Welcome Back’s stacked

The crowd of students cheer on Flo Milli at the Welcome Back Festival.
The USC Concert Committee held its second in-person Welcome Back Concert since the coronavirus pandemic, drawing a large crowd of students to see three free performances. (Photo by and courtesy of Nathalie Benshmuel)

Over its two-decade history, through countless tailgates and events, McCarthy Quad has never been more alive than it was last weekend. On Saturday, new and returning students enjoyed one of USC’s most beloved Welcome Week festivities: the Welcome Back Concert.

Just like last year’s event, Saturday’s concert, put on by the Concerts Committee, saw students flock to McCarthy Quad to enjoy food trucks, cute photo opportunities and three free concerts. Though it was only the second in-person Welcome Back Concert since the coronavirus pandemic canceled the 2020 show, the turnout was remarkable, with late-comers being turned away as the concert reached capacity later in the night.

This year’s lineup featured three high-profile names for USC students to enjoy free of charge —  melodic screamo rapper JELEEL! and singer-turned-hyperpop DJ Rebecca Black were the two openers for this year’s show, with rapper Flo Milli headlining. 

The lines weaving toward McCarthy Quad’s temporary entrance were long, with students winding between Waite Phillips Hall and the Social Sciences Building and even spilling out onto Trousdale Parkway. Starting at 6:30 p.m., senior Matt Garfinkel, also known as dj daily double, kicked off the concert with a set which had the crowd buzzing. A member of the Concert Committee’s E-Board, daily double’s set lasted about an hour, with fellow USC student and rapper Sumit making a brief cameo appearance to the applause of a solid block of diehard fans to stage left.

JELEEL! opened the Welcome Back Concert as the first guest, starting the night off with unparalleled energy. The Los Angeles native has been on a quick rise to fame in the last year and a half after his endlessly shoutable track “DIVE IN!” went viral online. He’s since utilized his powerful voice and energetic, gymnastic performances on social media apps like TikTok and Instagram to further propel his success. 

JELEEL! performs on stage in front of a cloud of yellow smoke.
JELEEL! started his set off with “REAL RAW ENERGY!” — ripping his shirt off the instant he stepped on stage — and never turned it down. (Photo by and courtesy of Nathalie Benshmuel)

He made quite the entrance, ripping his shirt off and showcasing acrobatic stunts to get the crowd going. At the beginning of his performance, JELEEL! performed one of his signature backflips, which ended up unplugging a speaker. 

“That gave me a heart attack because I heard the audio go out, and I’m like, ‘Holy crap, man, what did I do?,’ so then I ran to the side of the stage and the guys running the sound booth were like, ‘Don’t worry, all he did was unplug something with the backflip.’ I was like thank God because that freaked me out, but that was really funny” said Concerts Committee director of production Connor Christ.

JELEEL!’s high-energy performance was infectious, as the crowd raved to songs like “UNCIVILIZED! (GO!),” “JULY!” and his hit song “DIVE IN!” Unfortunately — or perhaps thankfully — he wasn’t able to dive into the crowd for the safety of our Trojans, but he marched on with his trademark ‘raw energy’ performance — and a wealth of backflips. The crowd moshed throughout his entire set, around 20-30 minutes of high-octane fun.

To fill the gaps between the featured artists’ sets, the Concerts Committee created and hosted Kahoot quizzes, open to the entire audience to join and featuring trivia questions about USC, the artist lineup and entertaining quips. “What’s the name of USC’s safety school?” read one, with all four answers marked “UCLA” (and all four deemed correct).

After a brief break for the crew to set the stage, Rebecca Black went on for a DJ set, a choice that many only familiar with her biggest work didn’t expect. Black, the singer who released the infamously disdained single “Friday” in 2011 when she was 13, has since evolved into a multi-talented artist and exciting performer despite the considerable online hate she faced early in her career.

Rebecca Black dances to the music, posing with a microphone.
(Photo by and courtesy of Nathalie Benshmuel)

Since collaborating with Dorian Electra in 2020 and releasing a hyperpop remix of “Friday” produced by Dylan Brady of 100 Gecs and featuring 3OH!3, Big Freedia and Dorian Electra to commemorate its tenth anniversary in 2021, Black has adopted more and more of a hyperpop sound, complimenting her vocal energy and playful songwriting with the brash and futuristic production elements of her contemporaries.

