‘Free Hoover’ benefit concert was a night to remember, but forgot its eponym

Jan. 18, 2022, 7:14 p.m.

In December, my friend asked me if I wanted to come to a Kanye West and Drake concert in Los Angeles. I was supposed to be home for winter break already, but there I was instead, hopping off the plane at LAX a day after finals. My friends and I made our way to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, and I could already feel the anticipation building long before the show started. We waited in the massive arena as guests continued to trickle in. I was freezing cold and wondering if West or Drake were ever going to show up. But right as I was about to stand up to use the bathroom, the arena went dark. A film began to play on two screens depicting Larry Hoover and his life in prison. Murmurs filled the stadium. I turned to my friend and asked, “Who’s Larry Hoover?”

Currently serving six life sentences in a federal supermax prison for his involvement in a gang-related murder in 1973, Larry Hoover is the former leader and co-founder of the Gangster Disciples, a prominent Chicago street gang. Nearly 50 years into his 200-year sentence, Hoover has since denounced violence among his followers, mandated education for all members of his gang and rebranded the gang’s acronym GD to stand for Growth & Development. Hoover’s family and a number of prominent figures are now advocating for his release, arguing that he has served enough time in prison already for his alleged crimes, and that ultimately, as a changed man, he deserves to be free. A Chicago native, West has been a longtime supporter of the reformed gang leader. Hoover is the reason West put aside his decade-long feud with Drake to recruit him to perform together in an attempt to show that some things are “bigger than rap.”

Next, a woman stepped out from behind the coliseum walls. I was too far away to see her face, but her voice immediately commanded my attention. Amplified by the plethora of speakers, she shook the stadium with an emotional telling of the story of Larry Hoover and herself. She attempted a “Free Hoover” chant among the audience, but despite her efforts, the audience seemed disengaged. 

This woman was Alice Marie Johnson, an American criminal justice reform advocate and a former federal prisoner. Imprisoned due to her involvement in the drug trade, Johnson was freed from prison in August 2020 by then-President Donald Trump, who granted her a full pardon after being urged by West’s ex-wife Kim Kardashian and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner to do so. Since being freed, she has continued to be an aggressive advocate for criminal justice reform.

Following Johnson’s speech, West’s Sunday Service choir opened with a slew of angelic renditions of hit songs, including Adele’s “Easy on Me.” They ended with West’s very own “Ultralight Beam,” which caused an uproar from the crowd that would set the energetic tone for the rest of the night. 

But for the rest of the show, there were no more mentions of the show’s stated inspiration: Hoover. There is no question, however, that the concert itself was a masterpiece.

After previously announcing that he was done performing his old music, West shocked the audience by doing exactly that. Atop a celestial mound in the middle of the massive stadium, West stood blanketed by a thick, mystical fog, creating an ethereal, otherworldly atmosphere within the arena. From there, he performed a slew of his greatest hits, mostly from older albums, but with a few “Donda” inclusions as well. From beginning to end, West shook the stadium back and forth, creating rhythmic excitement with his virtuous blend of hip-hop and gospel music. “Runaway” was my personal highlight of the night. The iconic repeating C note of the opening of the song caused an eruption of cheers from the crowd, putting West’s innovative genius on display. He transformed a simple note played over and over into a beautiful, euphoric experience, in a way that only he could have done. 

Another major surprise came when West performed Drake’s “Find Your Love” and Drake performed West’s “24,” a musically sublime display of unity — after a decade of heated bad blood — that got the audience on their feet. Drake’s other performances, however, felt a little lackluster when juxtaposed with the backdrop of West’s simultaneously angelic and hype melodies. To my disappointment, Drake opted to perform mostly “Certified Lover Boy” songs rather than his classics and as a result, his set felt a little repetitive at times, populated by similar beats. Nevertheless, Drake was still Drake, and even in a stadium packed with Kanye fans, he was able to revive the energy at key points of his performance. 

As I filed out of the stadium at the end of the concert, my friends and I all agreed: this is one of the best concerts we have ever been to. But as unforgettable as the concert itself was — besides a few overpriced “Free Hoover” sweatshirts scattered amongst the crowd — it seemed that the so-called purpose of the concert had already become an afterthought, overshadowed by the incredible musical performances that failed to focus on the issue at hand. After a concert that was meant to be bigger than rap, rap was the only thing on my mind.

So here I am, revisiting it. Did the once-in-a-lifetime concert actually help to free Hoover? To be sure, the proceeds earned from the event’s ticket and merchandise sales have since been funneled into charity organizations supporting legal reform efforts and community advocacy, including the Uptown People’s Law Center. Hoover, however, remains in prison. Hoover himself was reported as being uncomfortable with the attention generated by the concert, worrying that it could hurt — rather than help — his chances at release. In fact, Johnson’s speech was omitted from the on-demand video of the concert, which some speculate was upon Hoover’s request. It is too early to tell, but all signs point to no progress in the effort to free Hoover. 

Maybe the artists were simply misguided in their belief that the concert would truly help Hoover. Maybe they purposely used Hoover’s case as a digestible representation for the larger problems surrounding the criminal justice system. Whatever the case, the concert’s impact on Hoover, or lack thereof, remains its biggest shortcoming, a crucial blemish on an otherwise perfect night.

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.

Eric Zhu '25 is a writer for the Arts & Left section. He is a freshman from New York City interested in Data Science and Symbolic Systems. In his free time, he enjoys playing basketball and playing the one song he knows on the ukulele. Contact The Daily’s Arts & Life section at arts ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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