Allentown Fair, Musikfest lineups give more attention to hip-hop, R&B acts

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — The main stage headline music act lineups are set for this year’s Musikfest festival and Allentown Fair, and if there’s a theme, it’s diversity.

But perhaps the most telling element of that is the amount of rap and R&B on this year’s lineups.

  • Musikfest and Allentown Fair have completed the headline lineups for their main stages this year
  • Both will offer an unusual amount of rap/hip-hop acts
  • Both say they are interested in offering a diversity of talent to their audiences

Allentown Fair, which will run Aug. 30-Sept. 4, not only will have its first hip-hop headliner in 30 years but will have two rap acts among its five musical headliners: 2000s chart-topper Nelly and platinum-selling Yung Gravy.

Musikfest in its 11-day lineup — it runs Aug. 4-13 — will offer rapper G-Eazy and R&B favorites Keith Sweat and Monica.

That continues a trend that last year brought rapper Ja Rule and Ashanti and R&B group Boyz II Men to the festival after a total of just two rap acts in the previous 15 years.

“It is certainly diverse and there really is a show for everyone. We are very happy to have a full lineup of shows announced and on sale. Each show in this 2023 lineup will draw a different audience each night.”

Allentown Fair Marketing & Entertainment Manager Jessica Ciecwisz

“The fair over the years has had a pretty wide array of music genres,” Allentown Fair Marketing & Entertainment Manager Jessica Ciecwisz said.

The rest of the Allentown Fair lineup will be country acts Keith Urban and Tyler Hubbard of Florida Georgia Line, and classic rockers Styx and REO Speedwagon.

“It is certainly diverse and there really is a show for everyone,” Ciecwisz said. “We are very happy to have a full lineup of shows announced and on sale. Each show in this 2023 lineup will draw a different audience each night.”

Keith Sweat & Monica

Keith Sweat and Monica will headline Musikfest’s main stage on Aug. 8.

‘We try to be as diverse as possible’

Musikfest last week finished its lineup with announcements adding pop-rockers Walk The Moon and Puerto Rican salsa favorites El Gran Combo.

Previously announced were soft rockers Train, indie-pop act AJR, radio rockers Goo Goo Dolls, alt-country singer Maren Morris, more traditional contemporary country singers Walker Hayes and Dan + Shay and even comedy, with Gabriel Iglesias.

“We try to be as diverse as possible.”

ArtsQuest Chief Programming Officer Patrick Brogan, who leads the team that books Musikfest

“We try to be as diverse as possible,” said ArtsQuest Chief Programming Officer Patrick Brogan, who leads the team that books Musikfest.

Brogan said ArtsQuest seeks an “annual balance” for Musikfest.

But in the past 22 Musikfests since 2000 (the 2020 festival was largely virtual, with no national headliners), there have been more than 220 headline acts, and only 17 those could, even by a stretch, be considered R&B.

That’s less than 8% — or about four such acts every five years.

“There’s a subjective part of that,” Brogan said, noting that Aloe Blacc played in 2017 and Gary Clark Jr. in 2018. But neither would strictly fit into R&B.

Musikfest from its start offered R&B artists – The Temptations in 1990, Fifth Dimension in 1991 and Lou Rawls and The Supremes in 1992.

Rapper G-Easy

Rapper G-Easy will headline Musikfest.

Rap comes late, and seldom

But the festival arguably didn’t have its first hip-hop headliner until 2002 with Shaggy, then in 2004 offered Chingy and Twista, which at the time had the smallest crowd ever for a paid Musikfest headliner.

It had more success with LL Cool J and Ne-Yo in 2006 and Ludacris in 2007, but then didn’t have another hip-hop act until Snoop Dogg headlined the festival in 2015 and Run-DMC in 2016.

Brogan said one hurdle in booking R&B acts is there simply are fewer of them touring.

“There are hundreds, thousands of pop artists touring annually,” Brogan said. “Just comparatively, it’s not quite the same.”

But while R&B “may not have the depth of headliners of other genres, it certainly has some phenomenal artists that we’re thrilled to bring in on an annual basis,” Brogan said.

“The appetite for R&B has grown over the past five years.… There’s more of an interest.”

Patrick Brogan, ArtsQuest Chief Programming Officer Patrick Brogan, who leads the team that books Musikfest

He also said “The appetite for R&B has grown over the past five years.… There’s more of an interest,” and that Musikfest was actively seeking to book an R&B act.

He said ArtsQuest, the nonprofit organization that books Musikfest, “had been talking to Monica’s team for a number of years before the pandemic” — trying to book her for a ticketed show at SteelStacks or the Levitt Pavilion.

Monica is best known for her 1998 double-platinum hit “The Boy Is Mine.” Her first two albums — 1995’s “Miss Thang” and 1998’s “The Boy Is Mine,” both sold triple-platinum.

“We were looking for a great R&B show and we found it,” Brogan said. “When the co-bill opportunity came, we thought it was a dynamic show for the main stage.”

Brogan dismissed the idea that rap doesn’t sell as well as other genres at Musikfest.

“I don’t think it would be fair to say it sells more or less than other genres,” he said. “Every show is different and it’s hard to classify shows by genre. A strong rap show would do better than a weak pop show.”

He said Musikfest expects to sell better than 50% capacity of the 6,200-seat Steel Stage for Keith Sweat and Monica.

‘The most popular genre … today’

Yung Gravy

Courtesy

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Allentown Fair

Rapper Yung Gravy will headline Allentown Fair’s grandstand on Sept. 2.

It wasn’t long ago that Musikfest seemed reluctant to book country music headliners.

It offered no country acts in its first seven years until country-pop singer Eddie Rabbit in 1991, and just 11 country acts in its first 20 years. It wasn’t until 2005 that it offered two in the same year: Keith Urban and Jo Dee Messina.

This year, it offers three — it’s most ever (tied with 2017) — with Maren Morris, Walker Hayes and Dan + Shay.

“If you ask a country fan, they’re looking for 10 nights of country,” Brogan said.

“Hip-hop music is the most popular music genre listened to today, so including artists like Nelly and Yung Gravy helped this lineup hit different audiences and continue what the fair strives for year after year — attracting larger audiences to our 171-year-old event.”

Allentown Fair Marketing & Entertainment Manager Jessica Ciecwisz

Conversely, Allentown Fair’s bread and butter when it comes to grandstand headliners has been country music.

Since the 1960s with Eddie Arnold, Roy Clark and The Statler Brothers, the fair has offered the top acts in country western music.

In 1987, the first year it offered rap with Run-DMC, it also had Alabama and Conway Twitty & Loretta Lynn. In 1995, four of its seven headliners were country: Alabama, Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn with Faith Hill and Reba McEntire.

It also has a long history of offering R&B acts – starting with Diana Ross and The Supremes during the heyday of Motown in 1967 and The Fifth Dimension in 1971 and 1972.

It continued to book R&B acts such as M.C. Hammer, Boyz II Men and TLC in the 1990s and 2000s, and Pitbull as recently as 2014.

But the fair didn’t offer rap until Run-DMC in 1987 and didn’t offer it again until ‘tween rappers Kriss Kross in 1993.

“When the fair booked R&B artists, the shows have done really well,” the fair’s Ciecwisz said.

“Hip-hop music is the most popular music genre listened to today, so including artists like Nelly and Yung Gravy helped this lineup hit different audiences and continue what the fair strives for year after year — attracting larger audiences to our 171-year-old event.”

Tickets for Allentown Fair shows are available on the Allentown Fair website and Ticketmaster. Tickets for Musikfest shows are available here.