UPDATED: The controversy between Jay-Z’s Made in America festival and Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney’s office stepped up another notch Thursday: Desiree Perez, COO of Jay’s Roc Nation company, tells Variety that the festival, which has taken place on the city’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway every year since 2012, will be held in that iconic location in 2019, or in another city.
Earlier this week a rep for the mayor’s office told a local media outlet that the festival will have to be held elsewhere in the city in 2019 due to the costs — apparently without discussing the matter with Jay’s team first — adding that after six years, tourism has grown, so “the need for an event of this scale at this location may no longer be necessary.” In response, Jay fired off an angry op-ed that was published Wednesday in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
“We are disappointed that the mayor of the city of Philadelphia would evict us from the heart of the city, through a media outlet, without a sit-down meeting, notice, dialogue, or proper communication,” he wrote, and cited the $102.8 million in economic impact the festival has brought to the city and the $3.4 million the festival has paid in rent.
The mayor responded several hours after the op-ed was published with a statement of his own that calls the situation an “unfortunate misunderstanding” that they are “working to resolve.”
However, “This is a bullying tactic,” Perez tells Variety. “This is not about money. Benjamin Franklin Parkway represents what we stand for.”
“We’re not going to negotiate with Roc Nation through the press,” a rep for the mayor’s office told Variety. “We’re looking forward to meeting with them soon.”
Perez says that Jay, Roc Nation and the festival’s partners are “in shock” over the situation with the mayor’s office: “Apparently, there are questions of being owed money, though we pay the same amount of rent, on time, as we have every year.” While Perez says that the festival had a “great relationship of in-person meetings, phone calls and shared emails” with former Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter, who welcomed the festival with open arms, the relationship with Kenney’s office has been virtually nonexistent since he took office in 2016 — “and we have tried to set up meetings,” she says.
She notes that this year Roc Nation eventually did receive two legal letters from the mayor’s office — “Actually, they went to Live Nation, who forwarded them to us” — that were given to their corporate counsel in order to respond. In the company’s response, sent on July 18 and written by attorney Andrew Kupinse, requested dialogue among all parties concerned, seeking a meeting between the mayor and Jay-Z when his “On the Run II” tour with Beyonce visits the city on July 30, and explaining “the damage this was causing to our brand by making such statements without even speaking to us. We urged that to stop. We also explained that we believe there is some ulterior motive” in the mayor’s office’s efforts to bar Made in America from the Parkway.
“We can’t guess what those motivations may be, but we have rights, and they are Constitutional,” she says. “We would love to amicably resolve all issues.”
Philadelphia City Council President Darrell Clarke did not immediately respond to Variety’s requests for comment.
Former Mayor Nutter told Variety that the Parkway site is “the only place to have that kind of event, in my view. That’s what gives that event its prominence and logistics you need — especially since it was a gated event in that area, which had never been done before. Complaints? Of course, we heard them — you would with having multiple stages in a major thoroughfare in the middle of the city. But Roc Nation wanted the Parkway because they witnessed what we had achieved with the 4th of July party with the Roots: If we could put 500-to-700,000 people there for Welcome America, we could do 50,000 for Jay-Z.”
For its part, festival promoter Live Nation said in a statement Thursday: “Live Nation wholeheartedly supports Jay-Z and Roc Nation’s bid to keep the Made in America Festival at its home on the Ben Franklin Parkway. We have yet to hear a compelling or plausible explanation for why the festival cannot return to the site where it has successfully been housed for six years and generated $102.8 million in positive economic impact to the city.
“From Billie Holiday to Will Smith, Patti LaBelle, Jill Scott, The Roots and countless others, urban music is an indelible part of Philadelphia’s culture and history. By handicapping Made in America’s ability to bring the best show possible to the best site possible, this administration makes a statement about how it values the arts and plans to protect and expand the city’s vibrant musical heritage.”
The 2018 version of the festival will take place on the Parkway Sept. 1 and 2 and features Nicki Minaj and Post Malone as well as Philadelphia natives Meek Mill and Diplo.
Perez tells Variety that the relationship between Roc Nation and the mayor’s office began awkwardly in 2016, when the office asked which artists would be performing at that year’s festival before the lineup had been announced. “I found that odd,” she says. “Why would anyone in government want that? It sounded like they wanted to approve who was performing.” Roc Nation did not comply with the request.
In that same year, Kenney’s office uninvited Philadelphia-based hip-hop group and longtime local ambassadors The Roots from curating the “Welcome America” July 4 ceremonies that it had played and hosted during Nutter’s administration.
Roots cofounder Questlove said on Instagram Thursday, “So what’s the logic when someone cuts its nose to spite its face? For all Philadelphians asking The Roots why we ‘decided’ to no longer participate in the 4th of July #WelcomeAmerica festival we all but resuscitated from cliche hell (our talent, our resources, our contacts, our reach….this is past ‘why fix something that isn’t broken?’……..Philly is losing its SECOND annual festival—without warning. Who does that?”
It should be noted that the city did book Mary J. Blige for “Welcome America,” and the mayor has supported Philadelphia native Meek Mill during his controversial imprisonment for parole violation (as did Jay-Z).
During a July 18 press conference, Mayor Kenney — who mentioned how much he enjoys Jay-Z’s music — also suggested that Roc Nation knew a move was imminent because it was in the RFP (request for proposals), to which Live Nation replied.
“Since they responded to the RFP and had no complaints, we thought it was okay to look around for some other prominent sites in the city where we could do it,” he said.
But Perez contends, “We have never seen any other location or been told about another location. Jay said, ‘I want to be on the “Rocky,” steps,’” referring to the famous “Gonna Fly Now” scene from the 1976 film. “The name of the festival is Made in America, it’s Labor Day weekend, this is the city of the founding fathers — everything means something. We chose that space.” She concludes, “This is a symbolic space in the birthplace of America for freedom and everything we stand for.”
Additional reporting by Jem Aswad