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Broccoli City Festival 2023 was a Beautiful Mess

Music festivals are cooked. In a time when inflation has strapped millennials and zoomers spending habits, the looming dread of student loan repayments restarting, the dead dream of home ownership, and more, spending money on music festivals has become a luxury that many fans choose to sacrifice. The festival economy would probably be in an even worse spot if getting tickets to big-name artists for live shows wasn’t such a hassle as well. For the fans who do shell out the cash, tickets can set them back $400-500, without even considering food, lodging, Ubers, and other miscellaneous costs. And even then, the lineups are often uninspired retreads featuring the same 40+ trending artists, with organizers losing the originality and regional appeal that once made music festivals can’t miss events for the summer.

But Broccoli City Festival in Washington D.C. is a relief from those cliches. Mixing the regional flavor of DMV rap, R&B, and Go-Go. For those in the know, Broccoli City Festival has some of the best lowkey lineups, and regularly books artists on the precipice of blowing up. The vendors are mostly local and community-based: Legacy DC, Roaming Rooster, DTLR, Po Boy Jim, and others set up shop and supply festival-goers with food, giveaways, and experiences. You can even buy weed. The best part of Broccoli though is the price: $200 for two days to see stars like Ice Spice, Brent Faiyaz,Lil Uzi Vert, City Girls, Asake, Rema, GloRilla, Jazmine Sullivan, and more makes the ticket price worth it.

And yet, Broccoli City has had bad luck as of late. Last year, weather was the main culprit, with fans sporting ponchos as they attempted to ride out the storm. And of course, like most festivals, for two years Broccoli City had to cancel due to Covid-19.

Navigating day one

Photo Credit: Vickey Ford for Okayplayer

It’s Saturday afternoon. Along the decaying RFK Stadium trail to the festival, I pass by opportunity-seeking vendors offering water, phone chargers, bootleg merch, $10 edibles, and my favorite: shots of Henny for $2. Tens of thousands of festival-goers arrive in assorted tanktops, designer Gucci, Givenchy, and Saint Laurent shirts — which may, or may not be real — white-bottomed Chuck-Ts, booty shorts, basketball jerseys, and other loose-fitting clothing to be as comfortable as possible in the unforgiving humidity of D.C. summer. Even then, within five minutes of getting off the metro, my Marino Infantry Whitney Houston Black T-Shirt is drenched in sweat.

At will call, it’s pandemonium. The Box Office has no clear label between media, will call, and ticket purchasing. One woman yells at a man in line about cutting her, then proceeds to scream at the ticket officials. “You need to put a sign up,” she asserts. When the ticket official says he won’t do that, she hands him a sharpie. “Here, write it on the fucking building.” The festival hasn’t even started yet.

The heat would become a main factor of my time on Saturday, with performances stopped at least once or twice per artist due to people passing out. (Medics were quick to help, so there was no Travis Scott negligence.)

As I stroll into the festival grounds, I’m greeted by the raunchy rapping of Saucy Santana, who, despite a scattered crowd, gives it his all. He jumps around the stage growling and rapping with ferocity, the highlight being an impassioned, twerk-filled performance of “Walk It Like A Dog.” After a brief intermission — to address someone who passed out — Saucy ended his set by inviting fans on stage to twerk. This would be the most on-time and organized Broccoli would be all day.

Despite Afrobeats star Rema being scheduled right after Santana, it took an hour to get him on stage, pushing every set time on the main Broccoli Stage back. During this time, I decided to explore the elusive backstage area. Past the winding parking lots, stacked with cars, storage crates, buses, and even tractors, lies the intermingled tent city. An assortment of tents give out water and cocktails for free, decked with snow-white couches and glass tables. While in line to get a drink, I look out to the glamorous crowd and try to figure out who’s famous. But, alas, I’m celebrity face blind. Lil Baby could walk in and I’d have no idea.