Not only did Black curate a fun, bouncy vibe for the middle of the concert, she brought along some friends to turn the three-artist lineup into a practically six-part festival. Kept secret before the event, her entourage turned out to be a trifecta of rapper Reí Ami, self-described screamo queen Lil Mariko and modern-age pop star Slayyyter, with whom Black has recently collaborated on new singles.

All three guests brought immense energy to their performances, and though a technical snafu prompted Lil Mariko to restart her song “Hi, I’m a Slut” over again after the first chorus, it only prompted the crowd to sing along louder. Between each appearance, Black and her DJ collaborator danced around, flicked switches on their controllers and flung T-shirts into the crowd.

In turn, the crowd reciprocated their energy. Initially hesitant about Black’s DJ set, the crowd was soon bouncing along with her to the most danceable beats of the night. So too did the Rebecca Black purists among the crowd speak out; throughout the set, chants of “Friday! Friday!” often overwhelmed the music. Black, at first only giggling at the chants, eventually took the mic to reassure the crowd that “later … we definitely won’t forget about that one.”

While it was true that Black didn’t forget about her seminal classic, concertgoers may have been let down by her choice to perform the aforementioned hyperpop remix instead of the nostalgic 2011 version. Still, the crowd gleefully sang along to the track’s lyrics, celebrating their final weekend before the start of fall classes.

Following Black’s performance was another Kahoot, and along with it a break for students to talk, peruse the food trucks and wring out their sweat-soaked tees. “Oohing” and “ahhing” with every question, the games were a joyful way to bring the audience together and maintain a crowd during the concert’s downtime. Still, the headliner ensured that nobody would be leaving early.

Flo Milli rapping into the microphone, clouded in smoke.
Flo Milli thrilled fans with her boastful rap style. Her high-energy performance fueled the already hyped crowd long past her 10 p.m. start time. (Photo by and courtesy of Nathalie Benshmuel)

Flo Milli, a twice-gold rapper from Mobile, Ala., rocked McCarthy Quad for the rest of the night. Performing hits for new and old listeners alike, Milli made an impression on the Trojan community with her high-confidence and rapid-fire wordplay, much to the delight of fans.

“Flo Milli was [my favorite], for sure,” said Madison Brown, a junior majoring in data science. “[The Committee] definitely did a good job. There’s a lot of energy and a lot of people here.”

In short, Flo Milli had a million flows. From high energy hits off her debut mixtape, “Ho, why is you here ?,” like “In the Party” and “Beef FloMix,” to newer bangers like “Conceited” or “Big Steppa,” and even bonus tracks like “Roaring 20s,” Milli kept the energy rolling all night.

The sustained excitement from Milli must have worked to retain the crowd, because it seemed to only grow as the night went on. Still, as some shared on social media, at some point it seemed students were turned away at the gate as the event reached capacity, despite observations that people were leaving.

“They aren’t letting anyone in bc they’re at capacity but people were leaving the whole time??? Make it make it (sic) sense,” commented @jamiethegemini_ on the uscconcerts Instagram page.

Inside the event, Milli gave fans no reason to leave early, strutting around the stage as she spat with trademark poise and power. In the spirit of connecting with the student body, her performance featured students as backup dancers, vogueing and clapping to her beats. She even took a jump off stage into the pit to get closer to the fans, singing along to her lyrics with the lucky few at the front.

In the midst of her performance, Milli took a pause to take out her camera and record a selfie video with the crowd, encouraging them to join in with her on a trademark “Flo Milli shit, ho!” Even long into the night, after four hours of bouncing around on a warm L.A. night, the crowd was completely with her to the last bar.

After a final song, Milli left the stage and the crowd began to trickle out, still humming snippets of the shows they saw. In speaking with student attendees and surveying the comments across the concert committee’s social media platforms, what stands out is a general satisfaction with the excitement around and diversity of the selections.

“I feel like it was definitely some very talented artists that brought good energy so far from what I’ve seen,” said Henri Manu Effa Fouda, a sophomore studying business administration. “I think that it attracts a diverse crowd, and that’s all you can ask for.”

Flo Milli rapping into the microphone, with multicolor lights in the background.
(Photo by and courtesy of Nathalie Benshmuel)