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Aahh! Fest Could Be Chicago’s Most Important Festival

All the great music and celebrity spotting you want in a music fest, with more community involvement—and room to improve

Vic Mensa’s politically charged and electrifying set was a highlight of Aahh! Fest in Union Park this weekend.   Photo: Brittany Sowacke/Chicago Tribune

“Let’s show them how we party with style and class,” host Deon Cole said on Sunday of Aahh! Fest at Chicago’s Union Park. Cole was introducing a live DJ battle, urging the audience to stream the performance on Facebook Live to offer an alternate view of the city—a city that too often grabs national headlines due to its gun violence, not the wealth of musical talent making waves in the industry.

Unlike the ever-growing parade of summer music fests that march through Chicago’s streets and parks each year, Aahh! Fest tackles the city’s largest issues head-on, with a two-day event that pairs philanthropic organizations with top musical talent, removed from the drama or performative cool of its festival peers. In its second year (the first was 2014, with a 2015 hiatus), Aahh! Fest had no fashionistas or corporate takeovers setting the tone. Instead, it felt like a street fest with a few thousand strangers.

The audience had a jovial and peaceful vibe all weekend—a far cry from mega-fests like Lollapalooza and Pitchfork, where people were drunk or high or rowdy. Here, we saw a gathering of music fans eager for something easy and lovely. While Aahh! Fest did not want for the typical fest staples—people dressed to the nines and celebrity cameos including problematic hometown R&B king R. Kelly and Chance the Rapper joining his brother on stage—that did not seem to be the point of the gathering.

As in its first year, the themes—community, celebration, action, and joy—were a smart move, featuring cause-based booths promoting voter registration and nonprofits like Donda’s House and the Common Ground Foundation.

But for all of its accessibility and manageable size, the biggest misstep this year is that Aahh! Fest didn’t go big in the area where it’s most unique: unifying music and worthy causes. Most notably, unlike in 2014, the fest separated its philanthropic arm from its major acts.

On Saturday, the festival hosted a community day which featured health and wellness, arts, and college and career zones. Local acts including Timbaland protege Tink and Taylor Bennett, the brother of Chance the Rapper, headlined. It was important and necessary work connecting entertainment, social justice, and politics under one roof. But attendance of 3,000 paled in comparison to Sunday’s 10,000 when headliners Common, J. Cole, The Roots, and Jeremih performed. The layout, too, favored fans who remained near the main stage and the bar area; those who didn’t actively seek out the nonprofit booths would not have found them.

Overall, this has been an excellent year for Chicago musicians getting shine at major music festivals. Pitchfork and Lollapalooza showcased numerous talented locals like Vic Mensa and Joey Purp. Aahh! Fest brought more of the same, with the politically engaged Mensa solidifying his role as a rising star who can take on the big issues without fear of appearing vulnerable in the process. The heft of his work and lyricism shone through on Sunday, continuing to stun audiences with his heavy and theatrical performance of “16 Shots,” written in response to the death of Laquan McDonald.

When Common took the stage, he left the already engaged audience proud; he spoke about growing up in the city and connected the lyrics of his hit “The Corner” to the recent spate of victims in police-involved shootings. It was a heady move, and reinforced that community initiatives needn’t be removed from music and dancing. Compared to its competitors, Aahh! Fest has figured this out—it was one of the only fests this year that truly catered to the people and concerns of Chicago and its surrounding neighborhoods.

But in an ideal world, the benefits and strength of Saturday’s community day would also translate to the Sunday performance-heavy lineup. The better attended day could have benefited from integrating the festival’s social mission, aligning each day’s goals (music and community) to create a stronger impact. Better connected, the two elements could make future iterations of the event the most important festival in a city full of them.

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