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A Hip-Hop-Heavy Blue Note Jazz Festival Celebrates the Spiritual Lineage of Black Music

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Chance the Rapper headlines night three of Blue Note Jazz Festival on Sunday, July 30, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)

Sunday evening, as the moon rose over the peach-colored Napa sky, Blue Note Jazz Festival artist-in-resident Robert Glasper got carried away in the music. His band was in the pocket, and Bilal had just demonstrated his formidable vocal range, improvising with Lalah Hathaway. Up next, Rakim took the stage. After dropping a couple verses, the legendary MC almost walked off and called it a night — until host Dave Chappelle beckoned him back by rapping a few of Rakim’s lyrics.

Rakim performed a soulful rendition of “Paid in Full,” but when he finished rapping, the band didn’t stop. The wine and good vibes were flowing, and more artists spontaneously emerged from backstage. Chance the Rapper, due to headline the festival in half an hour, came up to pay respects to Rakim, who paved the way. Meeting for what seemed like the first time, they traded verses — and were soon joined by Vic Mensa, Talib Kweli and De La Soul’s Maseo, who gave Rakim a heartfelt salute. It felt like a history-making moment: three generations of MCs in a positive feedback loop of mutual appreciation, with a masterful band playing classic beats live.

Robert Glasper performs at Blue Note Jazz Festival on Saturday, July 29, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)

A powerful celebration of this spiritual, life-affirming musical lineage connected many of the artists at Blue Note. “I make Black American music, which is an amalgamation of rhythm, beautiful harmony, church and, you know, melodies that speak to your soul,” Meshell Ndegeocello told my colleague Eric Arnold backstage. She could’ve been describing any number of the artists at the festival, whose individual styles are leaves and branches of the same tree.

“It sounds corny, but when I’m on stage and I’m immersed in the music, it’s the only time I am freed of that inner dialogue about my gender and my race,” Ndegeocello continued. “It’s the only time I just feel at one with others.”

Hip-hop is ‘one of the few things that is able to bridge the diaspora,’ Gabrielle Union told KQED’s Eric Arnold backstage at Blue Note Jazz Festival. ‘And any time you start to bring people together and so they could realize their true power, that’s going to be dangerous and controversial.’ (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)

That feeling of oneness was underscored by the occasion of hip-hop’s 50th anniversary, and many at the festival looked back at how far the culture has come. “I’m glad to be part of it, and I’m a teacher,” Madlib humbly reflected to Arnold. “Youngins are coming after me. That’s all.”

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Throughout Blue Note, which took place July 28–30 at its new home, Silverado Resort in Napa, fans and artists alike showed each other heartfelt love and gratitude for these collective moments. Our team spent the weekend at the festival, and here’s what we saw. —Nastia Voynovskaya

Ari Lennox performs at Blue Note Jazz Festival on July 28, 2023. (Eric Arnold)

Ari Lennox’s earnest reflections on love

Demigoddess of soulful and sexy R&B Ari Lennox brought a lively eroticism to her set. Her dreamy vocals in “Whipped Cream,” a neo-soul ballad from her 2019 album Shea Butter Baby, entranced the crowd — who fanned themselves profusely from the heat, Lennox’s raw sensuality, or both. Her stirring performance of “New Apartment” was a welcome anthem about independence and self-love. “Waste My Time,” a wry and bumping inclusion, was a reminder of her narrative range, which ended with a contemptuous “boy byeeeee!” And equally unforgettable was her citrusy orange lace corset and wrap skirt, which matched her backup singers’ monochromatic fits — orange headscarves, berets, knitwear.

Gloriously sensual hits like “Stop By” dominated her set, but Lennox sees her music moving in a tender direction, while staying true to her sensuality. Backstage, she said, “My music’s always going to be sexy because that’s innate to me, but I also see it going towards love. Love — I feel like I haven’t experienced it in a romantic way, so if I find love one day, it would be cool to talk about it.”

Ari Lennox performs at Blue Note Jazz Festival on Friday, July 28, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)

And that’s not the only new, loving relationship Lennox is looking for. “I want a cat,” she said, laughing. “I grew up with a cat, but it didn’t like me, so we didn’t have a great relationship.”