Being in these areas leads to running into people from all walks of life: young photographers taking very little money in exchange for access; journalists writing for L.A. publications I’ve never heard of who are just as clueless how to cover a festival properly as I am; beautiful women in tight dresses with gold VIP wristbands who come here every year for free because they “know a guy;” and people sporting Death Row swag, Mike Tyson T-shirts, and chains that cost more than your parents’ and grandparents house combined. The most notable group though: two men — one younger, one older with a graying beard — wearing artist passes calling themselves the “the real muthafuckin OGs,” who light a spliff in the portable restroom before security walks in to break it up and the participants waddle by the guard like high school kids getting caught smoking in the bathroom. The one thing they all have in common, somehow, someway, they made it here, all on the same level in this secret place of vanity, luxury, and air conditioning.

The performances that followed each had a few moments worth cherishing. There was Chlöe Bailey asserting herself as a confident queen for the new age, sporting a see-through green leotard, her elastic voice hitting the notes on “I Don’t Mind,” and natural charisma powering “Treat Me.” The one hiccup, a few fans passing out which she recognized with concern in her voice, and stopped the show for a few minutes. Keke Palmer flaunted her multifaceted talents, singing, dancing, cracking jokes, tossing out soccer beach balls, and even shooting $10,000 into the crowd. Red hot superstar Ice Spice turned the function into a twerkfest, as she rapped “Munch,” “The Boy’s A Liar Pt 2,” and “Princess Diana.” Finally, the City Girls made their triumphant return to Broccoli Fest for the first time since 2019, with J.T. crushing “No Bars.”

The best of the day though was sadly not experienced by the majority of the crowd. TiaCorine was relegated to the smaller City Stage, but it didn’t impact her performance. The North Carolina rising star brought the energy for her short 20-minute set, fighting through technical difficulties but still giving fans every stage of her career from “Lotto” to “FreakyT.” (She was even one of the only performers to bring out a guest all day — Atlanta’s Tony Shhnow to rock “Boogie.”)

Photo Credit: Vickey Ford for Okayplayer

But Tia and City Girls would end up being the de-facto headliners by default. Shortly after City Girls walked off the stage, the show was delayed, with a message stating for people to wait. However, backstage, the word was spreading. The skies became progressively darker, as the overcast of clouds loomed over the festival grounds. Brief peaks of lightning lit up the sky, but no rain came down. When fans were finally told they would not get to see headliners Jazmine Sullivan and Lil Uzi Vert, anger spread across RFK. Walking out of the stadium, I observed festivalgoers throwing bottles at security, getting into verbal spats with ushers and vendors, breaking down gates to get out quicker, and screaming “refund!” into the desolate night sky. The next day, Broccoli Festival posted on Instagram that fans would get partial or full refunds depending on if they purchased one or two-day tickets, but at the time, the lack of communication had people on edge. Try telling crossfaded college students, who came all the way from New York, Philadelphia, North Carolina, and Delaware to see Lil Uzi perform the Pink Tape that it’s not gonna happen – I’d be pissed too.

A wetter but better second day

Coco Jones wearing green singingPhoto Credit: Vickey Ford for Okayplayer

The next day’s weather forecast promised mostly clear skies, but this is D.C., it can go from sunny, to rain, to hail in 20 minutes if the Gods decide it. But even D.C.’s notoriously Bi-Polar weather couldn’t explain the spell Coco Jones cast on the skies. Near the end of her quite beautiful set, she sang “Rain” to the crowd. 30 seconds into the song, the skies opened up and poured down onto festivalgoers without warning. People either took the L and stood in the monsoon, or fled for cover in vendor tents like the White Bronco lounge. But as the rain cascaded to the ground, Jones continued forward, belting SWV’s classic “Rain,” almost daring the rain not to stop. Her voice cut through the storm, hitting each high note with precision, not once slipping through the circumstances. As soon as she finished the track, the rain stopped. Not a drop of water would come down for the rest of the evening. The beauty of the live music experience is anything can happen. Artists will adapt and experiment on the fly, the best ones taking these circumstances of fortune and spinning it into stories that cement legacies. On this day, Coco Jones delivered a legacy-defining performance.

