The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Something in the Water festival packs them in (and leaves a few out)

The crowds descended on Washington’s Independence Avenue for Pharrell Williams’s three-day music festival this weekend

Pharrell Williams performs at the Something in the Water music festival on June 18. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)

To say that a lot has happened in the world since the first Something in the Water festival in Virginia in 2019 is an understatement. Protests over racial justice, a contentious presidential election that ended in an insurrection, horrific gun violence — all in the midst of a pandemic that has taken the lives of more than 1 million Americans.

Indeed, when rapper Lil Uzi Vert performed his hit “XO Tour Llif3” at the festival Saturday in downtown Washington, his spiked hair poking against the Capitol dome backdrop, the song’s refrain — “all my friends are dead” — hit a bit differently.

Perspective: Something in the Water hints at something in the air

Festival creator Pharrell Williams opened his Saturday-night set with “Freedom,” an appropriate tune for a holiday weekend that marks the end of slavery in Texas.

“Look at our people,” Williams told The Washington Post on Sunday morning, recalling the thoughts going through his mind as he took the stage Saturday. “Listen to our people and feel our people while we are giving reverence to this amazing holiday.” The award-winning producer then tore through more than 20 years of hits, sometimes nodding along to his many beats as if it were an intimate listening session. At other times, he got help from friends such as N.O.R.E., Justin Timberlake, T.I. and Clipse, who reunited after about a decade off.

“Music has always been one of the most amazing couriers for a much-needed message and to break down the walls into partitions,” Williams said. “[Saturday] night debunked and dispelled a lot of stereotypes. There were no fights or violence. It was just love.”

But the night was not without its hiccups. Several festival attendees took to Twitter to complain about being squeezed on the narrow street or not being let back in because of safety concerns regarding the size of the crowd. Those not allowed back will receive refunds, Williams said. “There are a lot of kinks to work out,” he said.

On social networks and at the scene, however, it seemed as if most people were having a good time. Kevin Thaxton, 47, said he was glad that coronavirus restrictions have abated enough, “so we can do things like this in the city.”

Thaxton, a D.C. native, had just finished listening to hometown favorite Backyard Band delight the audience Saturday afternoon with a bevy of crowd-pleasers, including their cover of Adele’s “Hello.” But the celebratory nature of the weekend couldn’t stop the real world from creeping in.

“Put them guns down and stop killing each other,” Anwan Glover, the band’s co-founder, pleaded to the audience. The brother of the go-go legend turned actor was gunned down in D.C. 15 years ago.

Glover wasn’t the only one taking the moment between sets to get a message across.

“Make some f---ing noise for the ancestors one time,” said the rapper JID before launching into “Skegee,” a song he released during Black History Month in 2021. “I don’t care if you want to hear it.”

At most music festivals, there’s a mad rush for the front row, but on Friday, Something in the Water concertgoers craved the shade. They huddled on the pavement, stretched their legs and nodded their heads to the music. It was hot — scorching, with temperatures in the high 90s — and no amount of free water faucets or cheery sunscreen reminders could take that away. The weather on Saturday and Sunday came like a miraculous reversal: breezy with temps in the high 70s.

More than 70 musical acts — including Usher, Pusha T and the Dave Matthews Band — and an estimated 50,000 or more attendees descended on six blocks of Independence Avenue SW.

The highly melanated event took place on Juneteenth weekend, a time usually celebrated by free events and inclusive gatherings for D.C.’s Black community. The price tag, however, was hardly accessible. Three-day tickets started at almost $350 ($299 without fees) and quickly sold out. The $50 discounts offered to D.C. and Virginia residents were available for only one day in April.

Those who snagged the coveted wristbands justified the hit to their wallets.

“Last time, he brought out Jay-Z, and I didn’t pay for Jay-Z,” said Xavier Jackson, 28, on Friday, referring to the previous Something in the Water festival he attended. “It’s worth it.”

“When I put in my time-off request, I said it was to celebrate my Blackness,” said Jackson, an Apple employee, as he stood in a long merchandise line. “That’s what this is.”

On Saturday afternoon, groups of 20-somethings in multicolored bucket hats, Bohemian pants and jumpsuits jogged to each stage to snag a decent spot. Until the crowding increased, every angle was perfect, and no matter where people stood in the crowd, the beats vibrated through them.

During the set by Yvngxchris, a native of Chesapeake, Va., a fan threw futuristic sunglasses onstage for the artist to wear. They didn’t stay on long. Neither did his pants during his second-to-last song, revealing his turquoise paisley boxer briefs.

The cluster of people dancing in front of him weren’t fazed. They continued jumping, their box braids and Afros bouncing to the beat as they filmed on their phones.

“That was the last song, but y’all want more?” Yvngxchris asked.

“Yeah!” the crowd yelled.

This was the first time the festival was held in the nation’s capital. Something in the Water was previously staged in Virginia Beach, Williams’s hometown. The name is a nod to the cluster of musical talent from the area, such as Missy Elliott, who performed at the 2019 festival, and Pusha T, who performed this weekend.

Williams moved this year’s festival a few months after Virginia Beach police killed his cousin, Donovon Lynch, in March 2021. Following the shooting, Williams proposed that the city hold a forum to “talk about your issues, talk about your struggles.” But, according to Williams, they never did. Six months later, Williams said the city’s “toxic energy” couldn’t be home to the festival. D.C. was chosen instead.

“Ultimately, the goal is for Virginia Beach to realize that they messed up and that they could have just addressed the situation if they wanted to, and they didn’t,” said Jackson, a Virginia Beach native. “I think it makes total sense, what Pharrell did.”

Kristopher Lee, 17, and his mother, Karen Lee, 64, attended the concert together and stood far from the stage — not in the shade, because those spots were taken — as Lakeyah rapped Friday.

“I’ve been wanting to go to this festival since it was at Virginia Beach. He’s here to keep me company,” Karen said as she gestured to her son, whose tall, lean stature bears a strong resemblance to Pharrell’s, although that’s just a coincidence.

Downtown D.C. street closures for Something in the Water festival

The move from Virginia Beach wasn’t the only thing that loomed over the festival; some were concerned about their safety after recent mass shootings. Before it began, festival organizers said 800 to 850 guards would be working on the grounds during the day, and another 100 patrolling at night.

College students Leila and Nalani Butler and Jenai Roberson chose two meeting spots: one in case of a minor emergency, such as losing each other in the crowd, and another in the case of something bigger, such as gunfire.

“I’m a little more nervous now that it was so easy to get in,” said Roberson, 19. “We got here early and walked through an open gate. They asked if we had wristbands, and that was it.”

“I think we’re just trying our best to be safe,” said Nalani, 20. “All we can do is at least try to plan and savor the good.”

Will the festival be back in D.C. next year?

“There’s conversations,” Williams told The Post on Sunday. “It would be different. It’s got to be different.

“We need a much bigger street.”