CMA Awards 2018

Roc Nation Exec 'Shocked, Saddened' Over Philly Mayor's Handling of Made In America

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Jay-Z performs during the Budweiser Made In America Festival at Benjamin Franklin Parkway on Sept. 1, 2012 in Philadelphia. 

This week, a public back-and-forth has played out in the media over the future of Jay-Z's Made In America festival, which has been held annually on Labor Day Weekend at Philadelphia's Benjamin Franklin Parkway in the middle of the city since 2012. On July 17, a spokesperson for Philly Mayor Jim Kenney's office told local news site Billy Penn that 2018 would be MIA's last year on the parkway -- a decision that caught representatives from Roc Nation and festival partner Live Nation completely off guard.

Jay responded the following day with an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer, slamming the decision by saying "we are disappointed that the Mayor of the City of Philadelphia would evict us from the heart of the city, through a media outlet, without a sit-down meeting, notice, dialogue or proper communication," and noting that the festival had created a $102.8 million positive economic impact for the city over the past several years. Mayor Kenney's office subsequently released a statement lamenting the "unfortunate misunderstanding" and saying they are "working with Roc Nation and Live Nation to resolve this issue." But Roc Nation COO Desiree Perez tells Billboard that no meeting has currently been scheduled, and that no one from the Mayor's team has met with anyone from Roc Nation since Kenney took office in 2016, despite several efforts to set up a meeting.

"We haven't had any communication with or connection to the Mayor throughout his administration," Perez says. "This is a huge festival in the middle of his city, and no one from Roc Nation, including Jay-Z, has ever met the Mayor or anyone in his administration... I was shocked, and then saddened, because we've given so much [to the city.] Jay loves Philadelphia, has always had an affinity for Philadelphia, has always searched for artists in that city. He's connected to that city, emotionally."

Made In America launched in 2012, under the previous Philadelphia municipal administration of Michael Nutter, with whom Perez says Roc and Jay maintained "an incredible relationship." But, she adds, "All of that ended once Mayor Kenney came on."

Ostensibly, Mayor Kenney's office has said that initially Made In America was "intended to provide a unique attraction to the city on the otherwise quiet Labor Day weekend," a boost to the city's downtown region, but that "over the years, tourism has grown overall, and the need for an event of this scale at this location may no longer be necessary." The rep also said the city was open to looking into other possible locations in the area, but Perez says that's "not an option.

"The festival is part of the parkway; it belongs in the parkway," she says. "You know, Jay came up with the name Made In America. He said, 'I want it to be a huge festival, it has to be someplace symbolic, it has to be in the heart of the city, right in the middle of it all. Made In America: I want it to be in the birthplace of America. That's Philadelphia.'"

According to Perez, communications with the new mayor's administration broke down shortly after he took office, when a third party reached out to Roc Nation saying the administration requested the list of performers for the 2016 event, well before the lineup was announced. When asked why they needed that information, the response was that there were "concerns about the genre of music," Perez says, and that Roc Nation declined to provide the lineup, but offered to meet with the Mayor's office instead.

The following year, another third party reached out to Roc Nation saying that the Mayor's office requested that a $1 fee be added to each ticket, which would be paid to the city of Philadelphia. (In addition to a $600,000 annual payment to the city to rent the parkway, Roc Nation also uses local union labor and contracts municipal services like the fire and police departments for safety and security reasons.) Again, according to Perez, she offered to meet with the city about the request, but that the city never responded.

This June, after Made In America announced its preliminary lineup for the Sept. 1-2 event, Roc Nation was sent a legal letter from the city saying that it owed $281,000 in back expenses to city departments, with a cease and desist order regarding putting on the festival at all. Perez says an audit the company conducted of those payments and expenses led to questions regarding how much the festival had been charged, and why some costs had risen in 2016, after Kenney took office. Again, a request for a meeting was not returned, she says, and Roc Nation received no further communication until the Mayor's office released its statement in the press earlier this week.

"Regardless of whether you believe Made In America should be in the parkway or not, that's not the way to handle a business partner that's been there for that long that's brought that much positive impact to your city from a financial perspective, let alone a global figure like Jay," Perez says. "If you want to kick him out, you just have a nice conversation with him, you shake his hand, look him in the eye and say, 'Listen, we need to part ways, this is not working out.' What can he do, you know? But the way this was handled -- I saw the statement and I'm shaking my head like, 'Why? Who does this?'"

Following the Mayor's office's last statement about the "misunderstanding" between the parties, Perez says Mayor Kenney did finally reach out, though a meeting is still not scheduled. But while the location of the festival in the future is still up in the air, Perez says Roc Nation has not made a decision about its future just yet.

"In terms of looking at other cities, we are optimistically going to wait until we sit with the Mayor -- if that happens -- and then decide if we have to look elsewhere," she says. "There are obviously other places in the U.S. with incredible, symbolic meaning that could speak to what Made In America as a festival stands for. But we're hoping that the Mayor will do the right thing and reconsider his position."