Music events, honest to God Events with a capital “E”, are few and far between. Festivals are still a draw, but even those are becoming less prominent. Where the music industry was once a fertile ocean of creativity, seismic changes have resulted in a barren landscape of nostalgia tours, post-punk revivals, and ‘90s weekends on the radio.
The fluxing industry is only partly to blame for the dearth of Events, however. Politics has something to do with it too. Angry people bemoan this presidential action or that war or some global trade agreement, but bands and listeners (who might be termed passers-through looking for an oasis in this desert) don’t want to get down and dirty with political action. It’s easier to lament the poor state of the world today than it is to do something. The result of such a mindset is boring music, reminiscent of the excessive vapidity of the ‘80s.
All hope is not lost, however. And the unlikely savior galloping through the dunes is Dave Chappelle.
On 18 September 2004, Chappelle hosted a block party in Brooklyn, where some of the biggest names in hip-hop and R&B played a free concert to a mostly minority crowd of thousands. The show wasn’t short on names: Kanye West, Erykah Badu, Common, Jill Scott, Dead Prez, Mos Def, and the Roots all performed, as did the Fugees, together for the first time since 1997. Chappelle decided to document the event and the days leading up to it, enlisting the help of Michel Gondry, director of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as well as numerous groundbreaking music videos. Gondry’s work, like that of fellow Director’s Series video artists Spike Jonze and Mark Romanek, reflects an appreciation of music, marrying compelling visuals and music to expand the possibilities of both.
Gondry’s work here underlines that Chappelle’s Event isn’t just a publicity stunt to push t-shirts. In fact, it recalls Wattstax, a 1972 show in Los Angeles that, like this one, not only provided entertainment but also raised awareness of racism, urban violence, the Vietnam war, and lack of opportunities for the underclass. Like Woodstock and Altamont, Wattstax was filmed and released theatrically. The film, Wattstax, directed by Mel Stuart of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory fame, intercuts music with Richard Pryor’s performance.
The similarities to Block Party are glaring. For starters, the block party is most certainly a politically informed event: all these socially conscious performers have something to say about the conditions facing minorities, women, and the poor. At the same time, Chappelle provides acute humor: he invites a big, hulking guy onto the stage to battle him in a freestyle rap-off. The guy from the crowd is wearing a “Free Tibet” t-shirt, cut off at the sleeves. Chappelle remarks, “Free Tibet? There aren’t any black folks in Tibet!” On one level, this is Chappelle poking fun at one of those ready-made political action “items.” But on another, it’s Chappelle remarking, “Free Tibet? There are people enslaved right here!”
Block Party sustains a balance between good-natured light-heartedness social commentary. Engaged viewers will find themselves wondering how they can better their community while bumping in their seats to the beats blaring from the multiplex’s surround sound system. They’ll also find themselves engrossed in the film’s resemblance to the experience of actually watching a concert. Cutting from the drummer to the guitarist, singer to the horn section, the film emulates how attendees watch concerts. The most important aspect isn’t a band’s frontperson; instead, what’s vital and moving is the sense of immersion in a show.
But ultimately, the film comes down to Chappelle. It’s his block party, after all. Some might want to view Block Party as his effort to make us forget about his walking away from his show. But that’s not the case. A telling moment comes when ?uestlove notes that Chappelle’s audience changed from people like him to obnoxious frat boys once his television show took off. As Chappelle sits silent, somewhat pensive, ?uestlove observes that he didn’t want his career to careen down that road.
Instead, Chappelle wants to make the world laugh. When he goes home to Dayton, Ohio, he passes out tickets to a couple underprivileged black youths, a couple of older white ladies, and a couple of parole officers entitling them to a free ride and room for the show, which they’re guaranteed to get into. Chappelle even arranges for the entire drum and brass lines of a Dayton community college to not only go to the block party, but also to play in it. The shouts, shrieks, and excitement of every member of the group are palpable—and inspiring. Chappelle sees this, too. Now that he has the economic and social means to give something back to his community, be it in Dayton or all over America, Chappelle’s going to seize on that opportunity.