Desiree Perez Reflects on Legacy and Impact of Made in America Festival
After a year’s absence, the music festival that Desiree Perez launched alongside Jay-Z a decade ago made a triumphant return to Philadelphia over Labor Day Weekend.
The Made in America Festival, which features a diverse blend of musical acts, continues to be a remarkable showcase for emerging talent, especially for some of the biggest hip-hop artists. The festival also features pop, rock, and electronica acts each year. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced organizers to cancel the festival.
It returned this year, breaking sales records and featuring headlining performances by Justin Bieber, Megan Thee Stallion, Lil Baby, and Roddy Ricch. Between 50,000 and 60,000 attendees were expected for each day.
For Perez, the chief executive officer of Roc Nation, the festival’s return was an ideal time to reflect on the impact Made in America has had on the country’s music scene.
Perez is particularly proud of that legacy, noting that the festival has always been intended as a musical melting pot and a place without stylistic borders. Instead, Perez has seen it as an opportunity to showcase all types of music and all kinds of performers, and for audiences to come together and celebrate the rich diversity of the music landscape.
The festival has featured some of the biggest names in the industry, including co-founder Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Kanye West, Nicki Minaj, the Weeknd, and Future.
A Look Back at the Start
Desiree Perez and Jay-Z conceived Made in America to be a celebration of all musical genres in a historic city. The priority was always to bring people together. The selection of Philadelphia was intentional, given its rich history and place in the founding of the country. Jay-Z came up with the name of the festival, and Perez said that once that decision was made, it was clear that Philadelphia was the right location.
The festival is held on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, which features flags from 19 different countries. It underscores the festival’s goal to bring people from all walks of life and diverse backgrounds together to celebrate and share great music. A central urban location also meant that those living in and near Philadelphia could attend a celebration in the middle of the city.
While Perez and Jay-Z are both from New York City, Perez said there were other factors that led the founders to look elsewhere. For one, there are already so many other festivals and events that happen in Central Park and throughout the metropolis. Instead, the two looked at other cities that did not yet have large music festivals, which led them to Philadelphia.
Shaping a Philadelphia Music Festival
Starting a brand-new music festival carries with it many complexities, Perez said in a recent interview with Complex. There are major risks when large crowds descend on a single venue. There are issues related to keeping the peace, safety, health, and transportation to consider.
In addition, obtaining community support is critical, especially when starting a new venture. Perez said that despite the challenges of starting a new event, the pair did not hesitate to forge ahead. She also praised how welcoming Philadelphia was to the pair, especially former mayor Michael Nutter.
In an effort to celebrate what is uniquely Philadelphia, Perez and Jay-Z focused on providing local food. While that certainly meant that Philly cheesesteaks would be readily available, the pair wanted to celebrate other local cuisines. In 2019, the festival sponsored a food fair, a competition to showcase locally produced cuisines. Food truck vendors were also selected to support the festival for two years.
Part of what makes the festival unique is its blend of music and social justice. The festival’s Cause Village features dozens of local and national organizations related to social justice, illnesses, and children’s causes. This year, the festival supported the American Civil Liberties Union of Philadelphia and The Reform Alliance, which seeks to change judicial parole laws.
For Desiree Perez, a moment in the festival’s history that stands out is when Meek Mill appeared at the 2018 festival shortly after being released from prison. Mill made a surprise, unannounced appearance at the 2021 event, too.
A Music Festival that Reflects Roc Nation
Roc Nation is a multidimensional global enterprise. At its heart is the music it produces through its record label and representation of some of the industry’s top artists. It also represents other talents, including pro athletes, and has launched a school of music, sports, and entertainment at Long Island University. Roc Nation has even developed California’s largest cannabis company, The Parent Company.
Desiree Perez noted that Made in America is a clear extension of Roc Nation. There is a fine thread that connects all of the company’s ventures: the people. Perez said that the brand’s ventures are all developed by Roc Nation — they design the festival, produce it, and run the operations. Roc Nation hires all the festival staff.
The other thread is the interconnection of music and philanthropy, both of which are at the core of Roc Nation’s values. Perez has incorporated social justice into every component of the Roc Nation empire, from advocacy for the victims of police violence to a summer camp for talented New York students affiliated with the Roc Nation school of music. Even the cannabis venture has a social justice component, with a fund that helps elevate and support the work of people of color looking to launch and run their own cannabis companies.
That’s at the core of why Cause Village is such a key part of the Made in America festival.
Speed Bumps that Strengthen
In 2018, a series of miscommunications led to reports that the city was looking to end the festival in 2019. Perez said the company held firm to its commitment and support of Philadelphia and the importance of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a location that had become far more popular than when the festival started.
Perez noted that she and Jay-Z met with Jim Kenney, the current mayor, and relied on relationships with long-time city officials. Past issues were discussed and ironed out. In the end, the mayor agreed to honor the city’s commitment to the festival.
Desiree Perez noted that the festival has generated $186 million for the city, which she now calls a second home.
Two years later, the COVID-19 pandemic would throw another massive hurdle at festival organizers. Perez said that throughout all of the uncertainty, she and other leaders focused on keeping people safe. Ultimately, the decision to cancel led to more questioning.
While plans for the 2021 festival gained steam, pandemic conditions changed, driven in part by the prevalence of the highly contagious delta variant. Just weeks before the festival, the city issued new guidelines, requiring all attendees to show proof of vaccination and be masked at all times.
Perez agreed with those decisions and felt it was important to move forward while doing all it could to adapt to a constantly changing situation. The festival went smoothly, with new guidelines in place.
The Future of Made in America Festival
Desiree Perez is also looking forward. She noted that the festival may grow in future years to other locales, as it did in 2014 with an event in Los Angeles. She said Detroit and Washington, D.C. have been discussed.
No matter where the festival goes, Perez said it would continue to focus on the core themes and values that have made it a success — providing a unifying event, great music, and community support.