Credit: <br/>Photo illustration by Rachel Hawley

The first and with any luck only virtual Lollapalooza is under way. From Thursday through Sunday, the festival’s YouTube channel is presenting a mix of streaming sets and rebroadcasts of performances from Lollas past. But as with most things in 2020, it’s not without controversy.

When Lollapalooza’s lineup was announced on Monday, July 27, the involvement of Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events caught more than a few people’s eyes. The mayor will make appearances throughout the weekend, including to chat with Perry Farrell and LL Cool J, and DCASE has booked several sets by local artists recorded at Chicago music venues. If the announcement had gone out a month ago, nobody might have cared, but last week the mayor and DCASE were both implicated in the sudden same-day cancellation of the July 23 installment of the Millennium Park at Home concert series, which was supposed to feature beloved Chicago artists Sen Morimoto and Tasha.

“My performance has been pulled from the lineup because of a statement I made in the video concerning Mayor Lightfoot’s actions in response to the protests currently happening in Chicago,” Morimoto explained in the first of a series of Instagram and Twitter posts. “I was asked to remove the statement, otherwise the video would be pulled and I was not comfortable censoring my criticism of the mayor at the request of the City of Chicago.”

Tasha later announced that she’d pulled her performance in solidarity. Across social media, fans and fellow artists shared outrage at city officials and support for the performers’ decisions. Many considered the city’s actions tantamount to censorship—and at a moment when thousands of Chicagoans already feel the mayor is ignoring protests against police violence and racial injustice, this struck a nerve.

Twitter user @riellayes posted in response to a statement DCASE gave the Tribune following the incident. “DCASE says these showcases are ‘not intended to provide a platform for public discourse and debate’ and asked Sen to ‘remove personal viewpoints from the concert,'” they wrote. “WTF is art if not discourse, debate, and personal viewpoints? @ChicagoDCASE just post hold music if that’s your stance.”

The free online Lollapalooza is streaming more than 150 performances, starting at each day at 5 PM and running till midnight or so—a lower-impact approach than turning Grant Park into a thumping, hazy sea of glitter, neon spandex, snapbacks, and branded experiences, its lawns practically paved with trampled beer cans and lost flip-flops. The rebroadcast sets include OutKast (2014), the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (2009), Future (2016), and Paul McCartney (2015). Among the artists contributing new prerecorded sets are H.E.R., Tank & the Bangas, Starcrawler, and Jane’s Addiction; the fest’s livestreams include DaniLeigh, Alison Wonderland, Princess Nokia, and Masego.

Lollapalooza’s partnership with DCASE, a first for the festival, is showcasing some stellar local talent: Kaina, Jamila Woods, Peter Cottontale, Heavy Steppers with Jamal Smallz, Emon Fowler, Rebirth Poetry Ensemble, Linda Sol, and the Era Footwork Crew. Recorded at Thalia Hall and the Promontory, their sets are being used to promote the ongoing Year of Chicago Music (which will continue into 2021 due to the pandemic) and the Arts for Illinois Relief Fund (established this year to help the state’s arts communities survive COVID-19).

As part of an apparent effort to be more politically engaged, Lollapalooza is also boosting the Equal Justice Initiative and When We All Vote and featuring appearances by Michelle Obama, lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson, and Chuck D of Public Enemy—and of course by Mayor Lightfoot.

DCASE has done incredible work to elevate Chicago’s artists, but in light of the Millennium Park at Home cancellation last week, the department’s bookings at Lollapalooza—combined with Lightfoot’s involvement in the festival—have some of the participating musicians questioning whether their art is being co-opted by the city. They don’t want to appear aligned with the mayor’s actions (and inactions) in response to Black Lives Matter protests and the community’s demands to remove school resource officers from CPS, defund police, and establish a Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC).

Singer-songwriter Kaina Castillo, whose DCASE-sponsored set was broadcast Thursday at 6:30 PM, is one of them. She and Morimoto were working together when he learned that the city had a problem with his prerecorded Millennium Park performance—in fact, the two of them were setting up at Thalia Hall to film Kaina’s 12-minute Lollapalooza set, where Morimoto played keys and saxophone alongside drummer Ryan Person and bassist Michael Cantella.

Kaina had obviously committed to work with DCASE and Lollapalooza well before she had any reason to believe the city would forbid artists from criticizing the mayor. She says the performance came together quickly.

“I got a text from my manager that there was this small video shoot happening through DCASE that would be fit between Lolla sets,” she explains. “This was also before the whole thing with Sen happened. But that was as much as I knew—they were just asking people to perform to raise awareness and funds for the grants for artists, which I thought was a great cause.” She guesses it was about a week from that text to the taping.

