It was a perfectly sunny, slightly cool September day in northern California as Lights On Fest 2021 kicked off its two-day event. Upon arrival, I felt unexplainable energy floating in the air as hordes of people could be seen waiting to get into the Concord Pavilion. Lines of anxious music lovers trailed endlessly through the busy parking lot from both the VIP and General Admission entrances. With their blankets and umbrellas in tow, it seemed many arrived very early to snag a great parking spot and have ample time to see all Lights On Fest had to offer. As a native New Yorker turned Los Angeles transplant, I’d heard great things about The Bay, but nothing could compare to the all-encompassing, magnetic aura felt as I walked through the festival grounds.
As I navigated past the food trucks and people of all demographics, to my left was the Illumination Stage where newer acts showcase and sometimes debut their talent to fans and onlookers. Just two years ago—for example—at the inaugural festival, R&B newcomers Lucky Daye and Kiana Ledé both performed on said stage. This time around, they were made co-headliners on the Fluorescent main stage.
Rising singer, Lorea, was one act who was thrilled to manifest that growth for herself. Her set got off to a rocky start—in which her mic didn’t turn on and fans yelled at the stagehands to rectify the situation immediately. For Lorea, though, she found this ordeal to be hilariously befitting; VIBE spoke with her after the performance.
“Of course, it would happen to me,” she chuckled. “But when I came back, all that energy [fueled] me. It felt good.”
The Indiana songbird sang two covers— Lauryn Hill’s “Killing Me Softly” and Frank Ocean’s “Thinking Of You”— along with two original songs, “More Of You,” which she teased as “coming soon” and “Secrets,” a soulful ballad “from the heart” currently available on all streaming platforms.
Nigerian sister-duo, VanJess, also graced the Illumination Stage. Fresh off the deluxe release of their EP, Homegrown, they performed songs from the project including “Dysfunctional” and “Slow Down”— for the first time.
“People really appreciate R&B here,” they explained backstage regarding their Lights On Fest experience. With the audience being beautifully diverse, the ladies offered up their own concise intro to VanJess, which consists of the aforementioned “Slow Down”— (the remix features fellow Lights On performer, Lucky Daye)— their Kaytranada-assisted track, “Taste,” and “Honeywheat.”
The highlight for several of the acts was simply being able to perform live after a year of virtual performances and truly feeding off of the energy from the sold-out crowd (roughly 12.5K attendees to be exact). With this being her first festival performance, Joyce Wrice—a half-Japanese Angeleno full of ‘90s R&B influence— couldn’t stop beaming about how “honored” she was to be on the lineup.
“I feel honored to finally be at this level in my career and I look forward to continuing to blossom,” she gushed.
When introducing herself to new fans, she revealed that to truly understand her, she’s a combination of Aaliyah’s “Loose Rap,” Brandy’s “Never Say Never,” and Mariah Carey’s “Breakdown” featuring Krayzie Bone and Wish Bone from Bone Thugz-N-Harmony. Wrice was most excited to perform “On One.” She explained, “My band has added some sounds to it that just really brought it to life […] they made it sound so infectious.”
As I made my way to the Fluorescent Stage, classic R&B hits like Usher’s “You Make Me Wanna” and Tevin Campbell’s “Can We Talk blared from the speakers. Then, a quick spin of the turntables transported fans to the good ol’ days of E-40 and Mac Dre, which had the crowd “going stupid, dumb, and hyphy,” as H.E.R. later explained.
The Bay Area native made sure to balance out the weekend by incorporating elements from the best parts of who she is—her Vallejo/Bay Area culture and R&B/soul roots.
Blxst [pronounced blast], a new hip-hop/R&B hybrid phenom out of L.A., performed singles like “Be Alone,” “Overrated”—which samples Donell Jones’ “This Luv”—and “Gang Slide,” the theme song from the Issa Rae-produced reality show, Sweet Life: Los Angeles. A relaxed Masego slid through with his smooth jazz melodies as he performed live renditions from his 2018 debut album,Lady Lady.
