PANTHERFEST is not for the weary.
With more than six hours of entertainment, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s annual campus kickoff celebration has almost everything, except for a designated area for old fogeys who can’t keep up with the young folks. Cautiously I navigated my 33-year-old body through a sea of local college students gearing up for a good time at the Summerfest grounds last Friday night.
After a decade-long hiatus from higher learning, I decided to enroll at UWM for the upcoming spring semester. I figured PANTHERFEST would be a good way for me to get back in the swing of things at UWM, get familiar with some new UWM peeps—even if most of them are 15 years younger than me.
Friday night, while popular Milwaukee DJ Kid Cut Up was spinning hip-hop tunes, people locked in round metal cages knocked over huge bowling pins while others catapulted themselves from earth with the help of large bungee cords.
The “pregame” festivities—as they were coined by an attendee explaining the presence of the large slide and carnival games to a group of friends—were an enjoyable pit stop on the way to the Marcus Amphitheater, where hip-hop star Lupe Fiasco and renowned DJ Girl Talk were performing.
One of the better organized events in the city, PANTHERFEST is void of the ruckus associated with some youth gatherings. Although tickets were for general admission with no assigned seats, organizers were smart to enact crowd control measures while mindful not to intrude on the fan experience. Alcohol was not available for purchase inside the amphitheater or near the student programming and activities.
Headliner Lupe Fiasco took the stage around 8:30 p.m. A bona fide rock star, the Chicago native who burst on the scene with his 2006 hit “Kick, Push,” was joined by back-up singers and a band that included a violinist.
Lupe is not your average rap performer. On stage Fiasco's energy was contagious: constant dancing, weaving among his band members, engaging every fan he could and even spraying the crowd with water from time to time.
Fiasco looked like a kid loose in a candy store. The grin on his face spoke volumes; he was having as much fun as the audience.
“I thought the show was awesome,” said UWM freshman Tracery McVicker. “I really enjoyed myself.”
I became acquainted with McVicker—who wanted to be closer than her fifth row seats would allow—when the young woman asked if she could squeeze in between my seat to get as close to Lupe as possible. I obliged, and the appreciative McVicker danced and sang until the show's end.
A cerebral emcee known for his thoughtful subject matter, intelligent wordplay and an outspoken, controversial stance on everything from President Obama to Palestinian-Israeli relations, Fiasco took time out near the end of his set for a tribute to 9/11 victims.
Fiasco, who is Muslim, dedicated his song “Never Forget You” featuring John Legend, to Americans who lost their lives 10 years ago as well as the thousands of Iraqi civilians who died in what he called an “illegal” Iraq war.
The rapper also implored students to avoid letting the stresses of school get the best of them. “Your life isn’t worth a grade,” Fiasco said.
Fiasco ended his set with a performance of hit songs “Superstar” and “The Show Goes On” as fireworks exploded in the background.
“His whole performance was great” remarked Danielle Wright-Ward, a sophomore at Waukesha County Technical College who plans to transfer to UWM next year. “I can’t wait to get to UWM next year.”
After Fiasco's impressive show, I took a break, returning just in time to see infamous mash-up DJ extraordinaire Girl Talk.
Famous for his wild parties and unique blending of hip-hop beats and vocals with old-school rock and pop, Girl Talk was accompanied by about 50 students whose job it was to help whip the crowd into frenzy.
With more than 14,000 youth in attendance, Girl Talk turned the amphitheater into the largest party I’ve ever seen. Thousands of UWM students jumping around in unison was a sight to see and a much-needed reminder of the importance of allowing young people the opportunity to let their hair down and just enjoy themselves.
PANTHERFEST seems to be the perfect meeting place for familiar classmates to gather—reflected by the screaming, hugging and palpable excitement as old friends reunited for the first time in months—and for new friends to meet.
“I think this year’s lineup was the best at being both diverse and relevant to the energetic young crowd,” said DJ Kid Cut Up.
Despite issues with originally being subjected to fifth-row seats—the horror—UWM student McVicker was in agreement. “Overall it was a great experience.”
Geraud Blanks is currently a freelance contributor to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's music and nightlife section. He will be returning to UWM next semester to complete undergraduate degrees in journalism and Africology. You can read his entertainment blog, features and other reviews at jsonline.com/tap.