“Take me back to Wondaland.” For real.
This past week, I was blessed to be able to see Erykah Badu, N.E.R.D. and Janelle Monae in concert at the Chicago Theater. Fantasies have nothing on what I saw on June 3rd. It was a dream come true, thanks in large part to driving 410 miles from Minneapolis and staying at a hostel in Greektown with a convenient location near the Blue Line. It’s the simple things in life.
After staying a couple of days in Madison with the crew (Blaire, Danez, and Kelsey), we made it to Chicago about two hours before the concert thanks to the debilitating combination of unnecessary construction and irrational, Illinois drivers. Our hostel incorporated a $10, 24-hour car valet service that I thought was too good to believe - until the car was found safe and sound in a parking lot the next day. (In my mind, I imagined the valet taking my lil’ Nissan for a nice spin around the city, Ferris Bueller-style.)
After attempting to grub out on the biggest gyros and chicken wings in Chicago (“Damn, they don’t mess around”) and taking the Blue Line in the wrong direction (“Yooo folks, the skyline is behind us”), we arrived at the theater in a state of anticipatory shock. Blaire and I had seats in the front row of the mezzanine and were seated just as Janelle Monae opened up the show with the Suite II Overture. After seeing her perform in Madison, I can admit that we were truly spoiled fans. Even though we’ve only had The Archandroid since it dropped on May 18th, Blaire and I knew every song that she performed word-for-word. Yep, I’m officially “tight-roping” on groupie status. Don’t judge.
Janelle is brilliant, fearless and mesmerizing. To see someone that knows their calling, accepts it, and is overcome with such passionate conviction in their performance is, well, I’m at a loss for words to accurately describe it. The people seated around us had no idea who she was at the beginning of her set. But by the time she had graced our ears and opened our hearts with “Smile” and was bustin’ loose with James Brown-esque footwork to close out “Tightrope”, she had everybody’s attention. This included the older woman seated behind me who tapped me at on the shoulder amidst all of the applause and asked, “What was that talented young lady’s name?” I was definitely proud. Janelle, the future is bright for you, beautiful. Bring sunglasses.
N.E.R.D got the place amped. There were various levels of energy throughout the show and it was interesting to see how a lot of the old-school folks reacted to such new-school flavor. Pharrell opened up their set with thanking Chicago for being “open-minded,” and a warning shot was blasted into the the air for those who thought they were coming to some sort of neo-soul show. I’ve always been a big fan of N.E.R.D for the genre-hybrid music they seem to crank out. God bless Pharrell. With all that producer-made money, he has been able to make put some innovative tracks with the band. I’m excited to see how the latest album turns out.
Erykah. Badu. After the second intermission, Blaire and I faced each other and knew that tears were inevitable by the time the headliner appeared on stage. For some, that may sound melodramatic. However, Erykah is one of the greatest musical influences of my lifetime. A brilliant and genuine female artist, she is multi-faceted in her abilities and in approaches to her art. She opened with “20 Feet Tall” off of her latest album, New Amerykah Part 2, and went on to treat the stage as her canvas for at least an hour and a half. At one point, I pointed my camera on the audience behind us in the mezzanine and watched the crowd become completely enthralled by her performance.
I will admit that I was especially moved during one specific song in Erykah’s set. As she covered “Believe” from The Wiz, I could feel my emotions start to unravel before my eyes. First, I remembered the legendary Lena Horne, who passed away just a few weeks ago. Her death hit me very deeply at the end of my college career, due in large part to seeing the obstacles that she overcame as a biracial woman during her lifetime and appreciating the trail she blazed for young women like myself. Secondly, this song has special significance within my own life. I was apart of a high school production of The Wiz in high school, which was one of the best experiences of my life. As I’ve grown, this song has held me together during hard times. There’s a line in the song that means the most to me: “If you believe within your heart you’ll know/That no one can change the path that you must go.” Amen.
The past few weeks have been very hard for me, personally. A lot of change, a lot of shifts, a lot of trials and tribulations. Truth to be told, I wouldn’t be in the best shape right now if it wasn’t for the music in my life. And as the night progressed, I realized that all of this was meant to happen. I was meant to go to this concert. I was meant to feel the lyrics of two of my favorite artists, as if they were singing directly to me. I was meant to travel to Chicago with the friends that I went with. And after seeing Erykah exit the stage door and get into her car, I was also meant to run into Janelle Monae, Kellindo Parker, and other members of the Wondaland Arts Society on our way to catching the train.
As we came around the other side of the theater, elated just to have been in the presence of Erykah, it seemed as if a dream sequence was taking place. Janelle, Kellindo and W.A.S. were all walking towards us on the way to their tour bus. Kellindo, who I met after the Madison concert, stopped and talked a bit about the tour and their appreciation of our support.
… And I got a hug from Janelle “Jane” Monae herself. I don’t really get starstruck, but when someone’s music has affected you that deeply, it’s impossible not to.
After posing for a couple pictures and geeking out in front of George 2.0’s video camera, we miraculously caught the last Blue Line train to the hostel and I honestly went to bed with a smile on my face.
Everything happens for a reason. This is only the beginning. Thank you, Erykah. Thank you, Janelle. Thank you, Chicago. The inspiration is back, and I’ve been reassured that I’m headed in the right direction.