No one could have predicted that an entirely virtual Wireless Festival would actually be on the cards when the London festival first announced its juggernaut line-up for 2020, which included debut headliner Meek Mill, at the start of the year. The coronavirus pandemic, however, sadly brought about the cancellation of this year’s Wireless in May as the festival and entertainment world in general was brought to a grinding halt by the virus outbreak.
Wireless fans weren’t left totally empty-handed, though: organisers quickly arranged a replacement for their annual rap, hip-hop and R&B-focused Finsbury Park festival in the form of Wireless Connect, billed as “the world’s biggest 360° virtual festival”. Broadcast on YouTube and the MelodyVR app across Wireless’ previously scheduled dates (July 3-5), Wireless Connect provided fans with a set of 360° VR performances that were pre-recorded at both Alexandra Palace (for UK acts) and a studio in Los Angeles (American artists). Both locations complied with social distancing policies and provided the venue for Wireless’ immersive, tech-savvy digital solution that the likes of YouTube and BET have already toyed with in recent months, having tested the hosting of live concerts and award shows respectively in the age of COVID-19.
In light of recent socio-political developments, Wireless Connect have also set up a Black Lives Matter fundraiser which they actively promote across the festival weekend with links for audiences and artists to donate to.
Capital XTRA’s Yinka Bokinni assures those tuning in as Wireless Connect kicks off on Friday (July 3) that they are in for a treat; her confidence, charisma and sense of professionalism in hosting helping put even the most sceptical viewer at ease. The Alexandra Palace performance set-up is then revealed, with a range of state-of-the-art cameras offering runway, on-stage and front-row perspectives — a plethora of options and angles to feel up close and personal with each act. The experience becomes more expansive the more you get used to it, especially if you have the sufficient VR equipment to hand.
London rapper Yungen owns the room during his entertaining set which, slight vocal difficulties aside, sets the bar for later acts in terms of sheer charisma as he declares: “We come here to run nothing but bangers!” As well as ‘Bestie’ and ‘Bad’, his performance of the original Sneakbo-assisted remix of Young Thug‘s ‘With That’ sees him pay respect to his collaborator, who unfortunately isn’t in attendance, by enacting the flow heard on such releases as ‘Jetski Wave’.
Stefflon Don‘s first return to the stage since the coronavirus outbreak sees her warning us that she might be “out of practice”. Laughing it off, though, she performs her menacing ’16 Shots’ after giving the disclaimer that she’d still go to war for her mother. Donning white tracksuit bottoms, a “Don” necklace, blue plaits and a ripped blue t-shirt with frills to match, the Birmingham-born talent looks every bit the star as she debuts ‘Miss Me’, a new song that’s set to feature on a project later this year.
Shifting gears, Wireless Connect then transitions to the MelodyVR studio in LA for one of the pimp-slot performances of the night. Reigning woman in rap Saweetie begins her set with her underground anthem ‘ICY GRL’, her laid-back, Bay Area presence on display as she bops across the studio. As she begins ‘My Type’, backing dancers in denim shorts and white t-shirts arrive to give the record the bounce and zest required. Feeding her fans a new track titled ‘Twerk Dat Ass For A Icy Chain’, Saweetie seems more energetic as she twerks to the southern, Juicy J-sounding production that fills rooms and speakers across the country. She closes her set by urging all the “icy boys and girls” to “tap in and engage” with what matters most in the world during current single ‘Tap In’.
Etching into the weekend, streamers are able to get a taste of the UK’s newcomers as Saturday evening (July 4) gives the Tinie Tempah-founded Disturbing London the chance to showcase some of its new roster to the masses. Dagenham rapper Hakkz, who performs cuts such as ‘Again & Again’, proves that he has both the flow and cadence to hastily grab attention, proven by the comments section on YouTube which widely commends his efforts.
The real standout of Disturbing London’s showcase comes in the form of one of drill’s leading ladies, Ivorian Doll. Commanding the virtual arena, audiences are transported to Alexandra Palace as the star-in-the-making hops, jumps and slides across the stage while rapping her viral single ‘Rumours’. She also debuts the eagerly anticipated and lethal upcoming single ‘Body Bag’, warning: “Juicy, cutie / Cut a bitch, animal cruelty“. A polished and promising young act, Ivorian Doll is widely praised on social media after her performance.
Another woman of drill who impresses is Shaybo. Proving that she needs no assistance, she boastfully howls across her ‘HB Freestyle’ with an unapologetic brashness in the delivery, which only further compliments her appeal. As her freestyle progresses, she confirms this observation with her “me and all these girls are not the same” line. The most captivating aspect of the performance are the shifts in tone, adding a comedic value to Shaybo’s overall cadence. Her bars around food, Nigerian puns and sexual desires all help to present the diversity in the rapper’s offering — a revitalising lyricist indeed.
In a lot of UK genres, archiving has been a longstanding issue. It’s remarkable, then, to see Wireless Connect pay homage to the garage era for over 40 minutes on Saturday evening. Pioneers such as MC Neat, who seamlessly sing-raps his way through the cult-classic ‘A Little Bit Of Luck’, help created heady nostalgia, his impeccable flow serenading garage-lovers across the internet.
Vocally, Sweet Female Attitude are untroubled as ‘Flowers’ is introduced as a part of the vintage set. The colossal Lisa Maffia and Neutrino — both of So Solid Crew — perform a cluster of tracks at the end of the set including ‘No Good 4 Me’, ‘Bound 4 Da Reload’ and, of course, ’21 Seconds’. The presence of these acts, as well as the likes of Mc Kie and Heartless Crew, help highlight the many important eras in black UK music, while juxtaposing old favourites with the emerging talent.
The Sunday (July 5) sees Ray BLK stun with her neo-soul geared numbers, but not before she pays tribute to Black Lives Matter in a powerful freestyle that sees her lay bare all of her concerns and appreciation for the movement. Since her 2017 live offering at the MOBOs, the Lewisham singer has consistently captivated audiences with her unwavering vocal capabilities, and this weekend’s performance is no different. Hypnotising viewers, she closes her time on the virtual stage with ‘My Hood’, arguably one of her most memorable songs to date: “I won’t lie, finding a way out is our dream,” she croons, letting viewers know that she appreciates each eye tuning in.
As well as these exclusive performances, Wireless Connect also presents 360° performances from yesteryear, with Skepta and Trippie Redd the two stand-out performers. The former is seen coming out to cloudy skies in 2019 demanding energy as he begins ‘Redrum’, balancing his zealous presence with a tranquil foundation during his performance.
Footage of Redd’s 2019 performance, meanwhile, sees his blend of emo-rap, trap and rock leaving fans yelling for more as his set progresses. The rapper/singer’s gravelly vocals instantly pave his numbers with a grit that is more than welcome, easily complimenting his electric guitar-led cuts as he looks every bit the global star on the Wireless stage.
An ambitious endeavour, Wireless Connect helps combat the coronavirus-enforced shutdown of festival season by providing an alternative, forward-thinking and holistic experience, encouraging fan engagement at home through a Black Lives Matter fundraiser and comment sections. Of course nothing can replace the in-person, live entertainment production of the real-life Wireless Festival, and this is naturally a setback that was always going to be unavoidable in the practically empty studios used by the performers over the weekend.
But, in facing up to such obstacles, Wireless manage at least to champion the spirit of relentlessness and boundary-pushing ethos of these artists with an ambitious three-day event, and just enough to tide us over until next year’s party in Finsbury Park.