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Roots Picnic 2023 Was One Big Family Reunion

The Roots Picnic was a well-planned, cross-country family reunion. From Lil Uzi Vert taking the stage Saturday night to address his hometown crowd to an on-time and on-target Lauryn Hill reuniting with her long-lost bandmates Wyclef Jean and Pras Michel for what may very well be the last Fugees show ever, Roots Picnic 2023 was a reminder of how great music festivals can be when proper curation and care are a part of the equation.

At one point, festivals were a daring answer to the monopoly record labels held over artist material. They could hit the road, meet the fans who adored them, and collect most of their earnings through familiarity and a scintillating stage show. Now, that’s changed. Most festivals feel like a cash grab, stuffing all of your favorite Spotify-streamed tunes into a chaotic shuffle of park mud, drunken VIPs, and often exhausted artists. This is how I expected Roots Picnic to go as well: a marathon of half-done sets, racing back and forth to hear hits, capture just enough to fill my iCloud memory, and then do it all over the next day. But it’s that reunion feel of the two-day festival that won me over, matching the exact sensory warmth of a million cookouts past.

City Girls, Yung Miami and JT, on stage at the Roots Picnic 2023. Photo by Vickey Ford for Sneakshot/Okayplayer.

As with any cookout, you had your typical appearances. Ron Isley was our uncle reminding us (without pretense) how he helped birth hip-hop, having a set alongside the Soulquarians (and curated by Questlove) that found him going through Isley Brothers classics that became the basis of hip-hop classics. There was our alternative cousin Lil Uzi Vert, showing up to the event with a new pronoun and hair color, still as magnetic as ever. The City Girls were the “Act Bad” little sisters who ditched convention for rebel life, their performance carrying the confidence earned from boldly stepping out. State Property were those “just came home” uncles, still wearing collectible Mitchell and Ness gear from their heyday, eyes hidden behind shades, and holding plastic cups filled with that brown. DJ Akademiks and Talib Kweli were our talkative and contentious older brothers, always ready with a YouTube link and a mouthful of historical gossip.

Ronn Isley, on stage at the Roots Picnic 2023.Ronn Isley, on stage at the Roots Picnic 2023. Photo by Vickey Ford for Sneakshot/Okayplayer.

Unlike a festival, at the cookout you don’t need to come equipped. You can show up empty-handed and (maybe) still get a plate. You can cradle a drink and cry out “That’s my song!” when your older or younger relatives raise an eyebrow at those hooks that got you through heartbreak. Ari Lennox brought that home for me. Her bedroom ballads and relationship chronicles floated over a throng of laid-out listeners, with some women standing as she screamed, “This is for that broke man who had a good heart. Had to let him go. A lot of people with good hearts out there. But I had to let him go, sis!” When I surveyed who was present during her set, I saw nothing but Black women’s faces. Hundreds of Black cheekbones, Black chins, Black bead-wrapped waists, and Black knowings. Nods of Black knowing swelled tidal waves for City Girls, gusted up whirlwinds for Ari, and tornadoes for Eve. The blonde bombshell was that overseas auntie who kept herself together, traveled more than she stayed, and somehow returned looking better and brighter. Backed by Black Thought’s fiery voice, Eve reveled in her elation, laughing and dapping up her legendary emcee partner.

Ari Lennox, on stage at the Roots Picnic 2023.Ari Lennox, on stage at the Roots Picnic 2023.Photo by Vickey Ford for Sneakshot/Okayplayer.

As that doe-eyed nostalgia choked me, Usher reigned supreme. First rattling off five straight hits with non-stop energy and Jackson-like grace, it was clear that Usher was our superstar cousin. The first to make it big and go off to college on a scholarship. The varsity athlete who somehow preserved his waist and hairline over decades, who everyone waited on and wanted to please.

“You know, it’s not everyone who gets to say they headlined the Roots Picnic twice,” he emphasized. “But when they called me and said Philly needs you out here, bro, I said ‘On one condition…y’all gotta rock with me.” Then, the Roots crew assumed their places on stage and backed Usher’s remaining set, which even included a once-in-a-lifetime rendition of “You Got Me” with Jazmine Sullivan channeling her inner Jill Scott and Erykah Badu. Hearing Sullivan put her own spin on the hip-hop classic as Black Thought and Eve traded bars, I thought I might burst. Everyone sang the lyrics without interruption and shame. Over sore heels and tired hips, I bopped to all of Usher’s catalog, the king of R&B offering an undeniably satisfying set that marked the festival’s final performance.

Questlove, on stage at the Roots Picnic 2023.Questlove, on stage at the Roots Picnic 2023. Photo by Vickey Ford for Sneakshot/Okayplayer.

Roots Picnic 2023 wasn’t a festival with wristbands, french fry vomit, and patrons being carted off on gurneys (OK, it was that, too). This was my family. The pain and exhaustion I felt afterward was a meager cost to reunite with the relatives I loved so much. Black Thought, Questlove, and the Roots saved this event from being another festival by keeping it in the family, culminating in one of the year’s best music festivals so far.

Ms Lauryn Hill, on stage at the Roots Picnic 2023. Ms Lauryn Hill, on stage at the Roots Picnic 2023. Photo by Vickey Ford for Sneakshot/Okayplayer.

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