This week marks Howard University's 89th Homecoming. Here's why it will be unlike any other.

Written by Julian Kimble (@JRK316)

Each October, D.C. braces itself for Howard University’s Homecoming, where current students, alumni and people just looking to partake in the festivities gather in celebration. It's part of a transitional period, one that marks the middle of the semester, a change of season and a reminder that the holidays are just around the corner. People come from all over the country to experience the legend, which has been well-documented and given the stamp of approval from hip-hop. Artists ranging from the Notorious B.I.G. to Ludacris have sung the event's praises, which becomes more about tradition than celebration once students join the alumni ranks.

Howard Homecoming consists of a full week of activities which are amplified by celebrity presence. Howard has produced a multitude of notable alumni, many of whom have flooded the entertainment industry. You have the best chance of spotting them—and other random celebritiesduring Yardfest, a free outdoor concert-meets-reunion that takes place on the Friday of Homecoming Week. 

To critics, being asked to pay for Yardfest is like being asked to pay for air. Nevermind that the damage was just $5 for a show consisting of performances from A$AP Ferg, Big Sean, Juicy J and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, the question on the tongues of everyone affected was "why?"

Yardfest serves as a launchpad for emerging talent, but star power is the reason that it's Homecoming's main attraction. Biggie famously appeared along with Diddy—who didn't graduate, but proudly reps the school; the school, in turn, proudly claims him—in 1995. Jay-Z and DMX have performed in the past. Ten years ago, Kanye West—then only known as a producer—performed pieces of what would eventually become "Gold Digger" and his debut single, "Through the Wire" to an infuriatingly lukewarm reaction. Little did the crowd know, they were watching one of the most important artists of the next decade. Since then, Jeezy has performed twice and the sight of Rick Ross inspired grown men to run just to catch a glimpse of him in all of his grandiose glory.

Last year, the spectrum of performers ranged from local acts to Naughty by Nature (who connected with a crowd born during the peak of their popularity) and 2 Chainz, who had performed in 2007 back when he still went by Tity Boi and was one-half of Playaz Circle. 2012’s Yardfest offered the biggest surprise in over ten years when Drake, sporting a red Howard crewneck and ear-to-ear smile, stormed the stage during 2 Chainz’s performance of “No Lie.” The reaction was so powerful that the sound was cut off and the crowd was warned it wouldn’t return unless everyone relaxed and took several steps back. Not even a torrential downpour could stop brave fans from watching Meek Mill and T.I. share the stage. It was the best Yardfest in years and the last of its kind.

This year, rumors began swirling that Yardfest would no longer be free, leading to rumblings of disapproval from the current student body and alumni base. When this was confirmed, it ignited everything from sneers to outright fury. To critics, being asked to pay for Yardfest is like being asked to pay for air. Nevermind that the damage was just $5 for a show consisting of performances from A$AP Ferg, Big Sean, Juicy J and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, the question on the tongues of everyone affected was "why?"

 

The short answer is that it was the only option. "Considering what the university brought to us, it’s a way to save Homecoming. If you check the last three years, the dynamic of Homecoming has been changed with bigger artists being recruited instead of emerging artists. That put Homecoming in jeopardy," says junior telecommunications management major and Yardfest Coordinator Courtney Howard. "[The university] knows that Yardfest is the biggest Homecoming event, so the way to save Homecoming was to charge for it."

Senior public relations major and Homecoming Marketing & Media Relations Manager Jenelle Coy says this change is motivated by the need to produce a profit. "Yardfest being the biggest event, we absolutely have to make revenue from it. We have all of these artists come in, we have 70 to 80 media representatives attend Homecoming; 2 Chainz might put a video up, T.I. might put a webisodeup, but what does that do for us as far as streams of revenue?" Coy explained. 

This is not meant to paint Howard’s administration as inept on a School Daze-esque level, but rather to illustrate how the Homecoming staff was presented a difficult situation. It's like taking over a losing team and being expected to win a championship the following year. So rather than risk ruining Homecoming with a disappointing Yardfest or worse, no Yardfest, they did what they could.