Donning a sleek red ponytail and all-pink ensemble, Keyshia Cole took the stage for the first time since her mother, Frankie Lons, passed.
In a special tribute, the Oakland legend took a moment to thank her fans. “Y’all know she passed away recently and I wanna say thank you guys for watching the shows, buying the albums, supporting me,” she expressed. “Me and my mother have both done so much and I’m happy that she had me and I’m happy that she was a part of my life and I was able to experience her. I’m happy that you guys were able to experience her ‘cause she was so funny, so hilarious. So, I wanna get into these next two songs; like I said, keep her in mind.”
Cole, then, blew everyone away as she dedicated her song, “Heaven Sent” and Givēon’s “Heartbreak Anniversary” to her late mother. Her set concluded with the eternal crowd-pleaser and one of the best R&B songs from the early 2000s, “Love.” With everyone’s phone illuminating the crowd, Keyshia Cole barely needed to sing as we knew every single word.
Ty Dolla $ign ran through his laundry list of features and flexed his production skills. The melodic crooner was joined by the aforementioned Blxst for their hit collab, “Chosen,” and later, Dolla brought out fellow Bay Area native, P-Lo and fans absolutely went berserk.
If you’ve never seen Erykah Badu live, it’s an experience all on its own. Complete with laser beams, background singers, and a band rocking full white hazmat suits, always predict the unexpected when entering into “BADUBOTRON.”
Badu aka Mary Magnum aka Fly N***a Factory aka Badulla Oblongata (and that was only a handful of monikers the singer listed during the opening of her set), rounded out Day One with an acoustic take of “Hello.” She added classics including “On & On,” “Love of My Life,” “Next Lifetime,” “Window Seat,” and “Bag Lady” along with an intergalactic interpolation of Prophe-C’s “Got Me In The Zone.”
I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Badu live multiple times and each time was different than the last. If you were expecting to simply hear album cuts of her chart-topping hits and even her B-sides, immediately rid yourself of that thought. She gives you very different production and instrumentation like true artists do. The simplest way to describe it is dynamic and abstract.
>After a slight delay at the entrance, it was actually H.E.R. who surprised the crowd to kick off the festivities.
“I’m so happy. I can’t believe y’all are here right now. I can’t believe this is happening; I feel so blessed. Honestly, all these artists are incredible,” she exclaimed gleefully while wearing a chic low ponytail with her signature shades, an oversized royal blue jacket, distressed shorts, and black bustier. “I am personally a fan of every single one of the artists on this bill and a lot of them have not been called to play other festivals, but Lights On Fest is the stage where we provide that for these artists.”
In the midst of focusing on the experiential aspects like the bumper cars and mini roller coaster, I did catch glimpses of Maxx Moor—a newcomer from the Bronx, NY—who reminded me of an edgy D’Angelo. I’d heard nothing but great things about the BX crooner from several festival attendees and fellow artists. I may have been sleeping on his music before, but between him reviving neo-soul with the Maxwell Urban Hang Suite afro, his overall mystique, entrancing tone, and live band, I definitely became a fan and would also love to hear him on a track with Masego.
Songwriter Priscilla Renea, who’s since rebranded into singer Muni Long, swayed the crowd with a cover of SWV’s “Weak” and original singles, “Sneaky Link” and “Midnight Snack.”
Personal favorite, Tone Stith, debuted his single, “Something In The Water,” from his forthcoming EP, Still FWM?—slated for an October release. The song samples Carl Thomas’ “I Wish” and features his labelmate, singer Maeta.
As I made my way to the main stage, I was stopped in my tracks during a tearful rendition of Snoh Aalegra’s “I Want You Around.” Over at the Protégé booth, fans were welcomed to audition for MBK Entertainment—the team behind H.E.R.—to become the singer’s protégé.
