When Made in America returns to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway next weekend, Jay-Z’s music festival will look and sound different than it has at any time in its nine-year history in Philadelphia.
That’s not just because the two-day festival staged in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art will have a tighter hip-hop and R&B focus than ever before and new headliners in Atlanta rapper Lil Baby, who tops the bill on Saturday, and former child pop star Justin Bieber, who will close the show Sunday. (Set times for all the acts will be announced in the days leading up to the festival.)
Made in America took 2020 off due to the coronavirus pandemic that shut down the concert business, and the festival is coming back, along with the live music business as a whole, just as the delta variant of the virus is causing a rise in cases nationwide.
Which is to say, cautiously. This year’s fest, with an abundance of talent including Megan Thee Stallion, Kehlani, and Young Thug on Saturday and Doja Cat, Roddy Ricch and Freddie Gibbs on Sunday, will not be scaled down in crowd size.
Desiree Perez, the CEO of Roc Nation, Jay-Z’s entertainment company that produces the fest in partnership with Live Nation, said ticket sales are on track for between 50,000 and 60,000 per day, which would made it the biggest MIA ever, larger than years when Beyoncé, Rihanna, or Jay-Z himself headlined.
But MIA 2021 will not only require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within 48 hours of entry into the MIA gates, it also will look different because festivalgoers will be masked.
This month, the City of Philadelphia announced masks would be required at all non-seated outdoor gatherings of over 1,000. MIA could be exempt from that rule because it’s mandatory for fans to be vaxxed or tested.
But the festival, which also ran a free ticket promotion with the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium in North Philadelphia, is set to follow the mask mandate.
In implementing that set of protocols, MIA is going “above and beyond” what the city requires, Perez said. “We’re being extra safe. We’re taking every safety precaution we can take. And, frankly, accepting the new world that we have to live in.” She said mask wearing would be encouraged with signage on the MIA grounds and enforced by security.
Requiring proof of vaccination or a negative test is the prevailing trend in the concert industry. Locally, it’s been implemented in outdoor venues as large as Citizens Bank Park for the Dead & Company show last weekend.
At the even bigger MIA, the fest is aiming to speed the process of entry by encouraging ticket holders to upload their vaccination proof or test status in advance to the free Clear Health Pass smartphone app. The fest is rolling out the app in a marketing partnership with Clorox, which will be provide disinfecting stations on the grounds.
The app, which is also being used by the NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders and restaurant reservation service Open Table, can be downloaded at clear.app.link/MadeinAmerica. Anyone without a smartphone is required to provide a paper proof of vaccination or a test to gain entry.
Since its initial iteration in 2012, when Jay-Z and Pearl Jam headlined and played “99 Problems” together, the festival then known as Budweiser Made in America has steadily evolved.
Since its inception, Roc Nation says the economic impact of the festival to the city has been $137.4 million, and that the festival has generated $3.4 million in charitable donations, partly through donations made at its on-site Cause Village. This year’s charity partner is the ACLU of Pennsylvania.
» READ MORE: Looking ahead as Made in America ends
In its early years, BMIA aimed to be wide-ranging, emphasizing the connective power of music..
“The lines that separate us, I don’t believe in that,” Jay-Z told me in an interview on the Art Museum steps when the festival was first announced in 2012. “I’m cool with anything and everything I’m hearing that’s music.” In a beer commercial that year, he said, “We are all trading off each other’s culture. Country, rock, indie, rap. We’re all going to find a way to come together.”
Made in America never got around to booking a country band, but it did feature many rock headliners, including Nine Inch Nails and Coldplay. In 2014, when the fest expanded, adding shows in in Los Angeles, Kanye West and Kings of Leon were the Philly headliners.
The talent Jay-Z has brought to town has dazzled: D’Angelo, Drake, Odd Future, Kendrick Lamar, Phoenix, Solange, and Janelle Monae twice. At mid-decade, the fest made room for the indie scene in Philadelphia, with acts like Hop Along, Japanese Breakfast, Waxahatchie, Strand of Oaks, and Alex G.
Since then, MIA has settled into a successful format of presenting big-name rappers alongside heavy hitters from the electronic dance music world, who played on the fest’s Liberty stage during the day.
In 2018, when the city attempted to evict MIA from the Parkway, Jay-Z responded with an editorial written for The Inquirer arguing that the fest “is a multicultural platform that represents strength, freedom of speech and perseverance. ... Philadelphia, an iconic city, represents those ideals. The location is integral to the pulse of the festival.”
That year, the hip-hop plus EDM equation was in effect with Nicki Minaj, Post Malone, and a celebratory set with Meek Mill, who’d been recently releasedfrom prison. Superstar DJs Diplo and Zedd also played party-starting sets.
This year, EDM will be missing from MIA. On the festival grounds, the DJs have previously made their Liberty Stage home on the southern edge of the Parkway near the Park Towne Place apartment building.
That area became Maja Park, named after the sculpture of a female figure by German artist Gerhard Marcks that’s been relocated there after spending nearly 30 years in storage at the Art Museum.
With the park no longer part of the festival grounds, MIA has cut back to three stages. The Rocky Stage where Bieber and Lil Baby will finish off each evening will alternate each day with the nearby Freedom Stage.
And the Tidal Stage — named after Jay-Z’s music service which will livestream the festival — will showcase up-and-coming acts.
Even without the DJs or the rock acts that have been out of the mix for years now, this year’s MIA still packs plenty of pop.
Bieber is riding high, currently topping the pop charts with “Stay,” his collaboration with Australian rapper the Kid Laroi, and he scored big this year with “Peaches,” with Daniel Caesar and Giveon. The Canadian singer has rescheduled all his other shows until next year so MIA is his only 2021 date.
Doja Cat, the Los Angeles rapper born Amala Dlamini, has three songs in Billboard Top 20. Multiple Grammy winner Megan Thee Stallion is about to get even bigger with her remix of BTS’ “Butter.” And there’s lots of talent further down the MIA bill as well, from the Buffalo, N.Y., rap crew Griselda to Atlanta singer-songwriter Mariah the Scientist.
But while there are enticing acts luring fans to the streets of Philadelphia, it’s hard not to wonder if it even matters who’s playing this year. The real winner is the brand that Jay-Z has built with the festival that would now be in its 10th year had COVID-19 not canceled 2020.
Since it was born in 2012, Made in America has established itself as a Philadelphia perennial, an institution that — as last year proved — it wouldn’t seem like Labor Day weekend without. With pandemic-deprived festivalgoers as ready to revel in a rite-of-passage bacchanal as they’ll ever be, it’s no surprise that the festival is coming back so big, even though COVID isn’t going away.