“I’m MIA’s protégé: My name is Rye Rye!” yelled the young rapper from Baltimore at the onset of Saturday’s Hard Festival. Unfortunately, it’s been a long, long, terribly long year for her mentor. Between the great truffle-fry debacle, a painfully disappointing new album, and her getting the boot from MoMA onstage at her own album-release party, things just aren’t going Maya’s way in 2010. Watching the beloved singer’s slow decline has been uncomfortably heart-wrenching, a mix of bad luck and bad decisions. This was a little of both: an eight-hour waiting game at Governors Island marking the pop star’s “debut performance” since the release of ///Y/, and inadvertently clearing up any lingering doubts: Not only is Maya overexposed, overworked, and overpaid, she’s also in desperate need of a vacation.
Rye Rye is a different story. She took the main stage around 7 p.m., decked out in a smiley-face-print gold leotard (with shoulder pads!), flashing a perma-smile and accompanied by a troupe of dancers. The young emcee fed off classic Baltimore club beats and aggressively pounding bass with ease–hard, foot-stomping dance routines included. She’s a teenager, after all, and it shows in her lack of cynicism and crowd-hyping tactics: The announcement “You wanna know how I got so fine, I’m-ma give you my number so you can call my Momma” segued into her most popular track, “Shake It to the Ground”; after a rally cry repping both Baltimore and girl power, she triumphantly left the stage during DJ Sega’s remix of “Party in the U.S.A.” As always, we could’ve done without the Miley shout-out, but her brainwashing abilities are clearly beyond ours.
The dance party continued with U.K.-based dubstep maestros Skream and Benga, who nearly stole the show. Sandwiched between Rye Rye and Sleigh Bells, the DJs initially seemed like little more than an intermission. Not so, it turns out, largely thanks to the duo’s emcee, Alpha: “Where are my G.I. Joes, my G.I. Janes, my Barbie ravers?!” he demanded. “This is disgusting! Sick! Sick! Sick!” (We’ll assume that “disgusting” means “fantastic,” and “sick” means “nauseous from happiness.”) Dirty grime, upbeat horns, sinister rumblings (“Submarine beats!” screams Alpha), and even a nod to Rye Rye (via Benga’s “Baltimore Clap”) filled their 90-minute set, with Benga playing cheerleader and Skream convulsing as though he was at a hardcore show.
You’ve heard enough praise for Sleigh Bells by now, so let’s move on to Die Antwoord–the South African rap group consisting of the hard-faced Ninja, squeaky-voiced Yo-Landi Vi$$er, and masked DJ Hi-Tek. Though they didn’t kick anyone in the head this time, they’re so unrelentingly aggro that besides the giant chip on their shoulder, nothing else comes across–though, apparently, that’s just what the patrons of Hard Fest like best. Their set was hilarious if nothing else, if only for their trying to explain their lyrics and provide some sort of cultural context for their whole shtick. What we learned tonight is that “Vat Pomp” is the Afrikaans version of “What’s Up,” and that they’ve got more crass ways to insult your mother than I ever wanted to hear about.
After seven hours outside in the humidity, the entire crowd congregated around the main stage for M.I.A.’s imminent performance. Fifteen minutes later, black figures striped with glow-in-the-dark neon took the stage toting glowing machine-gun power drills. Finally, over the blaring “Steppin’ Up,” Maya took the stage… I think. Some got a glimpse of her in a bright yellow-and-orange romper, but the only sound her microphone delivered was distorted feedback. Matching burqa-clad women sang a mumbled mix of “M.I.A.” and “Rub-dub” over the blown-out instrumentals that boomed across the field. The audience was eerily silent, the stage was emitting an ear-splitting catastrophe, and the only actual words we heard came from the man standing next to us: “Is this a ‘statement’ or a mistake?” A stagehand ran out with another mic, but actually hearing M.I.A. was almost as bad as not.
“Turn it up, I need to feel the beat!” she yelled to the soundman, before settling into a rapid-fire blur of hits to warm up the crowd. “10 Dollar,” “XR2,” and “URAQT” worked fine, before the show ground once again to a halt for those who came to hear her sing instead of talk. Four tables were rolled onstage, each topped with a bottle of tequila and shot glasses. What looked like lasers being manipulated by her hands shot varying nonsensical sounds into the now very confused audience. “Drink tequila!” she finally bellowed, followed by “I bet people think I’m rich.” The latter prompted her to throw the full bottles into the crowd while begging that people, you know, catch them. (We saw one explode, hopefully not on someone’s head.)
The crowd started to dissipate. “I don’t have a setlist,” she announced. “This is my show. You choose what I do next.” Five more minutes of this: Maya shouting a song to the audience, someone in the audience shouting song back. Eventually we were given options: “Born Free” (no applause), “World Town” (applause), “Boyz” (wild applause). “Boyz” it is. Somewhere along the line, she spit on a photographer. Jesus Christ. “Is she drunk?” we hear someone nearby mumble. As if on cue, the sky unleashes a torrential downpour, giving even those of us hellbent on seeing this disaster through to the end a way out. As we walked away, soaked and exhausted, we could hear all the sound cut out save a very small-sounding voice insisting “I got something to say” into one very lonely microphone.