Even though Coco’s performance was the peak of the festival, several other acts delivered throughout the day. Afrobeats superstar Asake took crowd work to another level, clearing the photo pit to sit on the guard railing, and even running out past the barricades into the sea of people, dancing and singing his numerous crowd-pleasing anthems. If there was an award for energy, he would get first place by a mile. Maraiah The Scientist shutdown any claims of her vocals being weak live, harmonizing her hits, with the highlight being the moody, ‘80s slow dance-sounding heartache anthem “Reminders.” GloRilla rocked the audience with 2022’s song of the summer F.N.F. (Let’s Go)” commanding the stage and showing why she’s poised for stardom. And Kodak Black barely rapped a word, but his presence and undeniable bops carried his set, which catered to his classics like “Roll In Peace,” “There He Go,” and of course “No Flockin.”

Kodak Black rapping on stagePhoto Credit: Vickey Ford for Okayplayer

As the sun began to set, fans waited in anticipation for the homecoming of Columbia, Maryland superstar Brent Faiyaz, arguably the biggest name in the DMV right now. He rarely tours, and when he does it would be easier to get box seats at a Nationals game than a decent seat for his stadium shows. But tonight, the region comes together for the hometown kid’s return. With the lights low, Brent walks out to the loudest ovation of the weekend, basking in the glow of this full circle moment. It seemed like the crowd knew every track, even the deep cuts, with Brent crooning each word. His songs didn’t elicit turn-up vibes, instead, it felt like a calm rush, with Faiyaz evoking the energy of an intimate basement show out to the tens of thousands gathered to behold their hometown hero. He made sure not to forget about putting on the young stars of the DMV either. Joony dashed out to the stage to rap his incredible verse from “FYTB,” and Tre Amani hopped out to perform his verse on “Addictions.” Faiyaz nailed most of the hits, crooning his way through “Gravity,” “Been Away,” “Jackie Brown,” “All Mine,” and more for a little over an hour. The lights flickered, guitars and pianos rang out into the black sky, all while Faiyaz maintained a calming, unbothered presence, meeting the chaos around him with a dismissive shrug. Any doubts of his superstardom evaporated as he closed the set with Drake duet “Wasting Time,” bowing to the crowd as his harmonious voice pierced the atmosphere. We don’t know if Frank Ocean will ever perform again or make music, but at least we have Brent Faiyaz.

Despite all the chaos of the weekend, I left Broccoli City Festival quite satisfied. Both days were shitshows: from impromptu rain storms, messy lines, Broccoli officials limiting the people in the pit because overzealous backstage patrons, and people passing out from heat exhaustion every 30 minutes. And yet, there’s just something different about a DMV crowd over any crowd in the country. I’ve seen artists in New York, Houston, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Dallas, Austin, Miami, Las Vegas, Philadelphia and more, and every time, the DMV crowd shows out more than the rest. There’s an energy here that words can’t describe. Fans know the deep cuts, or at least try to. They don’t fold their arms or stare blankly as the artist gives it their all. Only at Broccoli City can you catch Big Flock sitting on the side of the stage as Ice Spice twerks. Even backstage, the communal vibes were apparent. Hundreds of DMV creatives exchanged Instagrams and had short conversations, sometimes running into people they had seen at an El Cousteau pop-up, or a flash The Khan performance at the Pocket.

Asake with the crowdPhoto Credit: Vickey Ford for Okayplayer

Blending the DMV energy with mainstream titans and a national audience may have resulted in a whirlwind of highs and lows and unpredictable events (and if you only came Saturday you did not get a good experience), but those who stuck it out, were treated to just enough moments that reinforced what makes the DMV so special.

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Josh Svetz is the Reviews Editor at HipHopDX and has been featured in Pitchfork, Spin, Paste and Passion Of The Weiss. You can find him trying to revive the word “swag” and arguing about Roscoe Dash’s impact on modern music on Twitter and Instagram.

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