“It definitely feels like it has a different purpose now. I didn’t know anything about the mayor hosting Lollapalooza with LL Cool J. We didn’t know her face was gonna be on the branding. We didn’t know anything like that was happening,” Kaina says. “I’m just nervous. Like, are they going to put something before it? Is it gonna be ‘Mayor Lightfoot introduces Kaina’ before the set? I’m not excited if they’re going to present it in a certain way.”

"You're not just hiring me to do your little show and be an entertainer for you," says Kaina. "I'm a whole-ass person off- and onstage, and I'm gonna bring my life experiences to that stage."
“You’re not just hiring me to do your little show and be an entertainer for you,” says Kaina. “I’m a whole-ass person off- and onstage, and I’m gonna bring my life experiences to that stage.”Credit: Dennis Elliott

A first-generation immigrant born to parents who’d come to Chicago from Venezuela and Guatemala, Kaina released her debut album, Next to the Sun, via Sooper Records in 2019. She and Morimoto are not only Sooper labelmates but also close friends and collaborators, and she was one of the first to comment on the cancellation of his Millennium Park set and defend artists’ right to criticize their patrons. The Reader contacted all the local acts booked for Lollapalooza by DCASE, inviting them to comment on the situation; most declined to speak on the record, and others did not respond.

Art and music are inextricably linked to politics and dissent, and they all shape Chicago’s culture and its understanding of itself. Some of the city’s most exciting rising artists are also its most politically active—during the ongoing uprisings, Pivot Gang, Femdot, Ric Wilson, Ohmme, Dehd, and many others have taken to the streets, shared resources, and coordinated mutual aid efforts. This commitment to community and to fostering common ground, which often manifests itself explicitly in the music, is something that both Mayor Lightfoot and DCASE commissioner Mark Kelly mentioned when they announced 2020 as the Year of Chicago Music last October.

“Music is our universal language and the common thread that ties people together across geography, culture, and time,” Lightfoot said in the press release. “As the birthplace of gospel, house, urban blues, and modern jazz—not to mention home to one of the world’s greatest classical orchestras—Chicago’s sounds and melodies reflect the diversity and dynamism of the people and communities we call home.”

When Lightfoot speaks so highly of what music can do for communities but at the same time insists that it serve the agenda of city government, she opens herself up to charges of hypocrisy. At her July 29 press conference for the city’s Boards of Change project, which repurposes art painted on board-up plywood during the recent unrest, Lightfoot called the works “visual protests.” (Several have been combined into a traveling mural that will be used to promote democratic engagement and participation in the census.) But she’s considerably less friendly to protest she can’t use, or protest that criticizes her and inspires opposition to her policies—even if the criticism is as mild as Morimoto’s.

During his unaired DCASE performance, Morimoto used language more diplomatic than that of many politicians. “I would like to add my extreme disappointment in the lack of action that has been taken by Mayor Lightfoot and our elected officials here in response to some 100,000 protesters in Chicago demanding the police be defunded and CPAC enacted,” he said. “We’re not even seeing the same bare minimum changes that are being made in New York, Minneapolis, and Seattle. We have a lot of catching up to do.”

Asked if she believes DCASE would’ve told Morimoto to omit his statement had he directed it at the president or the state of the nation, Kaina says she can’t imagine they would have—especially given Lightfoot’s own vocal criticisms of Trump. But at this point, she wouldn’t be surprised if they did.

Because the city hasn’t been transparent about how it will package creatives’ art for its community outreach efforts, Kaina argues, those efforts can leave artists—especially Black artists and other artists of color—feeling as though they’ve been enlisted in support of policies that harm their communities.

“We’re not shocked,” she says, speaking for herself and her Sooper Records circle. “But it’s ridiculous to think that as citizens of Chicago, as members of these communities, we wouldn’t speak out also. I feel like if she was doing this to actually create a form of protest or something, then she wouldn’t be putting her face on stuff. You can curate a set for Lollapalooza and not put your face on it. You can curate these street murals and not put your face on them.

“Besides that, it’s so silly,” she adds. “If you’re primarily asking Black people and people of color to make art for your city, but you’re also censoring them—then it’s a joke. Those people are creating art from their lens always, so anything they do is gonna be political based on their existence.”

This taps into long debates about the possibility of separating the art from the artist and about music’s role in bringing about social change—can someone whose existence has been politicized refrain from making a political statement in their art?

When I asked the mayor’s office whether Lightfoot was using Chicagoans’ art to try to “make good” with their communities, even as she dismisses the local leaders and organizers presenting those communities’ needs, I received the following statement from the deputy press secretary: “Mayor Lightfoot honors artistic freedom, upholds free speech and will always fight for the rights of individuals to use their channels and influence to protest any issue. That’s why yesterday the Mayor launched the Boards of Change project to encourage participation in the Census and other civic engagement activities that promote and advance democracy for all.

