Made in America: What I Saw Behind the Scenes

Left: The magic pass. Right: Beyoncé listens to Janelle Monáe from the wings. Photos by Ernest Owens

Over the weekend, for the seventh year in a row, the Made in America festival came to Philly and turned the Benjamin Franklin Parkway into a mosh pit. Despite controversy earlier this summer over whether the festival would stay in the city, thousands of attendees seemed to glad that it will be here for many years to come.

I had never attended the event before and didn’t plan on going this year — I’m not a fan of large crowds, public intoxication, or loud music. But then I got a phone call from a friend at 7 a.m. Saturday morning asking me if I wanted to go, because they had an extra all-access pass.

This changed everything.

The all-access pass, which leaves the VIP pass shaking with envy, allows its holder to be backstage for most of the performances, entrance into all of the VIP lounges, exclusive gated front-row seats, and pretty much whatever else you can finesse your way into. And did I mention the open bars?

So this Labor Day weekend, I took advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Here’s how it went.

Saturday, Day 1

1:05 p.m.: I make it to the Parkway amid perfect weather. As people rushing to see the first acts are stuck in long lines, I just flash the pass and security stands aside like I’m some government official or celebrity. I can feel people’s eyes boring into me, trying to figure out who I am and why I’m getting fast-tracked to the front.

1:15 p.m.: After a little wandering around, I make it to the TIDAL Stage (there are also Rocky, Skate, Freedom, and Liberty stages spread throughout the venue) to see afro-Latinx singer Amara La Negra perform. I get to meet her backstage, where we take a cute photo and chat.

2:45 p.m.: As I begin to walk through the crowd, I notice that my attire isn’t on trend. The sea of mostly high school and college kids are wearing tanks and head bandanas, many of them rocking stars and stripes to complement the “Made in America” theme. Some are shirtless or wear hardly anything at all. It’s a music festival — I shouldn’t be too surprised.

3:15 p.m.: I’m finally tired of walking around and want a bite to eat and a drink. I can’t help but look at the pricey drinks sold at concessions. This year, Budweiser stopped sponsoring the festival, and their products went along with them. Jay Z’s fancier (and pricer) French cognac, D’USSE, is being sold for $14. But compared to a 240ounce Coors Light being sold for $13, is it worth trying?

Drinks being sold at Made In America | Photo: Ernest Owens

3:30 p.m.: I go to my first VIP lounge with open bar — all they have are D’USSE cocktails. I’m not much of a brown liquor guy, but I try three different drinks and finish with some fancy white cheddar popcorn they have in the back.

D’USSE cocktails served in the VIP lounge | Photo: Ernest Owens

5:50 p.m.: My pleasant stroll through the festival is disrupted the moment the speakers announce that controversial rapper and convicted child sex offender Tekashi 6ix9ine is going to perform on the main (Rocky) stage after being nearly an hour late. A sea of young people stampede there. One guy on crutches hops full speed ahead.

7 p.m.: After witnessing Tekashi 6ix9ine run around with rainbow hair and strip down to his underwear while saying he doesn’t know who runs Made in America (Jay Z, you blockhead), I have had enough. I go off to see what the other folks are listening to. Apparently, it’s some rapper named Juice WRLD, who currently has a Billboard top-ten hit that they can’t help but belt out. So these are the people streaming this kind of music every day, I think.

7:10 p.m.: I’m backstage watching Grammy-nominated singer/actress Janelle Monáe perform at the Liberty Stage. Finally, there is music that I am familiar with and can groove to. While gazing across the stage I notice someone with long flowing hair in a pair of flashy shades. I lose my breath.

Beyoncé, in all her royal flesh, is right across the stage from me jamming out to Janelle (great taste in music, she has). Jay-Z is right beside her as her very recognizable security guard is right there behind her. I don’t freak out, but just capture the moment.

8:07 p.m.: As Janelle’s show concludes, Beyoncé and Jay-Z walk to the other side of the stage (my side) to greet the performer. Security tells the small group of us to put our phones away or we will be escorted off the premises (sigh). Beyonce takes a photo with Janelle and as she walks off with Jay-Z, I yell “Happy early birthday, Beyoncé!” (What, you didn’t know her birthday is September 4th?) She briefly turns to face me and the group, smiles, and waves. Definitely the biggest highlight of the entire festival.

