Lil Wayne spoke for a lot of people attending Saturday’s “50 Years of Hip-Hop” celebration at the official residence of the vice president of the United States in Washington, D.C.: At the conclusion of his set, he thanked the audience and said, “I cannot believe I am here.”
Vice President Kamala Harris also spoke for many of the approximately 400 assembled artists, executives, politicians, journalists and others when she said as part of her opening remarks, “Hip-hop now shapes nearly every aspect of American popular culture, and it reflects the incredible diversity and ingenuity of the American people. I truly believe hip-hop is one of America’s greatest exports.”
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Although hip-hop has certainly received at least some of the respect it is due in recent years — nowhere near enough, considering it is indisputably the most important and influential cultural movement of the last half century — it was still surreal to be watching artists like Wayne, Common, Jeezy, Fat Joe, Remy Ma, Doug E. Fresh, Slick Rick, MC Lyte, Wale and Madame Vice President’s fellow Oakland native Too Short performing on the front lawn of the residence, while the VP and her husband Doug Emhoff boogied from their VP-VIP area toward the back. The two stayed for the entire event, which was staged in collaboration with the Recording Academy’s Black Music Collective and Live Nation Urban, and took place under a brutal sun and stultifying humidity — until the clouds moved in during the last hour and a thunderstorm hit just after the event ended, sending any idlers scattering to their rideshares.
Partygoers began gathering outside the residence’s gates around an hour before the official 11 a.m. entry time, and with a dress code defined as “smart casual,” outfits ranged from fabulous to DGAF. Attendees were required to fill out security questionnaires as part of their RSVP, and although polite, black-clad secret service personnel were present, entry for the event was not much more stringent than an international flight. A large stage with full lighting and video screens was set up on the residence’s lawn, along with couches, tables, pillows and rugs in front of the stage, and several bars and food stands, where chicken-and-waffles and grits were available; waiters were also serving small bites throughout the event, as well as ice cream sandwiches that probably melted within minutes.
The program began shortly after noon, with a brief introductory performance followed by comments from Emhoff, Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason Jr. and Harris herself. She spoke of growing up with hip-hop and riding from Oakland into San Francisco with her friends as a teen and “dancing until we had to take off our shoes.”
She then introduced DJ D-Nice, who acted as a sort of compere for the event, and the performances, ranging between 10 and 20 minutes each, began. While several performers had been announced in advance — Common, Jeezy, MC Lyte, Roxanne Shante — few in the audience seemed completely sure who would take the stage.
Fat Joe and Remy Ma rolled through a rousing “All the Way Up”; Doug E. Fresh rapped his hits “The Show” and “La Di Da Di” before introducing Slick Rick, who was sporting his usual over-the-top jewelry: earrings, rings, bracelets, a coaster-sized watch with concentric circles of diamonds, and a gigantic, jewel-bedecked pendant in the shape of Africa hanging from an enormous gold chain. Fresh said, “Security asked Rick, ‘Is all that jewelry really necessary?’ and I said, ‘Do you know who this is? Yes, it’s necessary!’”
Fresh concluded their set with a stunning, five-minute display of human-beatbox virtuosity.
Nearly all of the performers commented on the setting. Common — who was seen later holding hands with rumored paramour Jennifer Hudson — soared through several of his hits and rapped along with Notorious B.I.G.’s 1994 classic “Juicy,” closing with the altered lyric, “We never thought that hip-hop would take us to the vice-president’s lawn!”
The clouds began rolling in during Jeezy’s set — providing a welcome relief from the sun — and the MC said there would be one more performance before the “skies opened up”: As rumored, Lil Wayne bounded to the stage, wearing a long white T-shirt and a black suit jacket. He roared through five songs, concluding with a double shot of “6 Foot 7 Foot” and “A Milli.”
In a brief conversation with the vice president, Variety asked how she would follow the event. “I can’t!” she laughed. “This is one of a kind.”
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