Words by Benjamin VanHoose
Photo by Eslah Attar
Jay Z, Beyonce and others perform for at the “Get Out the Vote” concert in support of Hillary Clinton on Nov. 4.
It’s a Friday night, and the Cleveland Wolstein Center stands are lined with a diverse crowd of people twerking, cheering and singing along to chart-toppers, new and old. Of-age guests are careful to balance their plastic cups brimming with beer as they frame up the perfect selfie. Despite an abundance of no-smoking signs scattered throughout the venue, a stark trace of marijuana exhaust lingers in the air, making a contact high nearly inescapable.
Jay Z is on stage, but the Grammy-winning rapper isn’t the reason for the show. The primary goal of the night is to inspire attendees to vote—hopefully for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. As indicated by the metal detectors, on-duty Secret Service and dutiful volunteers, it’s all part of a Clinton campaign event.
The night was full of one surprise celebrity guest after another, each stumping for last minute voter turnout as part of a free “Get Out the Vote” concert.
Rewind to hours before the first notes of Jay Z’s opening song “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” reverberate the sound systems. Droves of anxious fans line up outside, unaware of the A-list lineup set to unfold on the inside. While slowly streaming through security, crowd members voice frustrations with organization of the flow of admittance.
Once inside, the stands progressively fill up. Cavaliers game DJ Steph Floss keeps the eager fans occupied by mixing decade-old tunes and current hits to excitable responses. Floss’ efforts begin to lessen in effectiveness as fans grow noticeably fidgety for headliner Jay Z.
“Almost time,” Floss assures periodically over a 20-minute span.
It’s at the height of the room’s collective impatience when the house lights shift and an announcer voices the words everyone is waiting for: “Ladies and gentlemen…” followed by the last words anyone could anticipate: “…Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish.” The introduction was met with deflated sighs and laughter.
“I am not Jay Z,” Budish says to an audience who couldn’t be more aware of that fact.
Three more politicians were next to the stage, this time in the form of Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown. Each give brief political spiels while remembering to tease the impending performances.
“I’m glad to be in the city of King James,” Strickland says, referring to Cleveland basketball all-star LeBron James. “And tonight, Cleveland is the city of Queen Beyoncé.”
Unmatched screams resound throughout the room at the mere mentioning of the prolific singer.
More waiting ensues as a local Clinton campaign staffer exits the stage. Then, with no warning, blue lights blast from the stage, black and white American flags displayed on the screens and Jay Z makes his grand entrance.
“Tonight we here for a real cause, but before we get to that we just gonna party,” Jay Z says before transitioning to hits “F*ckwithmeyouknowigotit” and “Jigga My N***a.”
Finding ways to weave Ohio into some of his well known lyrics, Jay Z set the tone for the rest of the show before bringing rapper Big Sean on stage.
“We facing one of the most important elections of our life coming up,” Big Sean says between songs.
He then goes on to perform “One Man Can Change the World”—inspirational fare fitting for the political rally. That isn’t to say Big Sean keeps it sanitized; the artist switches to one of his popular 2015 songs with lyrics such as, “You little stupid ass bitch. I ain’t f**kin’ with you.”
Chance the Rapper is next to the stage. The crowd’s thrill level spikes at the sight of the 23-year-old Chicago-native, who performs tracks from his latest album “Coloring Book,” including “Blessings” and “No Problem.”
“It doesn’t really matter who I am,” Chance says, putting his participation in the night’s event in perspective. “I’m here to celebrate our next and first woman president in the history of the United States of America.”
Text is projected on the three screens behind the stage at increments throughout the performances with messages such as “Use your voice” and “Shape Tomorrow,” likely to remind the crowd they’re at a political rally.
Up next to the spotlight is J. Cole as he belts some of his older hits, including 2014’s “No Role Modelz.” J. Cole is the least vocally political of the night, performing his songs and leaving the stage back to Jay Z. Further teasing the introduction of his wife, Jay Z jokes to the audience that he doesn’t think they’re ready for Beyoncé. The incessant howls from the audience say otherwise.
The room goes dark. A moment of anticipatory silence is quickly replaced with cheers. Lights reveal a recognizable silhouette. Initial beats of “Formation” boom from the audio systems. The crowd buzzes with the biggest applause of the evening. It’s Beyoncé, greeted by an audience reaction any pop star would kill for.
She ditches her large-brimmed, black hat midway through the song to dance along with her blue pantsuit-clad backup squad.
“The world looks to us as a progressive country that leads change,” she says after her first song. “There was a time when a woman’s opinion did not matter. Look how far we’ve come from having no voice to being on the brink of making history.”
Beyoncé follows “Formation” with “Freedom,” “Flawless,” “Diva,” “Run the World (Girls)” and a “Holy Grail” duet with Jay Z. Cheers resonate louder every time the couple comes near each other, a concluding hug inciting a deafening roar.
Afterward, Jay Z eases into his message for the night, the reason the free concert was organized in the first place.
“The soul is colorless,” he says. “This other guy [Trump], I don’t have any ill will toward him. His conversation is divisive and that’s not an evolved soul to me so he cannot be my president.”
Before introducing Clinton, Jay Z stresses her campaign slogan twice: “Once you divide us, you weaken us. We are stronger together.”
Clinton walks on stage, hugs Beyoncé, then Jay Z. She stands with the two superstars, taking in the moment in front of thousands of shrieking fans. The two step aside and allow the candidate to take center stage.
“What an incredible show,” she says to an audience who has no reason to disagree with that assessment.
She refers to “Jay” as if they are old friends, thanking him for addressing issues in his lyrics, including racism, poverty and the “urgent need for criminal justice reform.”
“We have unfinished business to do, more barriers to break and—with your help—a glass ceiling to crack once and for all,” she says, her voice somewhat battered from use in rallies all over the swing states, including Kent State last Monday.
Jay Z wrapped the night with his “Hard Knock Life.” Fans funnelled to the exits, vibrating with energy from the show they just witnessed. Cigarette butts and empty bottles of Hennessy litter the sidewalks outside the Wolstein Center.
The entire show acted as a build up to the real scene-stealer, Beyoncé. It was symbolic of the way Democrats hope the election pans out: a slew of prominent males passing the torch to a prominent female.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump jumped on his chance to stifle any momentum mustered by the event the morning after. Trump criticized the language used by the performers and boasted that he doesn’t need the starpower to attract large crowds.
“He used every word in the book,” he says at a rally in Tampa, Florida. “I won’t even use the initials because I’ll get in trouble.”
Nothing about this campaign event was typical. While the uncensored music may be enough to turn off some voters, the culminating theme of the concert wasn’t offensive lyrics or unsavory subject matter. It was of empowerment, camaraderie and voicing support for causes important to an individual.
And let’s face it, many of the people in attendance weren’t there for the presidential hopeful. The only way Clinton will know if this star-studded night paid off will be if the final results on Tuesday fall in her favor.
Either way the election pans out, there’s no taking away the fact that Cleveland experienced a once in a lifetime musical showcase. For free.