On stage, her earnest dialogue with the crowd — which included Lennox divulging her latest dating app match with a “Chicago boy” — was a hopeful turn from her announcement on Twitter in December that her “age/sex/location” tour would be her last. That Tweet has since been deleted, and Lennox released her single “My Phone Can Die” in May. Her vulnerability and intimacy with the festival crowd felt like a reassurance that she’ll be gracing us with her presence for a while longer.

Also reassuring were even more reflections on where she sees her music going. “I would say it’s just soulful — it’s continuing to be myself,” she said. “It’s R&B in a space where I’m welcoming that alternative quirky side and putting myself back into my music.” —Olivia Cruz Mayeda

De La Soul and Talib Kweli perform at Blue Note Jazz Festival on Friday, July 28, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)

Robert Glasper and De La Soul share a moment of gratitude

Robert Glasper’s performance with De La Soul and several interjections by artists like saxophonist Terrace Martin and Parliament-Funkadelic’s legendary George Clinton was an obvious hit of the day, pulling a large, energetic and intergenerational crowd. Glasper delivered a rousing keyboard solo that only lulled slightly when Dave Chappelle approached, whispered something into Glasper’s ear, and the two erupted into laughter.

“This is like seeing Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee in a bar fight,” Chappelle quipped when The Roots member James Poyser joined Glasper at the keyboards. Chappelle got additional laughs when he mimed stroking the keys, lips pursed around a cigarette, while Poyser played for real behind him.

De La Soul perform at Blue Note Jazz Festival on Friday, July 28, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)

De La Soul and Glasper’s set roared to life from the get-go and was relentless to the end. From “Into the Woods” off De La Soul’s 1994 album Buhloone Mindstate to “Rock Co.Kane Flow,” De La Soul had the crowd firmly in their grasp. The artists stopped dramatically mid-flow, Poyser’s hand hovering over the keyboard and Kelvin Mercer collapsed on the stage only to spring back to life and double down on the beat. “Louder!” Mercer yelled into the audience during “Stakes is High,” and received a robust response.

Mercer noted his respect for the turnout: “Oh shit, it’s a bunch of Black people,” he said. “They’re well established, and they’re chilling.” The presence of other cultural icons like Gabrielle Union, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul in the crowd lent emphasis to his point. “This right here is the culture,” shouted Wade, his arm over Paul.

Vincent Mason of De La Soul at Blue Note Jazz Festival on Saturday, July 29, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)

Mercer, wearing a black “Stakes Is High” tee, took a moment during the performance to speak on the emotional stakes of De La Soul’s hugely influential discography. “Don’t be afraid of your age — we made it,” he said, making references to the group’s songs about friends who died young, including De La Soul’s late member Trugoy the Dove, who died earlier this year.

Mercer also talked about the significance of hip-hop’s 50th anniversary, saying, “Hip Hop is a feeling — the veins of it is a feeling — and we’ve been blessed as De La Soul to make songs that give us that feeling.” —Olivia Cruz Mayeda

Digable Planets perform at Blue Note Jazz Festival on Saturday, July 29, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)

Digable Planets reimagine ‘Reachin” with jazz

In a troubled world, Digable Planets’ Reachin’ (A Refutation of Time and Space) is a sunbeam of goodness. And it just so happens that the trio celebrates their 1993 debut album’s 30th birthday during the golden anniversary of hip-hop culture. The group’s Saturday afternoon Blue Note set felt like an especially auspicious occasion as they performed new versions of classics like “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat),” “Jettin’” and “Nickel Bags.”

