CHICAGO — The pandemic forced the world into our homes, bringing social activities to a screeching halt. For a remedy to the isolation imposed by numerous stay-at-home orders, plus the anxiety brought on by daily uncertainty, many people turned to music.
Music offers avenues of resolution by encouraging us to discover new loves, promoting feelings of acceptance, helping us through grief, and prodding us to embrace happiness. Music delivers shapes who we are, and it’s for that reason that concerts and music festivals are both a public and intimate experience.
Lollapalooza’s return to Chicago’s Grant Park at the end of July was, at the time, the largest music festival since the start of the pandemic, a fitting distinction for the festival’s 30th anniversary. Over the four days more than 385,000 people flocked to the festival grounds to catch show-stopping performances by headliners like the Foo Fighters, Post Malone, Megan Thee Stallion, and Tyler, The Creator.
Before the pandemic, an elbow-to-elbow shuffle through packed crowds of music fans, inching their way toward a chance at a front-row performance of their favorite artists, was a rite of passage for many festivalgoers. Now the new normal is masked festival patrons, spaces between groups, and readily equipped on-the-go hand sanitizer. A few traditions of the past remain the same at music festivals: standing in long lines, the hot summer sun, and of course the captivating embrace of live music.
My introduction to music festivals was through journalism. I’ve interviewed my favorite artists, shot in the photo pits of legendary sets, and have captured up-close and personal portraits. Plus I discovered very early that the journalists and photographers were, as with the journalism field in general, mostly white, and I often found myself the only Latinx voice in such spaces.
Growing up I didn’t have the access or means to experience live shows. Music journalism gave me the opportunity to speak to some of my favorite artists and witness one-of-a-kind performances, and yet over the years I haven’t lost my pre-festival giddiness.
Officially I’m an oldhead, and so reflecting on this year’s lineup I couldn’t help noticing that it was stacked with young talent was stacked, curated with future stars. One in particular, Lunay, is well on his way to becoming one of the heavyweights of reggaetón.
The 20-year-old singer and rapper carries his Puerto Rican pride on his shoulders. “As an artist of the new generation, this is more than an achievement,” Lunay says of his performance at Lollapalooza and what it means to him. “I bring that energy and passion with me from Puerto Rico to the stage.”
“Puerto Rico has gone through hurricanes, earthquakes, tremors, many things that have made us stronger. We use it for motivation,” he says. Lunay exudes an infectious optimism when he talks about the climate issues Puerto Rico has faced. “I use these experiences as motivations to keep growing. I say that yesterday was bad, but tomorrow is going to be better. Tomorrow will be better.”
Lunay was initially planned for a surprise performance at the Toyota Music Den, but also performed on the Grubhub Stage. His last-minute addition into the lineup was a critical move, filling a void in Latin music at the festival this year. While J Balvin made Lollapalooza history by being the first-ever Latino headliner in 2019, no Latino artist was given top billing across the four-day festival.
His latest video game-inspired music video, “Todo O Nada” featuring Anitta, immersed fans in an interactive and unique way. Fans submitted a photo of themselves for their own personalized “Todo O Nada” video plus a chance for a virtual meet-and-greet with the Lunay.
During the shutdown he focused on rebranding, surrounding himself with a new management team and setting new goals for his career. “Quarantine for me was one of the best things that happened because it gave me time to recognize who I was and what I wanted to do,” he says.
“I feel myself living. I get excited every day in the studio making new music and growing,” Lunay said. He was confused at the start of the pandemic, but with his new direction and management, he is now looking forward to the future.
“I’m 20 years old. Every day I continue to grow and learn new things. I’m at Lollapalooza, and I have amazing fans. I take it all to heart.”
Lollapalooza’s return wasn’t only the biggest festival since the start of the pandemic; it also came after last year’s nationwide protests and discussions on policing following the police killing of George Floyd. I covered the peaceful protests against policing in Chicago, lack of community investment, and abolishing ICE. The bittersweetness of enjoying stellar musical performances this year just steps away from where the city erupted in unrest wasn’t lost on me.
“You got to be living under a rock if you don’t feel the shockwave of police brutality and everything that just happened in the cusp of those months,” says Jessie Reyez, a Colombian-Canandian R&B and hip-hop artist.
Reyez has used her platform to participate in many demonstrations in support of Black Lives Matter and against police brutality. She is also vocal about the colorism within the Latinx community toward Black and Afro-Latinos.
The singer-songwriter will be joining Billie Eilish on her Happier Than Ever Tour this fall.
Since Reyez’s 2017 introduction with “Kiddo,” we’ve heard her baring her soul, pouring her heartache into her music. Her debut album, Before Love Came to Kill Us, cemented her powerful ability to compose a song from her life’s best and worst moments.
Reyez gave a surprise performance of her “Rain” collaboration with Grandson. The rock medley is the principal track from James Gunn’s Suicide Squad soundtrack.
“I became more loving towards myself,” Reyez says on what she discovered during the pandemic. “These last two years forced me to question myself. My mental health is fucked. My traumas are still very much present. The way I deal with stress and anger is unhealthy.”
