Any successful hip-hop concert is destined to feel like an awe-inspiring jubilee. There is the sacred ritual of purchasing a ticket and preparing yourself to witness one of your musical heroes live and in the flesh, while surrounded by a sea of fans from various walks of life who find common ground in their shared ear for music. By the time the program’s theatrics have come to a close, whether concluding with grand fireworks and confetti in a thunderous arena or passionate applause in an intimate room from a pocket of dedicated fans, the thrilling experience can often be summarized in a single word: celebration.
And yet, Mac Miller’s Celebration of Life concert felt nothing like a concert.
At Los Angeles’ magnificent Greek Theater, a venue that comfortably seats nearly 6,000 people, Malcolm McCormick’s posthumous tribute felt much more like a heartfelt gathering of long-lost friends, where distant strangers could empathize with the emotions of their neighbor and comfort each other with fond memories of their fallen companion. Moments of sadness were not secrets to be ashamed of, but rather points of connection, with many in the pit section bonding over their collective loss while finding joy in the camaraderie. The atmosphere in the open-air venue was friendly and communal throughout, as the term “legendary” quickly became a popular buzzword to describe the event; not because of the star-studded lineup but because of how inconceivable it felt to be a part of the proceedings.
Video footage of Mac played throughout the venue as fans filed through the gates, preparing the crowd for the sentimental mood even before they reached their seats. Once the show started, on-stage performances were bridged by video tributes by everyone from Donald Glover to Jason Sudeikis, highlighting the breadth of Mac’s reach and the colossal impact he had on all who knew him. Beats 1 show host Zane Lowe even emerged at one point to ask the crowd for a moment of silence in honor of the 11 Jews who were killed last weekend in an anti-Semitic shooting rampage at a synagogue in Mac’s hometown of Pittsburgh, before reading a heartfelt speech that brought many concertgoers to tears.
Travis Scott and Rae Sremmurd both delivered rousing anarchy upon taking the stage, but the most cutting junctures were highly individualized. A shrieking “Oh my God” went up from the pit when Action Bronson prepared to play “Red Dot Music.” Another fan screamed “This was my shit!” as Earl Sweatshirt rapped his verse to “New Faces v2.” Two friends consoled each other as an iconic photo of a young Mac Miller flashed on the screen behind the performers.
For me, personally, that inevitable moment arrived when I was least expecting it. After sharing a story about Mac’s anxiety over the idea of playing a record for the first and final time at the Hotel Cafe in August, John Mayer confessed: “Now, Mac, I’m really nervous.” Soon enough, those four unmistakable notes twanged through the speakers and sent shockwaves throughout the venue, with Mayer stepping to the microphone to sing: “The world is so small, till it ain’t.”
Immediately, my mind flashed back to a road trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco on a non-descript September afternoon, when I first heard the news that the man who made “Small Worlds” was no longer alive in ours. Suddenly, the back seat of my Toyota Corolla was transformed into a suffocating capsule as my mind raced to make sense of it all, frantically texting friends and loved ones until all I could do was blankly stare out the window with watery eyes.
What was supposed to be a rowdy weekend of alcohol and excess instead became a somber memorial to a man I had never met. I returned to Los Angeles with productivity in tatters and depression kicking in high-gear. As difficult it was for me to process why his passing felt so personal yet so distant at the same time, putting my thoughts on paper and sharing them with the world felt like grabbing a twig and attempting to pole vault at the Summer Olympics; but still, writing about anything else seemed wholly irreverent.
Each time I sat down to finish a half-hearted editorial or review, it felt as if I was attempting to bandage my fractured state of mind with bylines and accomplishments, a strategy that has failed me countless times yet is often all too easy to slip back into. Eventually, my normal workflow returned, but the search for true closure continued to linger in the back of my mind—until Wednesday evening.
Strumming away at his guitar while singing the lyrics to “Gravity,” Mayer’s soulful vocals alleviated worries in the same way a mother lullabies her agitated infant, while his electrifying guitar solo to close the song raised the energy of the venue to an emotional pinnacle. Beseeching his muse to “Keep me where the light is,” Mayer's performance was a stirring testament to the power of music.
Many of the artists who graced the stage performed with a similar purpose, executing songs that preached positivity in the face of turmoil. At the end of “Pineapple Skies,” Miguel led a call-and-response chant of “Promise everything’s gonna be alright,” desperately urging the crowd to continue the chant even after the band behind him had stopped playing. Chance The Rapper played the role of pastor as he kicked off his set with “Blessings,” before reinforcing Miguel’s message to find the light at the end of the tunnel on “Work Out.” Anderson .Paak told the crowd, “You can try to have a good time tonight; [Mac] would be having a good time too.”
There was no grand send-off for Mac at the end of the evening. Instead, a touching photo montage flashed across the screen above the stage—soundtracked by his song “Best Day Ever”—as the evening's performers slowly matriculated back on stage to look on along with the crowd. Eventually, the montage came to a close and the screen went dark, but almost every artist remained on stage. Nobody wanted to leave. Even after the stage had finally cleared, many in the crowd continued to linger, almost as we were waiting for Malcolm himself to emerge behind the solitary mic stand and perform his headlining set.
Mac, of course, didn't appear, but his presence was an inescapable constant throughout the evening, reflected in each and every one of the performers and those who came to see them. I left the venue with an inextinguishable feeling of warmth, a feeling that carried over to the next morning when I rolled out of bed and reflected on the night before. It’s painful to remember Mac is gone but being reminded of his seismic impact—to be reminded of how much he meant, and still means, to all of us—means there are countless celebrations yet to come.
We miss you, Mac.