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In his house, Donald Morrison doesn’t skip the Entourage theme song 

My attendance at Rolling Loud Miami as a 32-year-old seemed foolproof. New York’s iteration of the hip-hop festival had been canceled this year and my girlfriend’s parents recently retired to South Florida, so I’d have a free place to stay near the festival grounds, located at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens. I get excited about things like this today because I never went to music festivals when I was younger and I have some vague idea that by attending I can learn something about young people and the current state of music, something that can’t be gleaned from behind a computer screen or in YouTube comment sections.

Lately, the computer screen has been telling me that hip-hop is on a serious decline. Rap message boards are more flush than usual with conversations discussing whether or not “hip-hop is dead.” Billboard released a report saying there hasn’t been a single hip-hop song or album that topped the “Billboard 200” or “Hot 100” charts in 2023 – the first time in 30 years that hip-hop hasn’t held its top spot for this long of a stretch. When Nas said “hip-hop is dead” in 2006, he was saying the death of hip hop was caused by commercialization. Today, what people mean when they say “hip-hop is dead” is almost precisely the opposite: that it’s no longer commercially viable the way that it was for the past two decades.

It certainly doesn’t feel like hip-hop is dead from a fan’s perspective. A single glance at the line up for this year’s festivities revealed at least a dozen artists that I was genuinely excited about. Rushing to the festival grounds on the first night, I was struck by a South Florida heat wave and the idea that I “do not want to miss Sexyy Red.”

Arriving just in time to catch Sexyy charging onto the stage for “Female Gucci Mane,” you couldn’t mistake her commanding stage presence as she twerked, jumped, and danced to her music. She ended her set with the two-piece knockout, “SkeeYee” and “Pound Town,” both songs the entire crowd seems to know word-for-word. A high point in the performance came when Sexyy brought out Sukihana, also known as Suki With The Good Coochie, for what appeared to be an ass-shaking contest.

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At one point during my first day, I noticed a mugshot of Young Thug  blasted on gigantic screens behind one of the stages. I walked over and caught Black Music Action Collation co-founder Willie “Prophet” Stiggers, as well as festival co-founder Tariq Cherif and Congressmen Hank Johnson of Georgia and Jamaal Bowman of New York, giving a town hall educating festival goers about the Restoring Artistic Protection Act (RAP Act).

“We have to change protests into policy,” Stiggers told the audience.

The RAP Act is a bill first introduced in July 2022 that wants to add a presumption to the Federal Rules of Evidence that would limit the admissibility of evidence of an artist’s creative or artistic expression against that artist in court. It’s meant to protect artists like Young Thug from the racist grasp of federal prosecutors who will often stoop so low as to use their lyrics against them in criminal and civil proceedings.

Cherif took the stage shortly after, saying “Young Thug is locked up right now and I don’t like it. I want Young Thug free. I want him back on my stage. I want the people to be able to enjoy his performances.”

The sun was still shining and the audience wasn’t completely checked out as Congressman Johnson took the stage. He repeated what others had said, that hip-hop is under attack and that our most important artists are being silenced and targeted in new and unique ways. I wasn’t hearing people say that hip-hop is dead at Rolling Loud, but I did hear congressmen say that it was under attack.

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My favorite performance from night one was Babyface Ray. The Detroit rapper opened with “Ron Artest,” a stand-alone single with 42 Dugg that had already gained a cult following before its official release this year. Wearing all-black, with a black hat covering up his trademark braids, Ray dropped fan favorite “Like Daisy Lane” halfway through his set and I could officially go home happy. Babyface is an artist with two dozen hits that people are only now fully becoming aware of. This is definitely the highest his name has ever been on a Rolling Loud setlist and his performance proved once again that his name belongs near the top of the marquee.

At one point, I went to Kodak’s Wings and paid $19 for the boneless wing combo, which came with fries but no drink. Walking back to the stage, I saw Ice Spice perform from afar. It was much easier for me to see her on the screen above the right side of the stage. She remarked how hot it was outside but overall seemed like she was having fun. The crowd was pleased to hear “Munch,” but was disappointed she didn’t bring out PinkPantheress for “Boy’s a Liar 2,” which I overheard a woman next to me complain about.

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The special guest for night one was Kodak Black, who came on an hour late and spent a good portion of his set mumbling into the microphone. This didn’t particularly bother me. It was thrilling to see Kodak in any capacity and when he did perform he had the crowd as soon as he opened with “Skrilla” and “ZEZE.” Playboi Carti ended the night as he has done at every Rolling Loud the past year at least. I caught the beginning of his set on my way out, hoping to miss the crowd.

I was walking past the Pringle’s activation wondering if hip-hop was dead or in the process of dying. It’s always felt alive to me and probably always will. Perhaps an end to its commercial dominance will be good for the genre. Local scenes and niche markets will have room to flourish while the culture vultures move on to something else. I’ve never needed the Billboard charts to tell me what’s good. The music I heard this weekend felt very much alive and filled with the creative angst the genre is known for. The festival goers were as engaged with the music as you could expect from a group of raving lunatics. Hip-hop isn’t dying but something did indeed feel dead. I just can’t quite put my finger on what it is.

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