Camp Flog Gnaw Wasn't What We Expected, but What We Needed
In years past, the Odd Future-hosted festival has been a pastel-colored reprieve from the outside world. This time, it wasn’t.
Late Sunday night, just minutes after I'd spent seven dollars on a bottle of water, I was nearly knocked over by a teenage girl who was running—sprinting—toward a stalled Ferris wheel. She was wearing a canary yellow shirt that read, in crude black sharpie, FUCK TRUMP. She was also wearing a camouflaged fanny pack with the Supreme logo emblazoned on the front.
"Now is the time to put your phones away, and focus," Tyler the Creator called from over the loudspeaker to the crowd of 30,000 at Camp Flog Gnaw, the fifth annual gathering of teenaged and twenty-something rap fans, hosted and organized by the Odd Future godfather. In years past, it's been a pastel-colored reprieve from the outside world. This time, it wasn't.
Early Saturday morning, ten-thousand people marched through downtown Los Angeles, protesting the President-Elect, Donald Trump, and the frothing racism that drove his campaign. It was the fourth day of demonstrations as reports of widespread hate crimes and intimidation made it to the national press.
Trump was decried from every angle and through every lens: over women's rights, by immigrants and their families, by Native Americans and Black Americans and LGBTQ men and women and climate change activists. The one constant (other than a sign that read, in orange, WE SHALL OVER-COMB), was "FDT," YG and Nipsey Hussle's protest song from earlier this year ("And if you've been to jail, you can probably still vote"). It rattled out of cars—some passing on the opposite side of the street, some waiting patiently behind police barricades. It played from apartment windows and in hand-held Beats speakers.
As the march turned west, back to MacArthur Park, I split off, hoping to catch Kamasi Washington's set at Camp Flog Gnaw four miles south.
Camp Flog Gnaw could only exist in Los Angeles—not for any particular cultural reason, but because it's tough to throw outdoor festivals in mid-November in New York or Chicago. For each of the last four years, Flog Gnaw has served as an acid test of sorts for Odd Future fans as the collective recedes from the mainstream to occupy more cultish territory. It's always run smoothly: two stages far enough apart to avoid noise pollution but close enough to be navigable, plenty of carnival games, and a well-curated lineup, probably aided by the calendar. The biggest sources of controversy have been spats of perceived Odd Future in-fighting, which is part of the draw.
The atmosphere this year was different in two ways. First, 2016's Camp looked much more like a festival hosted by Odd Future rather than Odd Future's festival. This wasn't reflected in the roster, which included Tyler, the Creator, Domo Genesis, Left Brain, Mike G (and a special guest we'll get to later), but it was clear in the overwhelming shift from OF merch to streetwear writ large.
It was also a departure because of, well, Trump. By the time I made it to Exposition Park, one branch of the protest had already made it onto Vermont, and more or less merged with the fans waiting in line for Flog Gnaw. That sort of political charge stayed with the festival through both of its days: spontaneous chants of "Fuck Trump" and "Not My President," a healthy dose of anti-Trump signs and clothing, and addresses from the stage by at least half of the performers.
Almost all rap is political. The "Bad Boys For Life" video is political. 2 Live Crew was political. Odd Future has always been political, chiefly as an exercise in free speech. When people say they miss "political rap," they're looking for a very specific thing: songs that engage with Important Topics in explicit, linear ways. They're also missing a huge swath of what's happening in hip-hop right now, including—maybe especially—in the mainstream.
On Saturday night, DJ Mustard punctuated his set with scathing words for Donald Trump, then played Kendrick Lamar's "Alright" to one of the most raucous reactions I've ever seen in California. Chance the Rapper, one of the weekend's biggest draws, is touring a relentlessly sunny set, but one that's couched in the trauma of his childhood or in the present day. (Sound problems aside, his set was one of the best-received on the first day.) Erykah Badu ended her stunning set with a word of encouragement for those protesting.
Saturday's headliner, Lil Wayne, was recently under fire for comments he made during a Nightline interview that appeared to disparage, or at least dismiss the need for organizing groups like Black Lives Matter. Wayne later apologized and walked back his comments; his work has long been colored by sometimes-radical political thought. It's a knotty discussion, to be sure, but one that was entirely absent during and after his performance. There was no "Georgia...Bush," but there was a staccato run through the Louisianan's commercial and mixtape hits, the climax coming with his Mike Jones-cribbing "Ride 4 My Niggas."
Flog Gnaw, especially on the second day, dealt with the fear and uncertainty of Trump's America through one long exhale. Action Bronson sent kids on a wild goose chase for hash oil and Foamposites (Team USA, size 9.5); Anderson .Paak sat behind the drums for more of his righteous fury; Rae Sremmurd froze thousands of kids in place. The Flatbush Zombies, who occasionally lapse into conspiracy theory, felt perfectly at home during their Sunday slot. Their equal opposite, Kevin Abstract, had been one of the festival's opening performers; his new album, American Boyfriend, wrestles with the kind of of quiet desperation felt by so many in Flog Gnaw's target age demographic.
To that end, as Tyler's set wound down on Saturday night, he gave a heartfelt speech to his fans. He urged them to take care of one another and to live fearlessly—platitudes in boom times, something much more vital right now. And then he brought out YG. "I like white folks, but I don't like you."
As soon as the gates opened on Sunday, the crowd was abuzz with the rumor that the night's "TBA" slot would be filled by erstwhile Odd Future member Frank Ocean. Groups of kids started yelling "Frank!" into the ether as they walked from churro stand to tilt-a-whirl. (Speaking of kids, it bears noting that hockey jerseys have somehow become the most crucial piece of clothing one can own. Special credit to the fan who had a custom Chicago Blackhawks sweater with the name NIGHTS and the number 56.)
When the girl in canary yellow almost bowled me over, she was trying to get in position for that nascent Frank Ocean set. So were the kids who hopped the security fence between the Coliseum and the stage, only to be stymied by two guards.
But Frank wasn't there. It was Earl Sweatshirt, joining Tyler for a set that was wall-to-wall rapping-ass-rapping. Earl and Tyler's relationship—their supposed drift from one another—has been a cause for hand-wringing among Odd Future fans for a few years. On Sunday, there was little doubt as to their musical chemistry, and way too much joy for any personal animus to be lurking beneath.
I'm sure there were fans disappointed they couldn't see songs from Blond played live. But as I moved toward the stage, another legion of teens ran past me, one boy who couldn't have been more than 15 years old screaming "IT'S EARL!", over and over. It wasn't what anyone expected, but it might have been what we all needed.
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Paul Thompson is a writer based in LA. Follow him on Twitter.