Once upon a time in Philadelphia — specifically, during the Nutter administration — the Fourth of July meant a free concert on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway starring and curated by the Roots, featuring big-name stars like Nicki Minaj, Ed Sheeran, and John Mayer.
That was then, this is Pitbull. Since Jim Kenney has been mayor, the Wawa Welcome America concert has taken on a different character and a tighter focus.
In 2016, the biggest name on the bill was Leslie Odom Jr., the Hamilton hero and multitalented native son of East Oak Lane whose musical style is more suited to an intimate cabaret than to the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Last year, the wattage was wisely turned up by bringing in hip-hop soul queen Mary J. Blige, whose performance was unfortunately marred by a torrential rainstorm.
Hoping for a sunnier result in 2018, the city — which produces the show in partnership with concert promoting giant Live Nation — has booked Pitbull, aka Mr. Wordwide, the Miami-born and -bred Cuban American rapper and impresario born Armando Christian Perez whose 2017 album was dubbed Climate Change.
(Broadway singer-actress Heather Headley, along with R&B singers Tiffany Jones, Alita Moses, and Desahanna Wooden will also join the Philly Pops big band on the bill for the July 4 Party on the Parkway, which falls on a Wednesday this year. The Wawa Welcome America festivities are scheduled to run June 28 through July 4. The July 4 event is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m.)
In case anyone has missed the message that Pitbull thinks globally while acting locally — the initiatives of the son of Cuban expatriates include the founding of a charter school in Little Havana in 2013 — his unsubtle album titles are a tip-off. In 2011, he came out with Planet Pit, which he followed the next year with Global Warming and, in 2014, Globalization. (He also found time to release an album mostly in Spanish, Dale, in 2013.)
Is Pitbull a musically exciting or challenging artist? Hardly. The shaven-headed 37-year-old entertainer is nobody’s favorite rapper.
But that doesn’t make Pitbull a bad choice to star in an Independence Day celebration in which the headliner is a really an opening act for a fireworks display.
For now at least, the cavalcade-of-stars approach starring the Roots — who will be at New Orleans’ Essence Festival during the extended Independence Day weekend — is a thing of the past.
And though Blige, who was last year’s choice, was certainly an artist of greater depth and substance, the Parkway on the Fourth of July isn’t exactly a listening room to appreciate nuance and subtlety.
It’s a stage well suited for showbiz, a place for a tireless entertainer who’s more of a motivational cheerleader than an actual musician and an impresario in the spirit of fellow first-class brand managers like Sean “Diddy” Combs and current leading hip-hop party starter DJ Khaled.
Sure, Pitbull’s show on the Parkway is likely to err on the side of generic, a high-energy choreographed extravaganza that will cause one to wonder what exactly it is that Pitbull does. But it’s also likely to make one notice that he seems to be good at making huge crowds of people get on their feet and dance to kinetic hits like “Time of Our Lives” and “International Love.”
The choice of Pitbull also has a political component. The rapper, who has had endorsement deals with Kodak, Budweiser, and Wal-Mart, frequently stresses that he embodies the American Dream. Though he’s a businessman first, he has been outspoken on issues like immigration reform, and last month was named global ambassador for the United Nation’s Clean Water Here Initiative.
He endorsed Barack Obama in 2012 and has been critical of President Trump. At the Latin American Music Awards last year, he received — speaking of crowd-pleasing impresarios — the Dick Clark Achievement Award honoring an artist who “uses his fame and influence to help those in need,” in part in recognition for lending a private jet to transport cancer patients from Puerto Rico to the U.S. after Hurricane Maria.
“What I think they should be doing is they should be building more schools instead of worrying about building a wall,” he said at the awards show. “Don’t ever forget that immigrants built the United States of America.”
And in these days of surprise ICE raids and fear of deportation in undocumented immigrant communities, hiring a Latino superstar to headline the Welcome America festival held just across town from where the Declaration of Independence was written qualifies as a political act.
Philadelphia has a growing Latino population and Mayor Kenney has been outspoken in his administration’s support of immigrants. In November, a federal judge blocked the federal government’s attempt to withhold law-enforcement money from Philadelphia over its so-called sanctuary city status. (The Philadelphia Office of Immigrant Affairs uses the term “welcoming city.”)
In that environment, the announcement of Mr. Worldwide as Welcome America headliner sends a clear message of inclusion, no matter what you think of his music.
Welcome to Philadelphia, Pitbull.