Celebrating Black joy: The enduring appeal of the Roots Picnic

The Roots hosted the 15th iteration of their iconic Philly music festival with performances from Jill Scott, André 3000 and more.

Attendees at Roots Picnic 2024. (Amanda Fitzpatrick/WHYY)

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Every summer since 2008, legendary hip-hop group and Philadelphia’s hometown heroes The Roots have put on the Roots Picnic, a music festival created and curated by the band and its manager, Shawn Gee, that has evolved into one of the city’s most anticipated cultural events.

Whitney Evelyn, who works in community partnerships at the University of Pennsylvania and attended this year to support soul singer Kenya Vaun, also went in 2008. Back then it was held at the Festival Pier at Penn’s Landing, which closed in 2019, and the lineup included Gnarls Barkley, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Esperanza Spalding and, of course, the host band.

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Jill Scott and Tierra Whack
Jill Scott and Tierra Whack at Roots Picnic 2024. (Marcus McDonald)
André 3000 plays a xylophone
André 3000 at Roots Picnic 2024. (Marcus McDonald)
André 3000 plays a flute
André 3000 at Roots Picnic 2024. (Marcus McDonald)

Evelyn noted the festival’s growth while watching Black Thought, Method Man and Redman perform together.

“They’re just able to fit a lot more people, a lot more artists, a lot more performers,” she said. “There’s several stages, and there was not several stages in year one.”

Now the two-day event, which for most years was held only for a single day, is in Fairmount Park in and around the Mann Center.

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Ferg performs
Ferg at Roots Picnic 2024. (Dillon Dodson/WHYY)
Attendees watching a show
Attendees at Roots Picnic 2024. (Amanda Fitzpatrick/WHYY)

This year’s headliners included another Philly icon, Jill Scott — who recently was honored with a mural at her North Philly alma mater — as well as Babyface, Fantasia, rappers Cam’ron, Scarface and Gunna, Philadelphia-native “Million Dollaz Worth of Game” podcasters Wallo and Gillie and The Roots playing a tribute to New Orleans alongside Lil Wayne, Lloyd, PJ Morton and Trombone Shorty. Scott even brought out Philly rapper Tierra Whack during her performance.

Babyface singing
Babyface at Roots Picnic 2024. (Marcus McDonald)

Beyond the music, the festival has become a platform for social commentary and community engagement. It often features panel discussions on social issues and economic empowerment. This year, Roots Picnic Con featured panelists discussing music education, real estate and beauty careers, as well as a keynote conversation with renowned Roots drummer Questlove.

The only years the festival wasn’t held were 2020 and 2021, when COVID-19 pushed the event online and to cancellation, respectively. It has since bounced back robustly, with attendance and growth surpassing even pre-pandemic levels.

Charmin bears dancing
Charmin bears dance at Roots Picnic 2024. (Dillon Dodson/WHYY)

But for many attendees, it’s not the numbers that make the event special — it’s the crowd itself that stands out.

“To be honest, I see a lot of locs, a lot of brown skin. It’s amazing,” she said. “I see a lot of ethnic hair, and I’ve been to a lot of festivals.”

That sentiment was shared by Garrett Grimes, Teayra Bowden and Joshua Maxwell, friends and former students of the suddenly shuttered University of the Arts who were excited to see singer-songwriter Yebba, Jill Scott and St. Louis rappers Smino and Sexyy Red.

“It feels like it’s something that’s for the culture,” Bowden said. “Recognizing where all the people of color are in the city coming together, [it’s] really special.”

“Everybody in the African American culture coming together for this amazing event, it was just absolutely hypnotizing to see everybody have fun [and] be in their own element as soon as they listen to the music,” Grimes added. “It’s amazing.”

Teayra Bowden, Garrett grimes and Joshua maxwell
Teayra Bowden, Garrett Grimes and Joshua Maxwell at Roots Picnic 2024. (Dillon Dodson/WHYY)
Whitney Evelyn
Whitney Evelyn at Roots Picnic 2024. (Amanda Fitzpatrick/WHYY)

It was the first Roots Picnic for all in the group, as well as Stacy Peters, who came from Connecticut to see artists like André 3000 (touring his recently released jazz album), Robert Glasper and Victoria Monét, who canceled because of health issues. Peters came with friends who all traveled to Philadelphia from elsewhere, including Maryland and Texas.

When asked what makes this music festival different from others, Peters answered similarly.

“The fact they got a lot of Black people in one place having a good time!” Peters said. “And just positive vibes. I just really love the tone and the mood of this festival, it’s not over the top and you feel you’re safe. It’s just really fun.”

Jill Scott and multiple musicians onstage
Jill Scott at Roots Picnic 2024. (Marcus McDonald)

It was the second Roots Picnic for Juss Von, who traveled from Massachusetts with a lifelong friend.

“Roots Picnic is like time traveling,” she said. “Coachella is like, what’s now. Roots Picnic … Nas and The Roots [are] low-key before our time.”

Sexyy Red's stage includes an inflatable hat reading Make America Sexyy Again
Sexyy Red's stage at Roots Picnic 2024. (Amanda Fitzpatrick/WHYY)

As for negatives to this year’s event, there was one observance.

“My only con is that they don’t warn you how much walking, they don’t warn you about possible hills. If you have health conditions … you’ve gotta be very conscious,” she said. “And the sweating!”

But would Von come back for another?

“Oh yeah,” she said, “100%.”

Saturdays just got more interesting.

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