Howard Yardfest: An annual tradition experiences a bumpy transition

There’s a Friday afternoon every October when you can step off Georgia Avenue NW and into the center of hip-hop itself. But this year, fans stepped into a mess.

Yardfest — the six-hour mega-concert that’s become a hallmark of Howard University’s annual homecoming festivities — has drawn rap stars of every lumen to the campus quadrangle for two decades running. From noon till dusk, artists bounce onto the stage like lottery balls, often unannounced, often greeted by thousands of hands thrown into the crisp autumn sky. Jay Z came in 2000. Kanye West showed up in 2003. Last year, it was a jubilant reception for hip-hop’s dour prince, Drake.

Friday afternoon, the air was thick with grill smoke and the boomy club anthems of 2 Chainz and Big Sean, and the patios purr of reggae singer Gyptian and an old-school singalong with Bone Thugs-n-Harmony. But the most shocking sound at Yardfest? The university clock tower chiming 4 p.m.

Organizers silenced the music shortly after 3 p.m., when police responded to reports of fans rushing the concert gates. Yardfest has traditionally been free and open to the public, but not this year. The leafy quad’s perimeter was lined with a chain-link fence, forcing Howard students, alumni and everyone else to cough up $5 for entry. Once the yard reached capacity, locked-out fans got pushy. Eight people, including two D.C. police officers, were taken to hospitals and treated for minor injuries.

Friday’s debacle only added to the fog of worry hanging over this embattled campus. In recent weeks, Howard has slid in the U.S. News and World Report rankings, the university’s credit rating has taken a dive and its president has stepped down.

But inside the fence Friday, spirits ran high, with reunited classmates wrapping one another in shrieky hugs while current students bounced en masse when the PA speakers finally came rumbling back to life around 4:30 p.m., with Big Sean performing his smirking rendition of “I Don’t Like.”

Whereas past Yardfest crowds have been notoriously tough, this year’s was almost chipper. When a performer starts to stumble, fans usually point their fingers into L-shapes — as in “leave” — and twirl their wrists, banishing talent from the stage.

There wasn’t much of that this year. Early in the day, Atlanta journeyman Young Dro basked in the cheers he earned while Tristan Wilds — former star of HBO’s “The Wire,” now a rapper-singer going by Mack Wilds — soaked up applause he didn’t deserve.

For some Yardfest performers, superstardom follows. In 1995 — when many of this year’s Howard freshmen were born — Notorious B.I.G. strolled across the yard in a leather coat the color of lemon taffy and walked off into hip-hop history.

No stars were made Friday. The herky-jerky concert stopped abruptly before sunset, before promised performances from A$AP Ferg and Migos, before everyone was ready to go home.

The crowd’s good mood finally curdled, leaving fans wondering if that fence created more problems than it prevented.

Chris Richards became the Post's pop music critic in 2009. He has covered D.I.Y. house shows, White House concerts, go-go and Gaga.
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