8:15 p.m.: I am in the private front-row VIP section watching Meek Mill perform on the Rocky Stage. This is his first major show in Philly since being released from prison earlier this year. He definitely has some things to say about what he’s learned since then.

9 p.m.: The crowd erupts when Meek performs what has practically become the Philly anthem, “Dreams and Nightmares.”

9:15 p.m.: I am in my Uber heading home. I don’t care to stay for Post Malone, and find out later he apparently wasn’t even that good live anyway.

Sunday, Day 2

8:45 a.m.: After a good night’s sleep (and Advil), I wake to a dozen text messages in my phone that Janelle Monáe saw my tweet last night and shared it in her Instagram story.

Screenshot via Janelle Monae’s Instagram

Apparently she wasn’t the only one who caught on:

3:15 p.m.: I’m back on the Parkway (in now hotter weather) with a more festival-appropriate look. Rocking my a TIDAL bandana I got in a gift bag the day before and a black tee, I’m beginning to feel like a natural at this.

3:25 p.m.: I’m backstage at the Liberty Stage where some rapper is performing to a huge sea of loyal fans. Noticeably, I spot one of them hanging on a lamp post.

There is a moment when I look out at the crowd and begin to notice a lot of things (more on that later).

4 p.m.: The heat is rising near the 90s and people are doing everything in their power to stay cool.

4:30 p.m.: I’m back onstage at Liberty Stage (which, next to the Rocky Stage, had the best acts) to see Ty Dolla $ign, a more known (and more talented) rapper perform. He concludes by getting on a motorcycle and exiting the stage like a true boss.

5 p.m.: I am back at a VIP lounge, drinking more of D’USSE (which has really grown on me) and getting a little more “festive.”

6 p.m.: But once I begin to escape VIP land, things begin to settle in and I begin to look closely at the crowd. It’s mostly white, young, and suburban. Sometimes it fells as if I’m at Woodstock.

Made in America crowds were largely white and young. | Photo: Ernest Owens

This isn’t to say that there isn’t any diversity, but I’d have a hard time calling the crowd integrated.

Crowds were often racially segregated. | Photo: Ernest Owens

6:30 p.m.: I’m back at the Liberty Stage, where I run into the fabulous reality TV star Angela Simmons, the daughter of Rev. Run of Run-DMC, as we wait to see Miguel.

7 p.m.: Security is telling us that, per Miguel’s request, no one is allowed onstage except crew. Apparently there are boundaries even all-access passes can’t traverse. We are forced to the front of the stage, where the raunchy R&B singer has a few spicy questions for the crowd.

7:40 p.m.: Deep crowds await rap titan Kendrick Lamar performance on the main stage. Heading there, I can’t help but notice how the once grassy vistas of the parkway have turned into a wasteland.

Trash that was just an inch away from being properly disposed. | Photo: Ernest Owens

So much trash, you can’t escape it.

Made in America turned into trash land. | Photo: Ernest Owens

7:50 p.m.: I’m at Rocky Stage past the all-access entrance trying to see Kendrick Lamar. All-access people are being told that, just like Miguel, Kendrick wants only his crew in the area.

8:45 p.m.: While I’m still stuck feet away from entering the stage, Grammy-winner Alessia Cara, who performed on the main stage earlier, appears. I get a quick selfie.

9:30 p.m.: Cars are lining up at the back entrance. Nicki Minaj is here and she is getting her hair done inside her car. Security begins to act over the top, pushing people and yelling louder than the speakers. Again, we are told we can’t entire because Nicki’s “crew” is only allowed. At this point, I head out to the general crowd to view the controversial rapper in action.

10:45 p.m.: Nicki brings out Tekashi 6ix9ine to do a song with her, despite numerous fans and critics decrying her collaboration with him.

Her entire set was a hot mess, complete with a NSFW wardrobe malfunction.

11 p.m.: Fireworks mark the end of the festival.

Takeaways

As someone who isn’t a big music festival person, I still found Made in America quite the show. Despite the lack of musical variety (it’s definitely a heavy rap and underground music scene), the standouts were worth it.

I sincerely recommend that organizers do more to attract diverse locals, as it seemed that there were many people from the suburbs or out of town, and apart from Meek Mill’s performance, it didn’t really feel like Philly. But nonetheless, this was a solid 8/10.

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