Last year, as plans were underway for Lyrical Lemonade’s 2020 edition of The Summer Smash, Cole Bennett and Summer Smash co-founder Berto Solorio verged on unprecedented territory when they were forced to shut down the premier hip-hop music festival in the Midwest in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The award-winning video director/entrepreneur recalls the pair sitting in their office, not too long after news broke about major festivals like Coachella and SXSW canceling.
“I remember talking to Berto, and we were like, ‘There’s no way, like — a pandemic?’ It’s something that’s just such a crazy concept. You really don’t even know how to crack it, especially if you’ve never went through anything like it,” says Bennett, during a joint call with Solorio at his Westside Chicago headquarters.
As the two spent every day gathering more information to determine whether or not the show would go on during the height of the pandemic, the grim reality soon set in: the festival would have to be shut down. By Solorio’s account, it was “eight to ten months of work down the drain.”
“I remember the day it happened: we just looked at each other and we’re like, ‘You know, there’s not much we can do. We need to buckle down, reset and recalibrate for the coming years, and [make] the next moment that much bigger and better,’” Bennett recalls.
Throughout a year of rescheduling and re-salvaging plans, on Friday (Aug. 20), The Summer Smash returns to Chicago for its third go-round in Douglass Park, with A$AP Rocky, Lil Baby, and Lil Uzi Vert headlining the three-day festival. And this year is set to be its most ambitious undertaking — not just creatively and visually, but philanthropically.
Bennett is aiming to uplift Black and Brown youth, not only on the surrounding Westside neighborhoods, but across the Chicago area through community service and launching new apprenticeship programs to create a new pipeline for creatives who want to work in music — All while making sure that fans are as safe as possible from COVID-19’s growing variants.
For the 25-year-old Bennett, finding the balance between creating unique visuals for rap’s biggest stars and plotting the festival throughout the pandemic depended on finding a firm hold of the constantly moving parts of his personal and professional life. Managing “15 things going on at one time” required a knack for organization and communication.
“I might be shooting a video one day in Chicago, then you might have a festival meeting,” he explains. “And then we might do community work, or whatever it may be. And then the next day, I need to leave town for a week and then come back for a couple of days. I’m back for a month. They’re so many different moving parts at all times, so it’s really about finding balance within the madness.”
As Bennett watched friends and family members either catch the virus or lose their jobs due to the pandemic, he pushed forward with other creative projects, such as his forthcoming book to be released in 2022 and building out the Summer Smash for 2021, after a failed attempt to set up an event for last fall. “When the pandemic hit in March, we were already trying to work on something for the fall, thinking, if things turn around for the better, at least we’ll have something ready to go,” says Solorio. “And then obviously, the fall came around, nothing changed. So we just kept doing the same thing … We felt like we had never stopped the work, it was just more so rescheduling everything, over and over and over again.”
Inspired by UFOs, space, and even elements from his video repertoire like Juice WRLD’s “Lucid Dreams,” Bennett set out to give fans what they call a “visual and intangible” experience across the festival grounds. The three-day fest will include over 70 mainstream and underground acts like City Girls, Lil Yachty, Coi Leray, Benny the Butcher, Don Toliver, Saba, Gunna, Earl Sweatshirt, Lil Tecca and Ski Mask the Slump God. And to honor the late JuiceWRLD, who headlined The Summer Smash in 2019, DJ Mike P will perform a special tribute set on Sunday.
For Bennett and Solorio, having the beloved “Robbery” artist perform his last major festival in his hometown was a moment they will never forget, as it was nearly canceled over a lengthy rain delay that pushed the show off-schedule. “We somehow managed to get everyone that missed their sets from the rain delay back on stage, even if they had to shorten their sets,” remembers Bennett, who ended up having to negotiate with the fire marshal for more time. “Everyone still got to perform, which was a miracle in itself.”
Meanwhile, festivals and concerts in Chicago have been forced to adapt to the rampant spread of the virus with new cases rising; The Summer Smash comes on the heels of Lollapalooza, which was linked to 203 newly reported cases among the hundreds of thousands who attended. Bennett says that they have maintained communications with Chicago’s Department of Health, and have recently met with the City of Chicago along with other festival organizers, to discuss how to keep the outdoor festival safe for its 25,000 – 30,000 attendees.
Lyrical Lemonade had officially announced that all attendees are required to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test result taken 72 hours before the festival, with on-site vaccinations for attendees and community members in partnership with the Illinois Department of Health. While Lyrical Lemonade will be partnering with the Illinois Department of Health to provide Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to non-vaccinated patrons and community residents, they are confident that the majority of the attendees will present valid cards.
For Bennett, the safety of the North Lawndale residents and out-of-town visitors is simply part of his long-standing responsibility to the Westside community. Throughout the summer, Lyrical Lemonade has been continuing their Community Clean-Up Days at Douglass Park leading up to the festival, and Bennett plans to launch the Lyrical Lemonade apprenticeship program by bringing in fifteen different students from all across Chicago, prioritizing kids of color. The program will be introducing youth members interested in the music industry to a wide range of career fields such as production, audio, media, merchandise and artist relations.
“Right now, our main focus is to build out [Lyrical Lemonade] in the Midwest and in Chicago and take a moment and build this up here,” says Bennett. “Having the biggest hip-hop festival in the Midwest is very, very special. And we hold that close to our hearts. So, we want to keep building this out and seeing where it can go and what the possibilities are.”