"The only thing that changed around here are the color of the projects, the color of the bricks."
That's rapper Jay Rock telling The Times about the place where he grew up, Nickerson Gardens housing project. On Tuesday afternoon, Rock returned to Nickerson to throw the third-annual community concert and toy drive featuring big-name artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, SZA, and Ab-Soul.
When Rock took the stage to perform his tribute to Watts, "Hood Gone Love It," the crowd went wild, rapping along with the lyrics and screaming for more songs. It felt good to see someone who made it.
Rock also served as emcee for the event, which was sponsored by Top Dawg Entertainment and featured other members of the label's roster. The show brought thousands from across Los Angeles to the Nickerson baseball field on 113th Street and Compton Avenue.
"If I could lead by example and show these kids, 'Look I came from just where you came from, and you can do this too,'" Rock said afterward. "Just to impart that in their brains and give them some type of encouragement, some type of motivation — whether it's doing music or whatever they're doing in their life that's positive and they come back to give back, that's important."
His performance was one of several that celebrated and honored the spirit of Nickerson Gardens, an often ignored community whose roots run deep, particularly in the hip-hop community.
Raised in what's considered the largest public housing development in the West, Top Dawg Entertainment founder Anthony Tiffith was inspired to give back and help others in need. For the first time, the event was split into two days this year. On Wednesday, volunteers will distribute thousands of donated toys to children in the neighborhood.
Tuesday's show imparted a sense of community, with Councilman Joe Buscaino addressing the crowd before the music started.
"Nowhere in the country are you going to find an amazing Christmas concert in a housing development but here in Watts," Buscaino said, eliciting cheers. For many attendees, who came from places like Santa Monica and Hollywood, it marked their first trip to the neighborhood.
It looked like any other outdoor music festival — a large stage, short musical acts, several hipster types in attendance. Near the front, young people with phones and arms raised were eager to get a close-up view of their favorite performers. They mingled alongside families with small children, equally enthralled with the music.
Each artist performed a handful of their most popular hits, and the only female performer, neo-soul singer SZA, dressed in a pink T-shirt and baggy, ripped jeans, got the crowd to sing along to mellow songs "Warm Winds" and "Babylon."
"What ya'll wanna hear?" Wiz Khalifa, draped in a large leopard-print coat, asked the crowd before launching into "Pull Up."
The rapper was one of several surprise guests, including O.T. Genasis and ASAP Rocky.
Sporting a maroon hoodie, Grammy winner Kendrick Lamar stepped in front of the stage and began rapping a crowd favorite that begins in near silence: "If Pirus and Crips all got along/ They'd probably gun me down by the end of this song/ Seem like the whole city go against me/ Every time I'm in the street I hear…."
Everyone knew the rest, jumping up and down when the beat dropped. After finishing "M.A.A.D City," Lamar told the crowd to "make some noise for yourself." Lamar, who was born and raised in Compton, has close ties to the community and closed the concert with his rallying-cry anthem, "Alright."
When the show ended, children and adults from the neighborhood swarmed Jay Rock, eager to snap pictures and thank him for coming back. Born and raised in Nickerson Gardens, resident Emmie Robbins loved seeing the support of the hip-hop community in his own backyard.
"This is the only event where we see different faces and cultures coming out to the projects. It's a special thing," Robbins said, holding his 1-year-old nephew on his hip. "[Jay Rock] never forgot where he came from. He won't turn down the neighborhood. We respect that."