Warren Live 2020 brought the party to UC San Diego with “American Boy” singer Estelle and opener ilham.
British singer-songwriter Estelle, most known for her international hit “American Boy” featuring Kanye West, headlined this year’s Warren Live, Earl Warren College’s annual music festival. Past lineups of Warren Live include other 2000s household names like Sean Kingston and Jesse McCartney. Opening for Estelle at Price Center Ballroom on Feb. 20 was R&B artist ilham.
Despite a sold-out concert last year with Sean Kingston, this year’s attendance was significantly smaller. It was possibly not as well marketed; many students who like Estelle had no idea she came to UC San Diego until they saw social media posts from their friends at the concert. However, the audience more than made up for its size with boundless, infectious energy that only grew over the span of the music-filled night. The artists, too, brought their A-game, turning a concert crowd into a dance party.
Opener ilham memorably took the stage with a large Mario toy figure, which sat and rotated on the DJ table behind her during her set. She sang “back and forth” and “run dry,” the silky beats of the songs turning the crowd’s polite head nodding into full-body swaying. During breaks, the young artist shared how she “came from the projects” and now was onstage living her dream, citing how her second album, “with time,” had hit No. 1 on the iTunes R&B charts. She extended her gratitude to the crowd with thanks and uplifting words like, “Things may be hard, but you work harder.”
In most small concert experiences, the opening act is usually met with tepid enthusiasm. But while most Triton concertgoers were unfamiliar with ilham, there seemed to be a general agreement across the room to give the charming New York native a very warm reception. At this concert, it was not just the performers, but also the supportive UCSD students who made it as fun as it was.
“We gotta hype her up!” were literal words murmured in the audience. During buildups and beat drops, such as in “how you feel now,” students would jump and wave and shout, even if there were many mistimed reactions to beat drops. Not knowing the songs didn’t stop the audience; during “in too deep,” some audience members furtively took out their phones to look up the lyrics and sing along, garnering ilham’s surprise and delight. Ilham easily took to the crowd, shouting out certain energetic people, getting everyone to sing the chorus of “down,” and performing two unreleased songs, including “uh-huh” and an untitled song. “DM me on Instagram if you have ideas for a song title,” she encouraged.
Things took an unexpected but very welcomed turn when it was time for Estelle’s set. Without knowing her too well, one may think she would also have a cool, laid-back vibe, but she quickly dispelled such notions with her performance. Her entrance turned the concert into a dance club with “Ain’t Yo Bitch,” a reggaeton-influenced song that brought the musician down into the screaming crowd. She carried a large bag of candy and passed them out as she sang and moved her way through a sea of cellphones. Several circles formed around her as she danced with individual students; at one point, she and a student twerked against each other, eliciting an eruption of whoops.
Estelle was, for lack of a better word, lit. She invited several students on stage to dance with her at the end of “Ain’t Yo Bitch,” and later songs like “Better” and “Freak” kept the crowd constantly moving their feet as colorful lights dazzled around the room, adding to the dance club feel. House song “Something Good” pulled the audience into a sing-off. During the repetitive chorus, Estelle held her mic to the audience, prompting one half to sing, “I got it!” and the other half to sing, “Ohhh oh!” The party truly hadn’t started until she walked in.
Those hoping that Estelle, who is the voice of Garnet from the Cartoon Network animated series “Steven Universe,” would be singing songs from the show were not disappointed. “Do y’all like ‘Steven Universe?’” she asked, singing a few words from “True Kinda Love.” The room roared in response. She sang the theme song “We Are the Crystal Gems” and struck a pose when everyone shouted her character’s name in the song. After that, she asked the crowd if there was anyone who knew the lyrics to “the Garnet songs” and chose two ecstatic volunteers to join her onstage. Then what followed would rival the San Diego Comic-Con in terms of the fan experience. Imagine singing and doing air guitar to “Stronger Than You” with Garnet herself? A few people livestreamed and FaceTimed the incredible performance.
Finally, it was time for “American Boy.” The first notes of the much-anticipated song swept the room with a feverish wave of nostalgia, both for UCSD students and for Estelle herself. Hearing the room sing “American Boy” with unrestrained passion, Estelle stopped singing and listened to everyone yell the lyrics by heart. “Wow,” she exclaimed afterwards, seemingly floored by the outpouring of love for her song. “Weren’t y’all like ten years old when this came out?” She laughed and expressed the joy and gratitude she felt with knowing that over a decade later, her song was still loved. She then restarted the song a couple times, stopping because she wanted people to put their phones away and for the security officers in the back of the room to join them.
Eventually, everyone in the room was singing and dancing to “American Boy,” and what better way was it to spend a weeknight at UCSD? UC Socially Dead? As if. Estelle, ilham, and Tritons know how to throw a party.
Date: Feb. 20, 2020