When Chance the Rapper took the stage at the Petrillo Band Shell in Chicago’s Grant Park on Monday night, it was unclear how the logistics of his plan — to lead a parade of young people from the concert to the voting booth on foot through downtown Chicago — would play out. The audience had swelled since 3 p.m., when the free concert was supposed to begin, and a large, energetic crowd pressed forward in a rush towards the stage.
On one level, there was a slapdash feel to the entire event. At the last minute, it was moved from the Virgin Hotel rooftop to the much more expansive space in Grant Park. As night fell, performers Malcolm London and Taylor Bennett (Chance’s brother) became silhouettes, as the stage lighting failed to illuminate the front center area of the stage. The sound was uneven, burying rock band Twin Peaks‘ distorted riffs in a semi-muddy mix, although their enthusiasm for the performance bled through the noise.
Though the event was high-profile, covered heavily by local television news and national publications alike, the lineup represented an effort not to maximize profits, but to push his friends and encourage voters. A few years back, it would have been unlikely that a politically-oriented poet-rapper in the early stages of his career would have the penultimate spot in a lineup for such a large audience, on such a huge stage.
Indeed, Chance and Social Works, his non-profit organization which threw the so-called “Parade to the Polls,” often let the seams show, which is as much an aesthetic choice as a practical one. Yet this seemingly naive idealism is also a bit of calculated misdirection: Chance and his manager, Pat Corcoran, have made some canny choices and this event was no exception. The polls closed at 7 p.m. and Chance’s plan to lead his large rag-tag fanbase to vote through downtown at rush hour, past harried workers heading home and stopping traffic, may have seemed ambitious. But with a full police escort and helicopters whirring overhead, news vans from every local station positioned along the parade route, it ultimately felt much more like a careful piece of PR theater from a savvy politician.
Performances began shortly after 3 p.m. with a DJ set by producer Odd Couple over what appeared to be a hastily gathered sound system. He was followed by the singer Eryn Allen Kane, dressed in a shimmering one-piece outfit and accompanied by a full seven-piece band in all black. The sound could be harsh, but she was a consummate professional, covering Justin Timberlake, Jackson 5 and the Isley Brothers to close out her set and jarring a sleepy crowd to life.
Kane was followed by rock band Twin Peaks — they’d attended Jones College Prep with Chance — then Chance’s brother Taylor Bennett. As night fell, Malcolm London hit the stage. The activist, poet and musician made headlines during protests after the death of Laquan Mcdonald when he was arrested for striking a police officer, although charges were later dropped. On stage, he’s got a strong, star personality, particularly when speaking with the audience. Though his passion shines through in the music, his precision as a performer lags a bit behind his enthusiasm and talent. Likewise, his production choices, while strong for headphone listening, struggle a bit to break out on a large stage before hundreds of fans, though it’s still early in his recording career.
Chance’s headlining set was only three songs long. Backed by keyboardist Peter Cottontale as his DJ, Chance knocked out “Angels” and “Blessings,” before promising a peaceful parade “but very, very lit.” In an example of his own tactical diplomacy, Chance suggested the whole event was “nonpartisan.” “We don’t celebrate any particular candidate… but anybody trying to pacify us, they don’t want zero problems, big guy,” he concluded, echoing the introduction to “No Problems” before kicking into his biggest record, which recently hit No. 1 on the R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart.
If Chance insisted on a non-partisan approach, there was little to suggest his audience had much tolerance for the ideologies of Donald Trump. “I’m With Her” signs were mixed among hand-written signs encouraging votes for Pedro and numerous references to Harambe, the murdered gorilla-turned-meme. Among the diverse crowd, there were also signs and shirts advocating for reparations, and when it came time to march through the city, the crowd often broke into chants of “Fuck Donald Trump!” Still others appeared more excited just to be following a star through the city streets.
After Chance arrived via police escort at the polling place at 15 West Washington street, a long line stretched to the end of the block yet when he emerged 20 minutes later and went straight to the van that sat waiting for him in front of the building, fans left the line and streamed towards him screaming, following the van down the street.