Welcome America, meet Mr. Worldwide.
July Fourth happened on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in the person of Pitbull, the Cuban American rapper and perpetual-motion machine born Armando Christian Pérez.
On a steamy evening, the 37-year-old, Miami-bred, shaven-head entertainer — who also answers to the nickname Mr. 305 — enthusiastically celebrated the 242nd anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence while presenting himself as a tirelessly working embodiment of the multicultural American dream.
“It’s an honor to be here,” he said after opening with “Don’t Stop the Party” — which could serve as the title for pretty much every Pitbull song. “There’s nothing like freedom, baby.”
Throughout his 75-minute set, Pitbull preached a sermon of inclusivity and open-mindedness. He didn’t directly address hot-button issues such as the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy regarding asylum seekers at the border that have spurred protests at the Philadelphia offices of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency this week.
But the bilingual entertainer, who said, “They should be building more schools instead of talking about building a wall,” at the Latin Grammy Awards last year, repeatedly stressed that his kind of party is a melting-pot party that doesn’t stop. And it’s made up of people of all colors and creeds.
A Pitbull concert is a series of pep talks from the man addicted to optimism and infectious beats that don’t bother with subtlety. “This country was built by immigrants,” he reminded in a message aimed specifically at children on “Time of Our Lives,” which advised that “every day above ground is a great day.”
“Whether you speak English, Spanish, Chinese, Portuguese, or whatever, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “We speak music here tonight.”
He offered thanks “to the United States of America,” he said, “not to the divided states of America,” and gave shoutouts to all gathered before him, whether they were “black, white, purple, or if you check that beautiful box on the form called ‘other.’”
The universalist message in Pitbull’s between-song interludes carried over into the motley mix that makes up his genre-blending music. Relentless dance grooves that found him bounding about the stage, accompanied by six female dancers, mixed Cuban and Brazilian rhythms, but also rock riffs. In Mr. Worldwide’s universe, the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” and Marc Anthony’s “Rain Over Me” make perfect sense together, and the unstoppable overdriven guitar lick of the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” offers the ideal opportunity to talk about the unifying power of sports to bring people together, in regard to both the Eagles’ Super Bowl victory and the World Cup. Pitbull loves football, and he also loves futbol.
Since the former perennial Philly Fourth headliners the Roots last played the Parkway in 2015, the climactic Wawa Welcome America night has had difficulty finding its feet, with understated Hamilton star and cabaret singer Leslie Odom Jr. in 2016 and Mary J. Blige playing a rain-drenched show last year.
Wednesday’s show began at 6 p.m. with Philly DJ Diamond Kuts mixing old school hits by Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, and Cameo with hard-hitting club beats and doing her best to make a “Party on the Parkway!” happen.
She was followed by Heather Headley, who starred in the original version of The Lion King on Broadway and who currently has a role in Spike Lee’s reboot of She’s Gotta Have It on Netflix. Headley fronted the Philly Pops Big Band, the 20-piece horn-heavy ensemble after the manner of old-school swing bands, punched up with a taste for modern R&B and Latin rhythms. Headley is a practiced pro, and she belted out more than adequate versions of soul burners like Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High” and Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish,” as well as a delicate take on the Houston version of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You”
That early portion of of the show couldn’t really gather momentum for the crowd assembled on the Parkway because the concert is essentially a TV show (broadcast on NBC10), complete with commercial breaks. But it delivered some extra pizzazz in the form of Philadelphia male vocal quartet Viva Mas, who joined with the Pops’ trio of female vocalists for a creatively conceived bilingual take on the Paul McCartney medley that closes the Beatles’ Abbey Road.
As the headliner, Pitbull might not have seemed like an inspired upgrade. He’s a mediocre rapper and his songs are the kind of aerobic workouts well-suited to the gym or dance club but not designed for repeated listening.
But in practice, in these fraught political times when America’s identity as an immigration nation is being challenged, the Cuban American rapper’s celebration of an American Dream open to all rang out with renewed resonance with a relentless positivity that was hard to resist. Next year’s Welcome America headliner has a hard act to follow.