Mariana Ladybug Mecca Vieira of Digable Planets performs at Blue Note Jazz Festival on Saturday, July 29, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)

The Planets built their vibey sound with samples from Herbie Hancock and Parliament-Funkadelic, and their mega-talented live band (led by guitarist Thaddeus Turner, with rising star Kassa Overall on drums) gave the music new, shimmering dimensions. Butterfly, Ladybug Mecca and Doodlebug were crisp, refined and funky as ever, allowing us to rediscover the Brooklyn of their imaginations with eyes full of awe and wonder. —Nastia Voynovskaya

Yussef Dayes performs at Blue Note Jazz Festival on Saturday, July 29, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)

A rising London star makes his mark

A journey to the smaller, out-of-the-way Blue Note stage on Saturday proved well worth it for Yussef Dayes’ golden-hour set. The percussion wizard, a star of London’s lauded jazz scene, was perched atop an elaborate drum kit at center stage, speaking to the crowd through rhythm. Dayes played his drums with such finesse that they sounded almost like melodic instruments: at different points throughout his set, his drums sang and whispered invitations to groove to the fusion of Afro-diasporic rhythms.

Meshell Ndegeocello watches Yussef Dayes perform at Blue Note Jazz Festival on Saturday, July 29, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)

The potent jazz, funk, soul and drum’n’bass fusion that Dayes’ band concocted on stage sounded deceptively laid back, belying each person’s incredible skill. Piano player Elijah Fox (a rising star himself who was recently featured on Kali Uchis’ latest album and sampled by Drake) seemed possessed by the groove, shifting the mood from romantic and cinematic to psychedelically otherworldly, with bassist Rocco Palladino’s deep grooves anchoring his explorations. Meshell Ndegeocello, who performed a heartfelt, vocal-driven set earlier in the afternoon, stood on the side of the stage the whole show, raising her hands in praise and losing herself in the music. Like the rest of us in the audience, she didn’t stop smiling. —Nastia Voynovskaya

Nas performs at Blue Note Jazz Festival on July 29, 2023. (Eric Arnold)

‘Straight out the dungeons of rap’

Considering he’s written some of the most memorable bars in rap history, Saturday’s headliner, Nas, didn’t need pomp and circumstance to impress. As he traveled through his decades-long catalog, he gave the people what they wanted, focusing heavily on his mid-’90s Illmatic era, and transporting us into a Queensbridge childhood that continues to be his wellspring of inspiration.

Nas headlines night two of Blue Note Jazz Festival on Saturday, July 29, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)

Nas arrived looking casual in black Air Forces and a tracksuit, but he conveyed a regal aura. With a minimal three-piece band, DJ and backing vocalist, he rapped with a searing precision, reminding us why he’s motivated generations of MCs to put pen to rhyme book. As he delivered hard-edged verses about a cutthroat world of street intrigues, his stoic demeanor at times would crack, revealing a dimpled smile each time he felt the magnitude of tens of thousands of cheers. The intergenerational audience was feeling themselves, yelling the words, and dancing along to his more club-oriented 2000s hits, each person time-traveling to the first time they were moved by this once-in-a-generation street poet. —Nastia Voynovskaya

A young drummer and pianist perform in front of a purple and blue backdrop.
Domi and JD Beck perform at Blue Note Jazz Festival on Sunday, July 30, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)

Newcomers DOMi and JD Beck win over the crowd

Plenty of newness has infused jazz in the past decade, but DOMi and JD Beck are particularly special outliers. Mixing the sounds of Weather Report and Squarepusher with Drain Gang aesthetics, the keyboard/drums duo on Sunday afternoon seemed to know their uphill battle in winning over the crowd. (Announcing a mid-set medley, Beck quipped that “nobody asked and nobody cares, so we’re just gonna play it.”) By the end of the set, though, after a tribute to Wayne Shorter (“Endangered Species”) and their own dizzying material, they got a rousing ovation. To celebrate, DOMi said, “It’s time for some underage drinking!” —Gabe Meline

Bobby McFerrin (left) performs with his son Taylor McFerrin at Blue Note Jazz Festival on Sunday, July 30, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)

A family affair with Taylor McFerrin with Bobby McFerrin

Near the end of his set with his father, Taylor began talking about Bobby McFerrin’s debut album, released when he was one year old. This led into a rendition of that album’s “Sightless Bird,” augmented onstage by Taylor’s sister, Madison. The family affair continued with Little Dragon’s “Twice,” done in a slow burning style by Taylor and Madison, which, for five minutes on a Sunday afternoon, hypnotized the rapt crowd. —Gabe Meline

