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Local artists are few and far between at Lollapalooza

This year, only eight of the 142 artists scheduled to perform are based in Chicago.

Chicago rapper Calboy will perform at 12:50 p.m. Friday at Lollapalooza.
Chicago rapper Calboy will perform at 12:50 p.m. Friday at Lollapalooza. His music has earned him over 115 million views on YouTube. He is one of only eight Chicago acts booked at this year’s festival.
Courtesy RCA

This weekend, a talented assortment of Chicago-based musicians will take the stage at Lollapalooza in Grant Park, embarking on the same rite of passage that has cemented artists like Chance the Rapper and Kanye West as bonafide homegrown superstars.

Saba, Calboy, and Smino will carry Chicago’s storied rap scene while Beach Bunny shoulders the load as the city’s sole indie rocker to play this year. The other four Chicago acts — Whethan, Win and Woo, Manic Focus and Louis the Child — are DJs and producers of electronic music.

And that will be it. This year, out of the 142 artists booked at the 24th iteration of Chicago’s biggest music festival, these eight are the only ones actually based in the city.

This year is not an anomaly, either. Since Lollapalooza migrated to its current four-day format in 2016, the number of hometown acts has never broken double digits. By comparison, Pitchfork Music Festival, Lollapalooza’s closest competitor, booked 10 Chicago-based artists for this year’s festival (earlier this month), and 13 in 2018, both on bills less than a third of Lolla’s size.

Though Pitchfork admittedly brands itself as a more independent festival than Lollapalooza, the differences in star power are insubstantial once you move past each festival’s headliners, understandable considering Lollapalooza has to fill a much larger venue over four days.

While the biggest names at Lollapalooza run the gamut from pop megastars like Ariana Grande to indie rock legends like The Strokes, the lineup grows more indistinguishable as the font on the festival’s lineup poster grows smaller. Electro-pop and EDM acts grab the lion’s share of the midday sets, with R&B, hip-hop and a dash of indie rock added to the mix.

Electronic music’s domination of the fest is reflected in the Chicago acts who are booked to perform this year; half of the local artists performing produce some variation of the genre. Considering the city has one of the most diverse and vibrant music scenes in the country — especially when it comes to hip-hop — the distribution is notably imbalanced.

The local artists who are playing the festival are definitely worth seeing. Saba and Smino (the latter is originally from St. Louis but has lived in Chicago for years), are frequent collaborators and distinctive voices in a city whose hip-hop music touches most every corner of the stylistic map. Introspective and honest, both artists use rap as a vehicle to express grief, love and blackness, among other things, often while veering into a kind of R&B that feels so natural the shift is imperceptible. (They are both playing late afternoon to early evening; get there early if you want a good spot.)

Smino performs at the Pitchfork Music Festival in 2018. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
Smino performs at the Pitchfork Music Festival in 2018. He’s on the Lollapalooza bill at 4 p.m. Saturday.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Calboy, for his part, may be less recognizable by name but certainly not by sound. Anyone who has thumbed through the radio has heard his hit single “Envy Me,” an earworm of a song built over mournful keys and a pitched-up soul sample. The 20-year-old flexes his skills as a lyricist and vocalist rapping about his upbringing on the South Side and in Calumet City. His efforts have earned him over 115 million views on YouTube and a record deal with RCA Records.

Then there’s Beach Bunny, the stage name for indie rocker Lili Trifilio and her backing band, who have developed a fanbase with regular gigs in town. With her brand of upbeat, guitar-driven garage rock and well-crafted hooks, Trifilio nails the tricky art of making mopey music feel weightless and breezy.

C3 Presents (the Texas-based production and promotion company that runs Lollapalooza) pays the Chicago Park District at least $1.5 million per year for hosting the festival, in addition to percentages of admission, sponsorship and food and drink revenue, according to the multi-year agreement between C3 and the park district. That agreement, which is in effect until 2021, explicitly states that booking of artists is the sole responsibility of C3.

“We always try to make sure that local artists are represented,” said Huston Powell, a promoter for C3. He said C3 reaches out to booking agents at after show partners like Metro, House of Blues and Jam Productions “to see who is doing well at the local level.”

Win and Woo are on the bill at Lollapallooza at 7:45 p.m. on Thursday.
Win and Woo will perform at 7:45 p.m. Thursday at Lollapallooza.
Derek Rickert

These after shows are another benefit of Lollapalooza’s annual takeover of the city. Hosted at smaller or mid-sized venues, these shows regularly sell out, giving the artists and fans a more intimate concert experience than they would get at Grant Park while allowing the venues a slice of the festival’s riches.

“It’s a wonderful thing,” said Metro’s owner Joe Shanahan. “Rather than shuttering independent venues out during their event, they’ve embraced us.”

At Metro’s after shows, local artists including Iris Temple, Tatiana Hazel and Beach Bunny will play opening sets for globally-acclaimed superstars like Kali Uchis and Death Cab for Cutie. Louis the Child, a producer who was born and raised in Chicago, will headline Sunday’s after show.

“We love to invite Chicago talent onto our stage, and we’re elated to offer them the added publicity that comes along with a huge event such as Lollapalooza,” Shanahan said.

With its ubiquitous presence every summer, Lollapalooza has come to feel like an inevitability. To a certain extent, it is.

C3 co-owner Charlie Jones recently said in an interview that he is hopeful the festival’s contract with the park district will be renewed, noting that he has already spoken with Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

When asked if she would raise the issue of community engagement with C3, a spokesman for Lightfoot provided the following statement:

“Mayor Lightfoot is committed to ensuring Chicago’s cultural landscape reflects the vibrant diversity of our local music scene, and we’ll continue to work to provide opportunities for local artists and musicians from every neighborhood in this city to be heard loud and clear.”