Goldstein Auditorium looked different Saturday night. The podiums and chairs from the earlier ‘Cuse for Good panel, organized by University Union, the Student Association and the National Pan-Hellenic Council, were nowhere in sight. In their place were massive, deafening-bass speakers and masses of hip-hop fans. A larger-than-life tattooed American flag was draped behind the stage. And Phil the Artist, of local Marshall Street Records, was pumping up the crowd with an energetic performance.

The audience was into Phil, but their excitement was founded on restlessness. They wanted the headliner.

The headliner in question, Brooklyn-based rapper Joey Badass, was back in his dressing room. While his fans were getting hyped up in Goldstein, Badass was laid-back, playing pool and bumping favorites from Lil Uzi Vert, Trippie Redd and the new Huncho Jack album. His team sent off for a pack of Swishers as he prepared to take the flag-adorned stage.

This American-themed decor was no accident. Badass, born Jo-Vaughn McKinnie Scott, used the same imagery on his 2017 album ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$. The misspelling, of course, is intentional as well. Badass has emerged as one of the preeminent activist rappers of the Trump era by shedding light on the stains (like the Ku Klux Klan) that are part of America’s past and present. Songs like “Land of the Free,” released on Donald Trump’s inauguration, lament the pitfalls of today’s society and encourage the nation’s youth that “we can’t change the world unless we change ourselves.”

Photo by Kasey Lanese

It is this activism that brought Badass to Syracuse. ‘Cuse for Good sought to bring together young public figures, such as Badass and Black-ish actress Yara Shahidi, to have an open dialogue about contemporary racial issues in a relatable way. Badass was right at home within the panel, appearing mature, responsible and very sour on the news media, which he sees as “totally responsible for why you get afraid when you see a hooded black man at night.” Even the New York Times, which allegedly called him “A$AP Rocky” at a recent fashion show, didn’t escape his wrath.

Badass described his introduction to activism, as he attended a police brutality rally around 2015. “I just remember going home that night and [thinking], ‘that wasn’t enough,’” he remarked. He channeled this unfulfillment into ALL-AMERIKKKAN, creating a work of art geared towards one specific goal: “Give the children the new narrative. Show them the new way.”

Joey’s mature perspective is somewhat surprising. While acclaimed socially-conscious rappers like Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole are in their 30’s, Badass just turned 23. This youth can be witnessed in both his lyrical content and his stage presence. When he finally burst into “Rockabye Baby” to open the show, it was as if the fans were watching their peer. Joey jumped around the stage, spitting out line after line while vocally encouraging mosh pits on more than one occasion.

While Badass may be better known for his lyricism, his musical talent was on full display during the show.  The immaculate sound quality paved way for several a capella verses. He even flexed his singing muscles on songs like “Temptation,” a move that many modern rappers are seemingly unable to pull off. Joey, however, was right on key.

Photo by Kasey Lanese

Sure, there was a large party element to the show – the bass was blasting at a near-unhealthy decibel. But Badass kept his themes of unity and social awareness at the forefront throughout. He preceded several tracks, like the ALL-AMERIKKKAN cut “For My People,” with light-handed, positive messages for the highly diverse audience.

“I want to dedicate this song,” said Badass, “to everyone in the room. If you’re alive right now, put your hands up.”

After rolling through a string of ALL-AMERIKKKAN favorites (“Temptation;” “Land of the Free;” “Y U Don’t Love Me;” “Legendary”), Badass gifted the audience with an exhilarating performance of “Devastated,” his biggest hit to date. The fans blissfully moshed, screaming the chorus with all their might. And then, as mysteriously as he arrived, Joey Badass was gone.

Guys like Kendrick tend to get most of the hype in the social-rap category. But seeing a 23-year-old’s power on that stage Saturday night makes one reconsider hip-hop’s direction. Badass isn’t the storyteller or maestro that men like Kendrick are. He’s more like the modern-day manifestation of Nas, Ice Cube or Chuck D – spouting activism on the mic over simple but memorable beats. Joey Badass is a rising star, and one thing’s for sure – wherever the future takes him, Syracuse will be overjoyed to see him return.