Shawn Gee Speaks On The Roots Picnic Going Digital, Partnering With Michelle Obama

Shawn Gee
– Shawn Gee
Live Nation Urban / Maverick

The Roots announced on June 16 that this year’s The Roots Picnic would be held digitally in partnership with Michelle Obama and the nonprofit organization When We All Vote. 

The Roots manager and Live Nation Urban President Shawn Gee told Pollstar that while the business of the Picnic in Philadelphia has been booming over the past few years, this year’s event is much more focused on having tangible social impact, something that has always been in The Roots’ DNA. 

A primary goal in the partnership with When We All Vote is thus to engage 500,000 eligible voters, primarily black people in the 21-35 age range. The event will include performances from The Roots, H.E.R., Lil Baby, SZA, Kirk Franklin, Snoh Aalegra, Polo G, D-Nice, and Earthgang. It will be hosted by Michelle Obama, Black Thought, and Questlove. 
How did the partnership with Mrs. Obama arise?
We’ve had a relationship with Michelle and Barack Obama for years, The Roots were very active in Barack’s original campaign run, making several appearances with him and they both made multiple appearances on “The Tonight Show,” where we frequently reconnected. Questlove actually built a playlist for Mrs. Obama’s book release and tour last year and we performed several times at the White House during their tenure. The relationship is very strong.
This year’s Roots Picnic was on target for record numbers. We moved from a small pier out to Fairmount park last year, we doubled our numbers in 2019, and this year we were on target to shatter our numbers for the one-day event.
What a lot of people don’t know is we were planning to announce a second day for The Roots Picnic 2020. I worked on it for months, and we were going to announce in late March. The headliner for that second day was going to be Michelle Obama. We were partnering with Mrs. Obama and her When We All Vote organization – whose mission is to increase participation in elections, focusing on underrepresented communities, specifically in our case 21-35 year-old African-Americans.
They were looking at music festivals, events and although there were a lot of other festivals larger than The Roots Picnic, those larger festivals had a much smaller segment of the target demographic. They understood that The Roots Picnic, though we may not have the scale of Bonnaroo or Coachella, there is a high concentration of young African Americans at the Picnic, so we were a better fit for the messaging. The majority of our Live Nation Urban platforms focus on black audiences, whether it’s Roots Picnic, Broccoli City, Lights On Fest (in partnership with H.E.R.) or Exodus Gospel Music Festival (with Kirk Franklin). 
So the goal is more social than financial this year?
[Since COVID hit] we were always thinking about doing something virtual, but we decided without a good reason for “why” we were doing this, it didn’t make sense. When Chynna Clayton, Stephanie Young from the When We All Vote team and I started talking again about doing something together, that became the “Why.” Yes, we will definitely put together an amazing entertaining show with great artists, however in this case the cause is more important than the performance. 
So this year’s Roots Picnic is about voter education and voter registration, which we hope will lead to voter mobilization in November. It’s not about entertainment or business, or our brand – our event this year is really a vehicle to impact change. So when looking at talent, we picked voices that represent the community we’re trying to engage.
These artists have huge reach and are leading the hip-hop, R&B and gospel genres. It’s not only 21-35 year-olds listening to this, but their voice really resonates within that group, and that’s the group we’re trying to register with this event.

How has work with Live Nation Urban been?
I’m just continuing with the vision I had three years ago when Michael Rapino and I agreed to build this venture together. Obviously over the last few weeks the entertainment industry and society as a whole has had to take a strong look in the mirror and acknowledge the overt and systemic racial issues that have existed for generations – issues that as black people we’ve had to deal with on a daily basis, but somehow these issues never made it on the radar of most white Americans, until now. 
I have received a lot of the “What can I do?” calls, as a lot of black folks have. My answer has always been INVEST. 
If you are sincere and you want to make a change so that our children and grandchildren won’t have to deal with the same systemic racial issues that we have, make an investment. Invest time and educate yourselves, educate your friends, educate your children. Invest your money and give opportunities to black entrepreneurs and remove those glass ceilings that have existed for generations for your black employees – yes they exist and you created them. Invest in the future, build relationships with HBCUs and find the future leaders of your industry. They may be in a community college or a junior college but be intentional and aggressive in finding them and providing a path for success. 
At Live Nation Urban, this is what we’ve been doing for the past three years. We have been investing in culture, investing in entrepreneurs and investing in people, black people. If you look at what we were doing before COVID, before the murder of George Floyd, we have been walking the walk with whatever resources we had, and we’re going to continue. I am going to continue to do so regardless of where life and my career take me.