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Searching for tomorrow's hip-hop stars at Howard University's Yardfest

waleWale dove into the crowd's warm embrace at Howard University's annual Yardfest concert, Friday aftenroon. (Josh Sisk/FTWP) STORY UPDATED AT 7:15 P.M.

By Chris Richards

Designer fragrances were whipping in the October wind while coeds sporting Crocs and pajama pants danced the two-step to a throbbing hip-hop beat.

Howard University students - some primped for a night in the club, others freshly rolled off their futons - had gathered on the campus quad for Friday's Yardfest, one of the most anticipated events of Howard's annual homecoming festivities. The sprawling six-hour concert line-up offered over 60 performances from rappers and R&B singers of old school, new school and completely unknown stripes.

Fans braved the autumn chill to see Washington rap hero Wale, R&B songbird Dondria, eye-patched icon Slick Rick, throwback hero Doug E. Fresh and a headlining set from Rick Ross.

But hours before the marquee names got anywhere near a microphone, Mariah Williams and her fellow Howard sophomores Jaquanda Capers, Sherita Dabney and Tiara Bryant had staked out a front-row spot. Dressed in layers, snacks packed in their purses, they had arrived at 11 a.m. and planned to stay put until the very last note.

"I used the bathroom several times prior," said Williams, clinging to the stage barricade. "There's no leaving."

That's because they didn't want to miss any future superstars. Over the years, Yardfest has earned an almost mythic reputation as a showcase for emerging hip-hop talents on the way to household name status. Jay-Z, Kanye West and the late Notorious B.I.G. all performed at Yardfest early in their careers. The Howard quad has also hosted performances from OutKast, Diddy and Erykah Badu. Perhaps trying to tap into the magic, local rap star Wale shot his breakout video for "Nike Boots" at Yardfest in 2008.

yardfestThe crowd showed up early for the annual centerpiece of Howard's homecoming weekend. (Josh Sisk/FTWP)

And while Wale paid tribute to Howard Homecoming on screen, Notorious B.I.G. immortalized the weekend in rhyme. "Ain't no telling where I may be/May see me in D.C. at Howard Homecoming," he declared on "Kick in the Door" in 1997. Ludacris followed suit with "Pimpin' All Over the World" in 2005. "Jump in the car and just ride for hours," he rapped. "Making sure I don't miss the homecoming at Howard."

This year's Yardfest aimed to transport fans all over the world. Merging with the university's annual International Showcase, the day had been officially dubbed "International Yard Festival," the stage decked out with flags like a model United Nations. But outside of performances from Jamaican reggae stars Mr. Vegas and Shaggy, this bill was almost entirely a North American affair.

The sleepy crowd first snapped to life around 3:30, thanks to an act from Georgia. Travis Porter - actually a trio of rappers from Atlanta - stomped across the stage, barking over a plush, thundering beat: "Make it rain!" They yanked a few dollars from their jeans tossed them into a windy gust that carried the bills 50 yards into the crowd.

While the out-of-towners tried to buy the crowd's affection, hometown artists focused on networking backstage.

"There's a lot of good producers, a lot of good musicians out here," said local rapper Black Cobain before his performance with Fat Trel. "We're gonna shake some hands, pass out some CDs." At his feet: two large cardboard boxes, each overflowing with copies of his new mixtape, "Now."

Washington newcomer Lola Monroe had apparently already made her connections, sharing the stage with acclaimed Miami rapper Trina. The crowd was receptive to the duo but quickly turned when Trina departed. "Small yesterday's big tomorrows," Monroe rapped a capella, bracing for a difficult right-now. Audience members formed L-shapes with their hands - as in "leave" - and shooed her off the stage.

"They only know the names," said Abi Demi, a University of Maryland student shaking his head in the crowd. Demi has been to Howard's quad for the past five autumns and says the Yardfest crowd is prone to dismissing rookie artists prematurely. "They boo them one year, then they come back the next year and do the same exact song and they're like, [imitates the screams of 5,000 women]."

Wale earned those screams in real time, vaunting through his hit "Pretty Girls" and his verse from Waka Flocka Flame's "No Hands." Fans threw their hands skyward - none signaling him to leave.

There were other local artists, too - some from the neighboring dormitories. Howard junior Ryan McCaulsky and his rap trio BFAM delivered one of the first sets of the day, a quick three-song appearance that included "Ain't Nothing Like A Howard Girl" - a song he and his bandmates described as a campus hit. After attending Yardfest as fans, the endorphins were gushing as they made their debut as performers.

"I've been watching for the last two years," McCaulsky said, beaming. "The artists that have been here before us are amazing: Biggie Smalls, Puff Daddy, Fabolous, Pusha T, Kanye West - too many people to even name."

By sunset, dozens of artists had bounded across the stage. But Mariah Williams and her friends were still posted front and center. Was she tired?

"Nowhere near it," she said.

By Chris Richards  | October 29, 2010; 4:38 PM ET
Categories:  In concert  | Tags:  Yardfest  
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