Last Sunday, Dayna Allen took a FaceTime call while sitting in a restaurant at the Los Angeles International Airport. She was on a layover from San Francisco, heading back to her home in West Philadelphia, when a mysterious man walked up to her playing a flute.
At first blush, she didn’t realize that the flute player was the six-time Grammy-winning rapper André 3000, born André Lauren Benjamin, so she gave him a side-eye and continued on with her conversation. When Allen boarded her flight to Philadelphia, she saw that Benjamin, 44, was already seated, and only then did she realize who he was.
“I looked at [Benjamin] and he looked at me and I was in total shock," Allen said. “I immediately regretted not saying anything [at the restaurant], because it was like he wanted to be recognized.”
For the better part of the summer, Benjamin, a native of Atlanta, has been spotted several times around Los Angeles and New York City playing his Mayan double flute and taking photos with fans. And now, the notoriously elusive rapper is in Philadelphia doing the same.
Benjamin rose to prominence in the early 1990s as half of the Atlanta-based rap duo OutKast, alongside rapper Big Boi. The group is known for such chart-topping hits as “Ms. Jackson” and “Hey Ya!” In 2015, Billboard named Benjamin one of the best 10 rappers of all time, pointing out that he is an “eccentric emo crooner and one of hip-hop’s elite at the same time.” But aside from the handful of public appearances and song features, Benjamin has avoided the celebrity associated with his career for the last decade.
That’s why on Tuesday, when Russ Jackson of Southwest Philadelphia thought the flautist sitting on the steps of a church on 13th Street just south of Market looked like André 3000, he felt compelled to turn around for a double take.
“When I walked past him the first time, I didn’t approach him," Jackson said. “I just saw a guy, but he kind of fit the mold of André 3000. As I was walking, it started to click that it was probably him.”
Jackson said he was stopped by the traffic light at Market Street but knew he couldn’t let the moment pass. When Jackson approached Benjamin sitting on the steps of St. John the Evangelist, he stood and watched the hip-hop pioneer deliver an elegant solo on a flute that Jackson said looked like an “artifact.”
“He was very welcoming," Jackson said of his encounter with Benjamin. “I asked him what he was doing in town. He said he was in town for two weeks filming something for TV.”
Jackson inquired about the flute and “he told me that he picked it up a couple of years ago and that he’s trying to get really good at it.”
Later Tuesday night, Chandria Harris spotted the rapper during her shift at Whole Foods on Pennsylvania Avenue. Harris was struck that Benjamin was completely alone — “from the time I saw him at the juice bar, to the time he checked out.” Harris said that Benjamin was wearing striped Dickey overalls with a long-sleeved black shirt.
Alessandra Hankinson of South Philly was lucky enough to run into the rapper twice. She first saw Benjamin on Thursday, while walking near Shake Shack at 12th and Chestnut Streets on her lunch break.
“It seemed like no one recognized him ... But I think he wants people to know he’s here,” Hankinson said. The two engaged in small talk before she asked for a photo. On Friday, Benjamin walked into her job at Mitchell & Ness, a sports apparel store at 12th and Chestnut Streets.
“He had on the exact same attire as the day before — overalls and a black shirt," Hankinson said.
So far, there have been at least a dozen André 3000 sightings from South Philly to the Liberty Bell.
“Your opportunities to meet him are slim,” Jackson said. “But it was great to see him by himself and have a genuine connection with someone who’s a legend in the music business.”