The performer, Cierra, had a tone that felt it had gospel roots. The judges joked that the Sacramento resident sounded like Jazmine Sullivan. Jeff Robinson— founder and CEO of MBK—also mentioned her cover was his favorite performance. She also explained that though the audition was “nerve-wracking,” once she was comfortable, it was like doing something that felt normal for her.
Over on the main stage, Lucky Daye debuted his single, “Over” which samples Musiq Soulchild’s “Halfcrazy.” He told VIBE that his favorite song to perform, though, is “Love You Too Much” because he gets to connect to fans and even throws roses. Yet, no true serenade is complete without one fan completely swooning as the crooner made her feel like the only person in the audience.
Ari Lennox, dressed in full vintage Hollywood glam, had fans going up for her Shea Butter Baby album cuts. Despite the project being two years old, it was evident that nearly every track is still a fan favorite. Knowing how Ari’s personality shines on Instagram Live, she brought all that familiar energy to the stage. Fans giggled when she took off her stilettos not long into her performance and during her commentary in-between songs. They rocked along when she stopped midway during her performance of “New Apartment” because she couldn’t hear herself. The venue’s camera panned as everyone appeared in their own world while singing along to “Whipped Cream,” “BMO,” a cover of Tweet’s “Oops (Oh My)”, and “Backstage” from her debut EP, PHO.
Fast forward to the moment we all had been waiting for—H.E.R.. The 24-year-old artist is easily one of the best performers of this generation and I will see her live at any given chance. Wrapping up the festive weekend, she stepped onto the stage with her long flowy curls, red bodysuit, and denim shorts. Immediately, the budding legend performed hits— both old and new—including “Damage,” “Avenue,” “Every Kind Of Way,” crowd-favorite “Hard Place,” “Slide” [sans YG], and “Focus.”
Halfway through her hour-long set, she declared the resounding message of the weekend. “R&B is not dead. I don’t know why people said R&B is dead when R&B lives in everything. I remember back in the day when people used to sing songs like—cutting to a slow build of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.”
Surprise guests included Yung Bleu as they performed “Paradise” from her debut album, Back of My Mind. Bay Area legend Goapele performed “Closer” as sampled in H.E.R.’s “Closer To Me.” Fellow Black Filipina, Saweetie came through with a quick taste of “Best Friend.”
H.E.R. spoke on a full-circle moment as she recalled sitting in the far back of the Concord Pavilion at a Chris Brown concert and how now she’s hosting her own festival at the same venue. The Virginia-bred bad boy pulled up to join H.E.R. in a sultry performance of “Come Through”. Everyone lost it when Chlöe of Chlöe x Halle appeared to perform Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog”, alongside H.E.R., in a special hard rock segment. Yet, Lights On Fest isn’t complete without a performance of her 2017 ballad, “Lights On.”
With this being the second year of Lights On Fest, the Oscar-winning singer exclaimed, “I was so excited and happy about feeling the energy of the people. And they were over the top because they’ve been waiting for shows to come back. The Bay is home for me, so it was even more special.”
Compared to performing virtually, H.E.R. stated, “There’s nothing like the connection with an audience. The screams, singing all the lyrics with me. Looking at all the people. It makes it more fun because you have something to feed off of.”
Though the first-ever Lights On Fest: Brooklyn was set to take place in late October, it’s since been canceled due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In a statement, the Lights On Fest team wrote, “… it’s become harder and harder for us to put together the type of festival experience that you deserve. So we are officially postponing this year’s festival to 2022.”
However, we still had to find out how similar and different the shows would’ve been. She teased, “Brooklyn’s lineup will be a little different but equally DOPE!! The Bay was full-on festival vibes and Brooklyn is going to be an arena show. Of course the Bay Area audience vibe and NY audience is different [but] I’m going to bring out some different surprises!”
The dates for Lights On Fest: Brooklyn 2022 have yet to be announced. Watch H.E.R. explain the importance of Lights On Fest in the 2019 recap below.