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Festival as Escape: The Highs and Lows of Yardfest 2018

Wale at Yardfest
Jacqueline S. Chea

Twenty-five-year-old Washington, D.C. rapper Wale performs in front of a crowd of cheering students in Tercentenary Theater Friday evening during Yardfest. "All you future millionaires, put your hands up," he said during his set.

As the spring semester slowly tapers to an end, students gather for a much-needed break in the form of Yardfest. Temporarily sectioned away with fences from the rest of the world, the string of performances feels just walled-off enough for attendees to shake away their stresses and exhale—an action far too often neglected by the student body. Unfortunately, though eagerly anticipated, the festival does not always meet expectations. The gradual decline in audience engagement as this year’s Yardfest unfolded is a testament to how difficult it is to traverse the college’s atmosphere through performance.

It’s never a good sign when you feel like the night was front-loaded coming out of a four-hour lineup. The opening acts were the unquestionable highlights of the show. The first group, Disco Band, was a charming throwback. Covering crowd favorites like The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.,” and especially well-received closing cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours),” the student performers managed to win over the crowd with established classics and glistening saxophone accompaniment.

If its counterpart was all about the past, vocal powerhouse 21 Colorful Crimson gave a picture of a robust student body looking forward. An outspoken advocate for diversity on campus, 21CC carried through their mission statement through their song selections, showcasing an array of styles including Latin, hip-hop, and pop ballads. Their message, though saccharine, struck a nerve with the audience: The performers received thunderous applause from their peers.

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Nestled symbolically in the heart of the New Yard, the student groups brought to the stage a confluence of old and new, retrospective and progressive, which really made it feel like—at least for a couple of hours—that music might effectively assuage the stress-related tensions of the term on campus. The artists that followed them, however, struggled to recreate this effect.

Friday’s performance made palpable the strange, awkward feeling of separation that occurs when artists come to the University. The same playful acknowledgement of setting that flies so well with sold-out arenas manifests itself differently here. Artists engaging a Harvard audience come up harshly against the fourth-wall, inserting themselves into a student body seeking to forget academic life for an evening. Unlike student musicians, headliners lack useful campus context and must actively adapt to their audience with varying levels of success.

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Wale’s set generally landed. His bars, crisply delivered, fell on receptive ears and were even echoed back, despite his reputation as a more niche artist. The performance of his new song “Black Bonnie” was intimate and enjoyable. He was able to work the crowd, at one point hoisting a fan holding copies of his albums over the barrier and onto the stage to dance for several songs. These moments of immersion, however, were punctuated by humor, not all of which worked. While a joke about future well-connected lawyers getting his friends out of trouble garnered a smattering of laughter, Wale’s praising of Harvard students for understanding the word “algorithm” uncomfortably brought student focus right back to the college beyond the festival.

Any concerns one might have had with Wale, though, were even worse with the final act and supposed crown jewel of the night. Lil Yachty was, by all accounts, resoundingly disappointing. Unlike those who came before him, he was unable to convincingly make the steps of Memorial Church his own, and even the most recognizable pieces of his discography—“Broccoli,” “iSpy,” and “Minnesota”—were tepid. Worst of all, however, was his inability to read the crowd. Misdirecting his charisma towards unsuccessfully urging the student body over and over to form mosh pits (which he was later told, quite fittingly, that he could not say due to liability), Yachty squandered valuable time when he could have let his music speak for him instead.

It’s a funny thing, being right up against a festival barricade. It’s up there where performers decide, deliberately or not, how they will contend with their audiences. The successful acts this Yardfest were able to reach across this divide, pulling listeners out of campus at least for a few hours. Others, however, were unable to surmount this wall, failing to provide the perennial musical performance as retreat which students so desperately covet.

—Staff writer Rick Li can be reached at rick.li@thecrimson.com.

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