It’s 9 p.m. on the roof of Frost Amphitheater, and everything is a celebration. A smiling, playful voice raps a cascading flow, driven by the spirited twangs of a guitar and contoured by a trumpet’s brazen melody. Speakers pound a bass line into the core of each audience member. The sounds linger within the red-lit concrete walls of the venue for a euphoric moment before soaking into the cool darkness of the surrounding oak trees.
Last Thursday, the Stanford Concert Network (SCN) put on its first live concert on campus since the beginning of the pandemic. COVID-19 has long made large in-person gatherings unfeasible, forcing student performers to think creatively about ways to deliver productions. As a result, the past two years have seen one innovative Zoom performance after another.
Exercising caution, SCN only admitted the first 250 students. Still, excitement built as more students trickled into the event. Opener and DJ Jessica Yeung ’21, also known as Vertigo, took the stage with enthusiasm, expertly transitioning between electronic dance songs like Yaeji’s “Raingurl” and PinkPantheress’ crowd-favorite “Pain.” Once the audience loosened up, students close to the stage started to dance and occasionally sing along. Farther out, they stood in circles — reconnecting, hugging and taking group pictures.
When Ric Wilson bounded onto the stage for his opening song “Wake Up, Get Down,” a characteristically upbeat pop track on which his punchy rap roams free, the energy in the room started ramping up.
His second song, “We Love Us,” was one of the highlights of the night; everything about the performance was infectious. Within seconds, the live trumpet accompaniment played by Charles Ryan, also known as Charlie Trumpet, had surprised the audience — the spunky complement of the brass instrument enhanced the music that pumped through the speakers. When the song wrapped up, Wilson addressed the crowd, introducing himself and his accompanists. He took a few minutes to unite audience members in a call-and-response chant: “No racists, no sexists, no homophobic, no transphobic, no bullshit!” Students matched his enthusiasm and waved their fists in the air.
Wilson made it a point to engage the audience like this throughout the concert, professing his goal to make folks in the crowd more comfortable and to get them to dance. In between songs he told stories, initiated more call-and-response chants and gave moments of spotlight to the guitar and trumpet musicians who had joined him on stage for the night. Indeed, as the night wore on, audience members became increasingly invested in the performance, clustering more closely to the stage and cheering passionately at insightful lines in his freestyle.
Much of Wilson’s music centers around the Black experience, particularly as it relates to his roots in Chicago. His song “Banba” — an acronym for “Black art not bad art” — is a quintessential rendition of his perspective. It is upbeat and celebratory, acknowledging struggles the Black community faces but in the same breath looking forward to a more equitable future.
Wilson raps on the track, “Rolled through a lemon, I swallowed that bitch whole; Struggle made me gold, and black made me bold.”
Being a musician is only half of Wilson’s work; he is also an avid community organizer and activist. In 2014, he was a delegate on the We Charge Genocide coalition, which presented a shadow report and testified to the United Nations on the brutality of the Chicago Police Department.
Another song from the concert, “Fight Like Ida B & Marsha P,” takes on a more emboldened tone and explicitly calls out many barriers imposed on marginalized people. Wilson especially highlights the role of police and prisons in oppressing Black, brown and trans communities. At the same time, he names several iconic fighters of the civil rights movement to give his message an almost hopeful call to action. The chorus calls, “Everybody up, up, up, up, up, up,” declaring change is possible if we mobilize for it.
Wilson’s buoyant, inspired performance energy is also compounded by his spontaneity. According to SCN organizer Carly Taylor ’22, the rapper decides which songs to play when he is on stage rather than creating a setlist in advance — yet another instance of his intuition when it comes to reading the audience.
The highest point of the concert was Wilson’s signature soul train. As he told the crowd, each of his concerts includes this dance break, which originated from Black creators and musicians. He split the crowd into two, creating an aisle down the middle. Audience members danced down the floor to his song “Splash;” Wilson and his trumpet player even joined at the end.
Wilson’s optimistic performance was the perfect herald to the new school year. From his focus on audience involvement to the upbeat and forward-looking music, it marked a step in Stanford’s return to in-person community building.