did and organizing an unprecedented event on the Parkway, the real value he brings is less as musician and more as executive. Whereas his wife was reportedly given nearly $7 million for a string of sold-out Revel Resort comeback shows back in May, Jay told the Inquirer’s Dan DeLuca he would be taking a pay cut—as an in-demand performer, that is—in order to guarantee an exciting lineup.
Speaking of talent, let’s break down the acts for a moment. Details about the festival have been mysteriously tight-lipped and will be rolling out this week as the date inches closer. We know that performances will commence at 2 p.m. and finish near 11 p.m. across several stages and a dance music tent. Jay-Z will headline Saturday night, with Pearl Jam closing out the whole weekend on Sunday night. Skrillex, Miike Snow and Calvin Harris will provide plenty of dance fodder Saturday, with the divisive Maybach Music Group (featuring Rick Ross, Wale and Meek Mill) rounding out the top acts below Jay. The co-headliners on Sunday are Drake, Chris Cornell and Jill Scott, with a big set from Run-DMC, too; supporters include Afrojack, Odd Future, Alesso, The Hives, X, Santigold, a DJ Shadow set, Betatraxx, Rita Ora, Burns and The Knocks. The honest truth is that there are some artists in these lineups that are a bit puzzling. Skrillex potentially following a D’Angelo set is a bit of a head-scratcher. And the bottom of each day is littered with artists that require a bit of creative Googling. On the other hand, supporting acts like Philly girls Scott and Santigold, plus Drake, Dirty Projectors, Janelle Monáe and DJ Shadow, are pretty huge.
The hope is that it all goes off with nary a hitch. “We’re gonna do all that we can to make sure this event runs smoothly and cleanly,” says Mayor Nutter’s spokesman, Mark McDonald. “The city has a group of managers with deep institutional knowledge, and there have been myriad meetings involving the police, emergency services, the fire department” and more. In a way, Made in America puts the spotlight on Philadelphia: Can we pull this off? Will it go well? Could this happen more often? We’re certainly going to see a significant spillover of money this weekend in the hotel, retail and food service areas. But as McDonald points out, what would normally be a last weekend for Philadelphians to escape to the shore or the Poconos is now a massive weekend for the city. Attendees will be coming up from D.C. and Baltimore and down from North Jersey and New York City. They’ll no doubt find themselves at Fairmount bars and crashing in area hotels. But also, the hope is that visitors and Philadelphians alike will use this weekend to take advantage of other Parkway-area attractions. The Barnes and the Art Museum will be open their usual hours, and hopefully they’ll pull in some first-time visitors and long-term fans.
Still, one wonders: Is the Budweiser sponsorship necessary? Jay’s got enough money to put this on himself and maybe even make it another Live Aid or Live 8. Making money on a festival is not a bad thing, per se. But the power that he and his megastar wife wield is big enough to exact serious change for real people struggling in cities. Fans in low places may even be tired of hearing Jay and Kanye West rapping about Margiela jackets and yachts. We know Chuck D’s skeptical. The Public Enemy frontman recently told the U.K. newspaper The Times: “Hip-hop celebrates those who wanna make a killing instead of a living. I like those guys, but they make me laugh sometimes because I don’t get who they’re here for, other than themselves.” And earlier this month, Harry Belafonte told the Hollywood Reporter that Jay-Z and his wife could be doing more: “I think one of the great abuses of this modern time is that we should have had such high-profile artists, powerful celebrities. But they have turned their back on social responsibility,” Belafonte said. “That goes for Jay-Z and Beyonce, for example. Give me Bruce Springsteen, and now you’re talking.” Springsteen—who’ll also be in Philadelphia this week, satisfying crowds with his Wrecking Ball tour at Citizens Bank Park both Sunday and Monday nights—has a history of political advocacy and matched donations that is, indeed, much longer than hip-hop’s first couple. But is that a bad thing?
At least almost three-quarters of a million dollars could make its way into seed money for the United Way’s collaboration with the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, which plans to unveil specifics about its World Class Greater Philadelphia initiative over the next couple months. Financial support will help develop three major areas aimed at making Philadelphia a world-class city: infrastructure, business development and education and talent development.
Artist and arts advocate James Claiborne, community engagement manager for the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, offers a practical perspective: “Corporation, industry and business are not always dirty words. I return to Jay-Z’s quote during the press conference on the steps of the Art Museum. He said ‘Whenever I enter into a project, I try to hit on some touch point. The first thing is: Is it great? The second one is: Is it gonna push the culture forward?’” And that may be exactly what Jay-Z is doing here—pushing communities, genres and fans together in a progressive and forward-thinking way. But what about what Belafonte says? “In terms of the MIA festival, sure, the humanitarian messaging and strategy could have been a bit stronger and louder,” Claiborne offered, “and we may be missing some opportunity to impact the lives of people in need. But I don’t think that’s what Jay-Z set out to do. And that is OK in my book.”