Many a night during Los Angeles’ arid summers, the Hollywood Bowl comes alive, filling 17,000-plus seats with patrons hoping to catch one of their favorite performers. On Wednesday, fans had the chance to catch twice the action. As a part of the iconic venue’s “Jazz at the Bowl” series, the powerful double-headlining bill of Queen Latifah and Common provided for a night of unbridled positivity and unity.
Common first graced the stage shortly after 8 p.m., coming out with as much passion and vigor as a freshly signed artist with nothing to lose. Dressed in a blue tracksuit, Common delivered inspiring lyrics touching on heartbreak, political strife and the struggles of growing up in Chicago’s South Side.
Over the years, the large-hearted street poet has built an empire of gospel-influenced rap backed by soulful instrumentation, and his musical ensemble reflected that. Straying from the expensive visuals and thunderous bass of many of today’s hip-hop performances, Common enlisted a live band complete with a backing vocalist and deejay.
One of the show’s most powerful moments came at the end of “The People,” when Common condemned the mass division he felt was perpetuated by political parties, corporations and the media. He instead offered a solution to “the people” — to embrace and celebrate each other as human beings. Common suggested that if the country could accomplish this, there would be no more Michael Browns, Philandro Castilles or Sandra Blands — only peace.
Afterwards, Common raised his fist and uttered the opening lines to “Letter to the Free.” In an effort to increase audience participation, the MC and entertainer made his way down into the Bowl’s boxes filled with wine-sipping patrons and got them on their feet. When he finished handing out high-fives, he hopped back on stage for a tribute to his mother. He recalled her words of wisdom about how the success of the individual does not equate to the success of the community, a mantra he claims to have lived by his entire career.
Common certainly saved the best performance for last. Audible gasps could be heard from the audience after his keyboardist played the first few notes of the Academy Award-winning track “Glory” from the 2014 film “Selma.” In the song, the Chicago-born MC spits empowering lyrics touching on the historical resilience and strength of black America over the centuries, and Common expertly captured the track’s heaviness live, with the audience eagerly hanging on to every last word of his verses.
The building anticipation between sets was cut immediately when Queen Latifah took the stage at 9:45 p.m., coming out to her Grammy-winning jazz record “I’m Gonna Live Till I Die.” The at times larger-than-life figure could not have been more comfortable entertaining a crowd of thousands. Armed with an understanding smile and casual demeanor, Latifah immediately put the anxious hordes of fans at ease. Her stage presence was a balancing act between an unrestrained rebel and a nurturing mother figure, similar to many roles Latifah’s held in television and film.
At 48 years old, Latifah still has a voice that can drop jaws and fill hearts. She and her band spanned her storied career in the performance, seamlessly switching from her early hip-hop singles to soulful ballads to recreations of her solos from the musicals “Chicago” and “Hairspray.”
However, to imply that Latifah’s performance was hers alone would be dishonest, as she gave her backing band the spotlight at every opportunity she could. On several occasions, the Queen cheered from the sidelines while her trumpeter, lead guitarist and two drummers exchanged stadium-shaking solos. True to her influences from American jazz and Afro-Cuban music, Latifah added a three-piece brass section and conga player to her traditional band, both of which were among the most integral parts of her performance.
As well, Latifah allowed plenty of shine for her three backing vocalists, all of whom easily held their own with staggering emotion and range. Upon the opening notes to “I Wanna Be Down,” Latifah brought out fellow hip-hop pioneer feminist MC Lyte to trade verses and banter. Much in line with the show’s casual magistry, the pair’s chemistry was more comparable to two friends reminiscing than two artists working together.
After the performance, Latifah explained to the audience that, on her stage, ladies come first, she will unapologetically keep it as such. The timely side commentary quickly detoured into her signature Grammy-winning anthem “Ladies First.” Afterwards, Latifah concluded the evening’s festivities with a charged performance of “U.N.I.T.Y.,” imploring her attendees to adopt the song’s unifying message in their own lives.
As a whole, the pair of performances were as riveting as they were uplifting. Both Common and Queen Latifah unequivocally encouraged their audiences to unite in their common humanity, rather than divide among racial, political and economic lines. Their music was the vehicle for this message, and those in attendance responded with laughs and hugs as they exited.