A Night at the MoMA with Yung Jake, Sonny Digital, and Lil Yachty: What We Learned

Paley Martin breaks down the concert/performance piece that was the Lil Yachty and Yung Jake show at MoMA.
By    May 19, 2016

lil yachty

Paley Martin prefers George Bush’s celebrity paintings.

It was 9 PM and too late to turn back. The kids had arrived. In the shadows, institutional eyes lingered, watching with clenched teeth as a mostly millennial crowd puffed, passed, and double fisted their way towards the stage. Waiting for the DJ to drop a beat, they stood in packs, squeezed between multi-million dollar paintings. A weary and all-the-more eager hostess, NYC’s Museum of Modern Art was starting to realize that even cool could be a problem.

Part of MoMA’s PopRally concert series, the show featured rappers Yung Jake and Lil Yachty, both internet sensations and hair trendsetters in their own right, and producer/rapper Sonny Digital. The audience was not far from what one would expect—a melange of Supreme store kids, hipster Brooklynites, and downtown fashionistas whose differences were easily settled as “Jumpman” played over the loudspeakers. Tonight, high brow was courting hip hop, and so far, things were going smoothly.

With time and increasing inebriation, the evening’s hip facade was starting to wear. Bodies zig zagged from the dance floor to the bar and back, anticipating the next climactic moment. Phones were held high, snapping selfies and locking in Snapchat stories. And as the music came to a screeching halt, the dimmed purple lights returned to a sterile fluorescent. Confused chatter echoed throughout.

The hype-man, reclaiming his role, demanded that the crowd get on stage. There, they would form a human hallway while the room, still whirring with uncertainty, wondered which rapper would waltz through.

With his half-black, half-blonde pigtails and tie-dye hoodie, Yung Jake crept his way into the crowd’s periphery. Descending the stairs with an entourage in tow, he was met with  an onslaught of whoops, sporadic cell phone flashes, and little question as to why he, the lineup’s intended-to-be star, was the first on stage.

It’s almost surprising to see Yung Jake in person considering his internet-heavy persona. The Los Angeles-based rapper is, first and foremost, a cyber artist. Also incorporating internet art into his music videos, Yung Jake has embedded the digital world into nearly every aspect of his brand—so much so that it leaves people wondering just how much of him is real. A graduate of CalArts, he initially attracted attention from his celebrity emoji paintings that range from Larry David to Rihanna. And, to add to his impressive creative catalog, he was labeled the breakout star at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontier section.

In fact, it was Sundance that brought him to the MoMA that night and invited him to close their Slithering Screen film series. Before his tie-dye stair descent, he was there in a theatre projecting his cell phone screen in front of a blatantly unreceptive audience. The crowd watched silently as he texted (“hi”), left Instagram comments (“Ay check out my Soundcloud when you get a chance. Link in bio.”), and tweeted (“This is weird”). And, well, he was right.

For an artist whose brand is so steeped in virtual reality (he only does text interviews and raps about unfollowing people), the event was an odd but fitting way to kick off his two-part production. However, the cyber component was completely nonexistent come concert time. No texts were sent, no GIFs were seen, and Yung Jake was just another rapper rhyming about “texting bitches” and, uh, datamosh. Still, those on stage bounced without question as one trap beat blended into the next.

Between the next two guests, Atlanta’s prolific producer Sonny Digital and eccentric rapper Lil Yachty, various oddities shaped the remainder of the night. Sonny Digital, who has produced for the likes of Future, 50 Cent, Drake, and 2Chainz, made only a brief appearance before the MoMA staff cut his set short. In response, he threw a mic at them, and once again, left the crowd buzzing. With the house lights still on and no music transitioning one set into the next, the show seemed to be over until, alas, Lil Yachty (sort of) saved the night.

For an evening full of stops and starts, Lil Yachty’s set was no less clunky. The artist, who released his Lil Boat mixtape in March, has received praise from the likes of Kanye West, Drake, and Chance the Rapper for both his style and sound. Equipped with a tan suede vest and his signature red beaded braids, the rapper’s aesthetic overcompensated for his lack of stage presence. While he managed to gloss over the mic throw scuffle, his performance failed to live up to the hype of his calculated cyber personality. Nevertheless, most of those present were happily willing to abide by their dedicated fandom no matter the show’s quality.

As the show made its wrap, the MoMA staff regained their consciousness and the crowd contemplated afterparty locations. Hugs were given, calls were made, and MoMA set out to restore its pristine state. Although everyone went their respective ways, there was an unspoken truth acknowledged for all involved: a very, very strange union had just taken place. And some wondered…why?

Many lessons were learned that night, but more questions were begged: Does “cool” outweigh quality? What constitutes modern art and in what venues are some art practices better left out of? How important is showmanship in the age of mass media? How flexible is showmanship in the age and institutions of mass surveillance? Is proving we were somewhere more meaningful to us than actually being there?

A peculiar evening rife with unpredictability, the event spoke volumes about—if not perfectly personified—today’s music landscape. From the internet-centric rappers and producer in an exclusive context to the audience’s demand for visibility, it encapsulated the self-conscious texture that defines the trends and the trends that continue to define the times.