Rakim performs at Blue Note Jazz Festival on Sunday, July 30, 2023. (Eric Arnold)

Rakim and DJ Jazzy Jeff bring new life to classics

Rakim isn’t a rapper so much as a vessel of the divine, and onstage, he tore through his set with his commanding, regal style. From opener “My Melody” to chiseled-in-stone classics like “I Ain’t No Joke,” “Microphone Fiend” and “Move the Crowd,” Rakim had one of hip-hop’s greatest DJs on hand for spontaneous segues and remixes. (As a clear upgrade from Rakim’s original DJ Eric B., Jazzy Jeff proved his skills with a furious scratch breakdown of L.L. Cool J’s “Rock the Bells.”) Singalongs were constant; shout out to superfan Adam Frazier from Sacramento, who recited and acted out every single word of Rakim’s set from the second row. Near the end, an a capella “Follow the Leader” led into closer “Paid in Full,” with Rakim’s timeless verse joined by horns and percussion from the Soul Rebels. A flawless hour. —Gabe Meline

Anderson .Paak poses back stage wearing a pink suit, no shirt and a giant fur hat.
Anderson .Paak backstage at Blue Note Jazz Festival on Sunday, July 30, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)

A dance party on stage for NxWorries

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From the beginning of his set, Anderson .Paak leaned hard into his over-styled ladies-man persona: “All the ladies with the good pussy make some noise!” he shouted. Later he pleaded to “throw some bras on stage, make me feel like Drake,” and, eventually, simply invited a group of women from the crowd to dance on stage. In a massive fur hat and pink shirtless suit, and with songs like “Kutless” and “What More Can I Say,” .Paak’s alter-ego schtick was as effective as it was popular with the Blue Note crowd: on a side stage at the other end of the festival, Madlib’s DJ set only drew about 80 people. —Gabe Meline

Anderson .Paak smiles and dances with a female fan.
NxWorries perform at Blue Note Jazz Festival on Sunday, July 30, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)
The crowd at Blue Note Jazz Festival on Sunday, July 30, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)
Chance the Rapper headlines night three of Blue Note Jazz Festival on Sunday, July 30, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)
Madlib, Digable Planets and friends backstage at Blue Note Jazz Festival on Saturday, July 29, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez)
Ishmael Butterfly Butler (left) and Madlib hug backstage at Blue Note Jazz Festival on Saturday, July 29, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)
Dave Chappelle backstage at Blue Note Jazz Festival on Saturday, July 29, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)
DJ Jazzy Jeff performs at Blue Note Jazz Festival on July 30, 2023. (Eric Arnold)
De La Soul performs at Blue Note Jazz Festival July 30, 2023. (Eric Arnold)
MonoNeon performs at Blue Note Jazz Festival on Sunday, July 30, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)
Mary J. Blige headlines night one of Blue Note Jazz Festival on Friday, July 28, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)
Mary J. Blige headlines night one of Blue Note Jazz Festival on Friday, July 28, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)
Talib Kweli backstage at Blue Note Jazz Festival on Friday, July 28, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)
Dave Chappelle (left) and Robert Glasper introduce De La Soul at Blue Note Jazz Festival on Friday, July 28, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)
Parliament Funkadelic perform at Blue Note Jazz Festival on Friday, July 28, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)
Madlib performs at Blue Note Jazz Festival on Friday, July 28, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)
Madlib backstage at Blue Note Jazz Festival on Saturday, July 29, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)
The crowd at Blue Note Jazz Festival on Sunday, July 30, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)
Amanda Seales backstage at Blue Note Jazz Festival on Saturday July 29, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)
Cordae performs at Blue Note Jazz Festival on Friday, July 28, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)
BJ The Chicago Kid performs at Blue Note Jazz Festival on Saturday, July 29, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)
The Soul Rebels perform at Blue Note Jazz Festival on Saturday, July 29, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)
Taylor McFerrin performs at Blue Note Jazz Festival on July 30, 2023. (Eric Arnold)

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