“The ‘Millennium Park at Home’ virtual concert series was created as a platform to showcase local music, support musicians and engage audiences at this difficult time,” the statement continues, “however these City platforms should not be used for political purposes.”

Kaina insists that when she talked through the cancellation with Morimoto and Tasha, they said they were never made aware of this rule. And if she and Morimoto had known a rule existed, they would’ve at least reconsidered their participation in Lollapalooza.

“I think this is a thing that people do in general—to be like, ‘It should just be about art, this isn’t a platform for you to say something.’ Which is, you know, ridiculous. One of the things we talked about as a community was: Sen was supposed to play that Millennium Park series, but it all got canceled. But if he had had that actual [in-person] stage platform, in that moment he can say whatever he wants and it wouldn’t have been censored,” Kaina says.

“Something I work on as an artist is making sure that people know I am the exact same person offstage that I am onstage,” she continues. “If you can’t support who I am offstage, then you actually don’t support my music. As a first-gen kid, parents who are immigrants—if you’re anti-immigration, then you don’t really support my music. That’s a personal position I take as an artist. I want my music to be relatable; I want people to enjoy my music, but when it comes down to it I’m always going to stand up for my community. That’s who I’m writing in my music. So for a government official to just think . . . ”

Kaina pauses and takes a breath.

Many artists have left Chicago in search of notoriety and larger platforms, usually opting for the east or west coast, but those who stay often make work that’s just as deeply rooted in their communities as they are. They’ve elevated experiences and livelihoods that people from the outside keep at a safe distance or pretend not to see unless it’s expedient. Their efforts are part of why the city’s music scene has garnered so much attention and influence over the past decade.

“That’s what I try to get people to understand,” Kaina continues. “You’re not just hiring me to do your little show and be an entertainer for you. I’m a whole-ass person off- and onstage, and I’m gonna bring my life experiences to that stage. I always do, whether it’s literally speaking out loud or in my music. I think that’s a mistake [Mayor Lightfoot and DCASE] made that a lot of people do too, especially when you’re dealing with a nonwhite artist. Nonwhite artists, our experiences always get minimized within our music. But people aren’t thinking about that, and this is another way that has been prevalent—for the government to say, ‘This is not a platform for you.’

“But anyway, yeah,” she says, laughing. “If I perform my music, it’s written into my music too, so what are you gonna do? Don’t bring me then. I don’t know what you want from me.”

She echoes Morimoto and Tasha when she says she doesn’t want the stances they took to put pressure on other artists to cancel their shows with DCASE or other city entities—making a living as an artist is already tough when there isn’t a pandemic. She wishes the city hadn’t put artists in a position where they had to choose in the first place.

Kaina stuck to music for her Lollapalooza set, but if she had sent a message from the stage, she says it would’ve been to ask Mayor Lightfoot to listen to and engage with community leaders and organizers instead of perpetuating talking points—such as claiming that “not a single person” she’s spoken to wants fewer police. She’d like to see the mayor walk outside and address the crowds of protestors outside her Logan Square home, instead of trying to be the “Cool Mayor” who hosts Lolla while the city is hurting and people are dying.

She also encourages anyone else upset about this censorship to donate to Black Lives Matter Chicago and Chi-Nations Youth Council.

“I feel like, watching this whole thing that went down with Sen and Tasha pulling out, I was like, ‘This all just blew up in your faces. You’re not doing the thing we’re asking you to do, which is just listen and be honest and up-front about what you’re expecting out of people,'” Kaina says. “It feels like a mirror to what’s happening on a bigger scale, which is just this stuff constantly blowing up in officials’ faces that’s going to make them look worse because they didn’t take the time to think about it.”

According to DCASE, Lollapalooza promoters C3 began talking with the city about ways to support the Year of Chicago Music even before they needed to reimagine the festival’s programming due to the pandemic. I ask Kaina if she believes Lollapalooza has a real interest in seeing Chicagoans thrive.

“It’s just coming at a very inappropriate time,” she says. “But besides that, it’s tough as a Chicagoan to be like, ‘Lollapalooza has a stake in the city in this way,’ because we know that a lot of people who come are from out of town or from the suburbs. So I don’t know. But for [Lightfoot’s] face to be popping up on the Lollapalooza website while all of this is going on, while there’s been nonstop protesting and rallies and demands, it feels like a slap in the face to a lot of people. That [Lightfoot’s] focusing on [her] Lolla performance versus taking the time to talk with organizers . . . I don’t know how much they could’ve done, but at the very least it’s like, read the room a little bit, you know?”  v