The one and only: Common’s Aahh! Fest
Written and Photographs by Kate Scott
Hip-hop legend Common has always been vocal about supporting his hometown of Chicago, and in 2014, the Academy award winner started Aahh! Fest to raise money for Chicago’s at-risk youth and provide a festival full of local and global talent. This year, during a weekend already full of incredible hip hop talent at Chance the Rapper’s Magnificent Coloring Day, Common gathered dozens of musicians to deliver a weekend of music that covered the spectrum of hip-hop, soul, and house music.
Chance made a pit stop at the community festival on Saturday before running his sold-out festival at U.S. Cellular Field, taking the stage before his brother, Taylor Bennett, who is a rising star as well. On Sunday, the day started strong with Los Angeles soul group The Internet. Led by Syd Tha Kid, a 24-year old soul singer with a range that matches Mary J. Blige, the group set the tone for a day full of peace and love. Syd led the crowd in several chants, referring to her ex and saying “my black women know what it’s like,” drawing a lot of cheers and sincere head nods.
Following The Internet’s performance, Chicago hip-hop artist and singer Jeremih brought out his smooth voice and beautiful backup dancers. Unfortunately for him and the crowd, he was over 15 minutes late and had his mic cut ‘short’ before he was able to finish his performance. Despite the crowd’s boos and jeers, Chicago comedian and MC Damon Williams assured everyone that it was only fair so the next act could come out. As the crowd calmed down and the stage was cleared, Chicago’s Vic Mensa brought everyone to a halt with a raw and utterly emotional performance of “16 Shots,” a song he wrote about Laquan McDonald, a 17-year old black boy carrying a knife who was shot 16 times by white officer Jason Van Dyke. At the end of the song, Mensa laid on the stage motionless for nearly two minutes while a voice described the events that unfolded at 4100 South Pulaski.
The crowd needed a bit of time to recover from Mensa’s performance, and before The Roots took the stage, people were treated to a DJ battle, playing some of the biggest hip-hop hits of the last 30 years. Once the vibe had returned to one of lightheartedness and laughter, The Roots brought down the entire festival with blaring instrumentals, powerful vocals from Black Thought, and Questlove’s incredible percussions. People shouted and screamed as Common himself jumped onstage to sing alongside the group, giving everyone a preview of his set to follow.
As the sun set and the temperature dropped, the heat was still rising from the stage when Common came out, giving everyone a second burst of energy for his hour-long set. The crowd lost it when Ice Cube, one of the 20th century’s most prolific rappers, came out and performed “It Was a Good Day,” encompassing the magic of the weekend. Common gladly stepped aside again, this time for Bilal, a soul singer and longtime friend of Common’s. Bilal’s impact on soul music and powerful songwriting has been prominent in music for almost 20 years, and it was great to see him in the spotlight rather than as a collaborator.
J. Cole, one of the most popular artists at the moment, closed the festival to thousands of screaming and jumping fans. Playing nearly the entirety of his multi-platinum album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive; J. Cole had tremendous stage presence and combined aggressive rap with soft and melodic singing. While Cole didn’t win the 2015 Grammy for best hip-hop album, it was clear from the crowd that many thought that he should have. His ability to master the crowd and cover the entire stage with his words and flows made him the quintessential artist to end Aahh! Fest for the third year in a row. Common’s festival is now a staple of Chicago, and it is a perfect way to end the summer and welcome in the next season.