Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the 13th annual Roots Picnic took place virtually. And while the concert is known for hot weather and packed festival grounds, there was still plenty to love.
The night kicked off with a message from the Roots and former first lady Michelle Obama, who cohosted the show in partnership with her nonprofit organization When We All Vote. More than 30,000 viewers tuned in for the livestream.
The virtual event stressed the importance of voting, not only in November’s presidential election but also in local contests. Between performances, short speeches by Kerry Washington, Common, Selena Gomez, Janelle Monáe, Wallo267, among others, drove the point home.
“We may not all sound like SZA or Kirk Franklin,” Obama said during the opening skit with Questlove and Black Thought of the Roots. “But we all deserve to have our voices heard at the ballot box come November.”
Situated at the top of a hill in Fairmount Park at an empty Mann Center, overlooking Philly’s skyline, Black Thought was the first artist to perform — accompanied by Questlove on turntables.
Next, on a different set, Compton rapper Roddy Rich performed a stripped-down version of “Ballin.” The only prop was the microphone stand. Sporting a flashy denim jacket and his weight in diamonds around his neck, Rich set the tone for the night with his elegant, mellow energy.
Grammy-winning singer-songwriter H.E.R. kept the show moving with a socially distanced performance of “I Can’t Breathe,” which was released earlier this month and inspired by the police killing in Minneapolis of George Floyd.
“We do not seek revenge, we seek justice,” she sang with an acoustic guitar in her lap. She then picked up the pace with “Fate,” where she ripped through a solo on an electric guitar.
Philly’s Musiq Soulchild took us back to the early 2000s with his two-song set of “Halfcrazy” and “Just Friends.” In a strictly neutral color palette that imparted a sense of summer, the soul singer performed alongside two backup singers, who doubled as backup dancers, and Questlove on the drums.
SZA offered an intimate outdoor performance of “Normal Girl” from her 2017 album, CTRL. And DJ D-Nice brought a disco-inspired Club Quarantine to the virtual show with Stevie Wonder’s “Another Star.”
Messages and images from the Black Lives Matter movement were sprinkled through multiple performances, including rapper G Herbo’s, which displayed photos of Ahmaud Arbery, Sandra Bland, and Tanisha Anderson, among other victims — and symbols — of police brutality.
Gospel great Kirk Franklin brought a high-energy medley to the show’s otherwise moody feel. Franklin, accompanied by a socially distanced choir dressed in denim and white, tore through “Strong God,” “F.A.V.O.R.,” and “Hosanna.”
Under a soft fuchsia stage light, Swedish singer Snoh Aalegra tapered the energy back down to a relaxing feel with her song “I Want You Around” and a dulcet rendition of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” Rapper Lil Baby followed with a performance of “The Bigger Picture.”
The Roots crew closed the two-hour show with a rousing version of “Dear God 2.0” featuring Philly singer Bilal.
Early-bird tickets are on sale now for the 2021 Roots Picnic Festival, which takes place at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts. Performers for next year’s show have not been announced yet. Visit rootspicnic.com/philly/tickets/ for more information.