Kendrick Lamar is the perfect headliner for Bluesfest in 2016

Booking Kendrick Lamar to headline the opening day of Bluesfest is a big shift for the festival but it’s also a logical step, argues ADAM LEWIS.

Kendrick Lamar was announced as Bluesfest’s latest addition yesterday, and the all-out celebration amongst his many fans was shadowed by another audience’s righteous anger. The complaints are abundant, and easy to find. They’re all pretty similar – Very Serious Music Fans are convinced that Bluesfest has become a trashy pop festival, and having a rapper headline a night is the point where it all finally jumped the shark. It’s as if the moment rap is mentioned, all they can picture is 50 Cent in a hot tub.

Perhaps that’s how we ended up with close-minded, if not problematic sentiments like “he doesn’t belong here” in forum posts, outrage in Facebook comments, and all kinds of face-palming from the rest of us. I mean, who spends hundreds of dollars and five days immersing themselves in great music, but at the same time, is willing to dismiss an entire genre?

“It’s the continuation of an ongoing evolution”

But regardless of how you feel about Kendrick Lamar, the detractors do have one thing right – this is a big shift for Bluesfest. As many have pointed out, the festival has had hip-hop before, with acts like Ozomatli, The Roots and Jurassic 5. But rap is a broad church, and those acts – jammy, universal, festival-focused bands that mostly exist outside of the pop market – are completely different. As a chart-topping superstar engaged with the world of awards shows, pop collaborations and rap beefs, Kendrick is new territory for the festival.

It shouldn’t be such a big surprise. Globally, long-running festivals such as Montreux Jazz Festival and New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival have evolved to the point where their namesakes are less a genre requirement than a signifier of a certain approach, and Bluesfest is no exception. These festivals are all musically diverse, but lean towards older audiences, legacy acts, and more traditional music approaches.

What’s interesting is how that market is changing at the moment. The audiences that embraced new genres like hip-hop are now reaching their fourties, and it’s redefining what so-called “classic” music looks like. Artists like Run-D.M.C. and Public Enemy are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, N.W.A’s biopic is topping the box office, and countless hip-hop records are reaching milestone anniversaries, now recognised as obvious and essential parts of the contemporary music canon. Over in the USA “classic hits” stations focusing on hip-hop are one of radio’s most interesting trends. For the first time, hip-hop is cross-generational, and it’s a similar story for other relatively young genres like indie, electronica and punk.

That’s why, in 2016, Bluesfest’s more traditional headliners like Tom Jones and UB40 are joined by relatively contemporary acts like The National and City And Colour. It’s the continuation of an ongoing evolution. It was evident 10 years ago, when REM were the first major rock headliner after years of rootsier fare. The following year’s lineup saw Public Enemy and Sigur Ros among the key acts, and ever since the programming has slowly nudged forward as punters have matured into the festival’s demographic, bringing their own tastes, experiences and genres with them.

Which is how we now have Kendrick Lamar headlining the first night of Bluesfest. Besides huge commercial success, his latest record To Pimp A Butterfly is the most critically loved record of the year by some margin with a staggering 96 rating on Metacritic. It’s a record whose musical lineage traces back through the G-Funk of Snoop and Nate Dogg; the P-Funk of George Clinton; the jazzy, politically-charged soul of Gil Scott-Heron; all the way back to the blues themselves. It’s an absolute coup for the festival, and in many ways the ideal of what a contemporary voice at Bluesfest should look like. Bring on March.

Kendrick Lamar will play arena shows in Melbourne and Sydney and then headline the opening night of Bluesfest in March 2016.