Reyez shares that despite her musical and personal success, it wasn’t until she loved herself that she realized the blessings in her life.
“I worked so hard, and I tried to save my money, but I never enjoyed the fruits of my labor up until this last year.” Fortunately, she’s enjoying living in the now. “You never know how easy it can be taken away. I mean, shit, we could go back on lockdown tomorrow.”
Actually performing in front of music fans isn’t lost on Reyez either. “When I reflect on how much time has passed, it forced me to be more present.”
For years I’ve admired Reyez for her ability to mold her trauma and experiences into her writing for a therapeutic listening session of acceptance and understanding. Our conversation ended by discussing her existential view on life and the happiness she gets from providing for her family.
Another sobering songwriter describes her music as a “personal diary page,” a glimpse into her hard life-learned lessons.
Panamanian singer-songwriter Sofía Valdés’s grounded essence shinned at Lollapalooza – the first live performance of her young career. Despite being her performance debut, the 20-year-old handled it like a seasoned veteran.
Speaking with her I faced a fear many music journalists have: being the only thing standing between an artist and the comfortable bed in their hotel room. But even after a long day, Valdés was vibrant and energetic as anyone you’ll meet.
Valdés’s songwriting hit a roadblock at the start of the pandemic. “I found myself in a place where I couldn’t write,” she says. “I was shut down. I thought that I wasn’t going to be able to write ever again.”
She often worries about how her music will be perceived due to its vulnerability and biographical nature. “What if all these sad songs don’t do well?” she expalins. “Maybe the label won’t trust me.”
In her debut EP, Ventura, Valdés’s fusion of folk-soul storytelling is inspiring because of her honest exploration of emotions of heartbreak and longing. Her powerful ballads have been well-received by fans worldwide.
“Seeing how everyone reacted to it, they know me on another level, more objective than I even know myself,” she shares. “They don’t even know me personally, but they are listening to my thoughts.”
Valdés is grateful for the support she’s received and explains how her Panamanian culture influences her today: “The amount of response that I’ve gotten from people in Panama and other places in Latin America has been incredible and beyond what I thought it was going to be. I’m very grateful. I hope I can be a part of a growing number of Central American pop singers.”
Valdés will be joining Boy Pablo’s Wachito Rico Tour across North America this fall.
I met with Boy Pablo frontman Pablo Muñoz on the final night and in the last hour of Lollapalooza. The long back and forward of securing a time and space to talk was stressful. But all the pressue of securing an interview with Pablo were cured when I met him.
He was alone, enjoying the night after his chill and playful set earlier in the day. He was at the festival without his bandmates due to COVID travel restrictions.
Pablo’s global takeover started with charm and indie-pop perfection. Now tackling the issues of heartbreak and intimacy, Pablo is ready to pick up where the pandemic halted things in his career.
While having grown up in Norway, he recalls his Chilean identity rooted in family traditions. His parents immigrated to Norway to escape Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in the ’80s. He leans on his family for support with his music and social issues.
“Racism is everywhere,” he says. “I experienced a little bit when I was younger, but with my strong family it gave me so much confidence in myself that I didn’t need to care about that.”
Pablo was quarantined after testing positive for COVID in October 2020. His debut album, Wachito Rico, was released days later.
“I was isolated. That sucked!” Pablo says about the timing of his contracting COVID and his album release. “But seeing so many people writing to me that they love the album, the visuals and everything, it was really heartwarming.”
Named after the Chilean phrase wachito rico, meaning “handsome boy,” his highly anticipated album was his first introduction to audiences after he burst onto the indie-pop scene in 2017.
Pablo shared an experience he had while at Lollapalooza which reminded him of his influence on today’s music. “A girl sneaked backstage just to thank me for making music. Her parents are from Ecuador. She was thanking me for just being there as a Hispanic artist.”
“It was really beautiful to hear that because I don’t think a lot about that in Norway,” Pablo explains, reflecting on the duality of his being raised in a Chilean household in Norway. “I feel Chilean when I’m in Norway. I feel Norwegian when I’m in Chile. It’s a weird mix.”
Blending alternative and modern rock, Migrant Motel made their Lollapalooza headlining debut on the BMI stage.
Peruvian-American singer and guitarist David Stewart Jr. and Mexican-born drummer Chava Ilizaliturri formed Migrant Motel at the Berklee College of Music. Touring for most of their career, Migrant Motel audiences span from the west coast into Latin America and Mexico. The duo has opened for legendary rock band Café Tacuba.
“It’s really surreal to be here at Lollapalooza. It touches deep inside,” Ilizaliturri says. “I’ve dreamed all my life in Mexico, listening to American bands and dreaming maybe one day being part of it.”
“Chava and I are both very proud Latinos,” Stewart says. “We realized the other day that I’m the first Peruvian frontman to ever play Lollapalooza here in Chicago.”
“I’m wary of selling bullshit,” he adds. “We’re not going to come out all of a sudden with traditional Latino sounds. Being Latino, there are a million different ways that looks.”
Jesus J. Montero is a multimedia journalist and photographer. He is the son of Mexican immigrants with a master’s degree in journalism from DePaul University. Twitter: @MrJesusJMontero