According to the Homecoming Steering Committee, school administration presented them with an uncomfortable scenario that they tried to make the best of. "Homecoming is a major expense and we have to cover that in some way. Whether it was charging for Yardfest or charging $300 for the Erykah Badu concert, it has to be made up for in some shape, form or fashion. I think this was the most convenient way to do it," Coy said. In other words, don't shoot the messengers.

Discussion about the need for the university to make money from Homecoming this year all but reinforced many students, faculty and alumni’s worst fears: that the school was struggling financially. The fear was sparked by an April letter from board of trustees vice chair Renee Higginbotham-Brooks leaked to the Chronicle of Higher Education in June which claimed that the university "will not be here in three years" due to financial mismanagement. How could Howard, widely recognized as the most prestigious historically black college and university, be in budget trouble? Mind you, this is the same institution that welcomed Oprah as its commencement speaker in 2007 and Bill Clinton this past May. 

"I can no longer sit quietly, notwithstanding my personal preference to avoid confrontation, and therefore, I am compelled to step forward to announce that our beloved university is in genuine trouble and 'time is of the essence,'" she wrote. Administrators rushed to ease the panic, with board chairman Addison Rand insisting that the letter "[painted] an unduly alarming picture" of the state of the university "without proper context." Instead, Rand pointed to budget cuts as the source of Howard’s issues, which are intensified by the high expenses of Howard University Hospital.

University president Sidney Ribeau dismissed the accusations this past summer, saying "there is not any kind of mismanagement administratively or financially that is damaging the university." Ribeau, Howard's president since 2008, abruptly stepped down from his position at the beginning of this month.

This is not meant to paint Howard’s administration as inept on a School Daze-esque level, but rather to illustrate how the Homecoming staff was presented a difficult situation. It's like taking over a losing team and being expected to win a championship the following year. So rather than risk ruining Homecoming with a disappointing Yardfest or worse, no Yardfest, they did what they could. Turning water into Ciroc is no easy task. But students and alumni accustomed to the free experience aren't interested in hearing about how Yardfest will "only" cost $5. Backlash to the news was anticipated.

 

"As far as backlash, that’s a part of being on Homecoming Committee, as with any organization. Every single year, [people] are going to complain about something," Coy said, adding that "it’s just part of being on staff, and we’ve known that from the beginning. Charging for Yardfest is just adding to what we were expecting." 

Senior radio, television and film major and Homecoming Marketing & Media Relations Assistant Jordan Bailey characterized the backlash as passive-aggressive social media squawking. "The only backlash that I’ve noticed is on Twitter and mostly on social media because people rarely have the confidence to come up to you in person," he said. "But at the end of the day, even with a lineup consisting of Juicy J, A$AP Ferg and Big Sean, $5 for those three alone is a phenomenal deal. That’s $5 that you probably spend on lunch everyday that you’re putting towards these artists."

But for alumni used to the traditional Yardfest experience, this shift is unsettling on a deeper level. While Yardfest is now a concert offering top-level talent for a bargain, it's never been just a concert. Once your undergraduate days are over, Yardfest is about the calculated venture to the yard on Friday afternoon, which holds the thrill and surprise of being greeted by familiar faces you haven't seen in years. For the alumni who waited in line for validation stickers each semester or had to register for classes over the phone, being charged for Yardfest is a violation of principle—or simply a slap in the face.

Furthermore, Yardfest also draws even older alumni; the type to ask you to take a picture of them in front of some spot on the yard where they stood 20, even 30 years prior for nostalic purposes. They're unlikely to purchase tickets because they have no interest in the headliners. In the past, that didn't matter. The only investment made was time. Though it's no fault of Homecoming staff, this revamped Yardfesthas eviscerated that element. The organizers hear the complaints loud and clear. 

But for alumni used to the traditional Yardfest experience, this shift is unsettling on a deeper level. While Yardfest is now a concert offering top-level talent for a bargain, it's never been just a concert. Once your undergraduate days are over, Yardfest is about the calculated venture to the yard on Friday afternoon, which holds the thrill and surprise of being greeted by familiar faces you haven't seen in years. For the alumni who waited in line for validation stickers each semester or had to register for classes over the phone, being charged for Yardfest is a violation of principle—or simply a slap in the face.

"We’ve gotten a lot of feedback from alumni saying the dynamic of Yardfest has changed. [We understand that] it used to be a time to maybe turn up a little on the yard with your friends like ‘Oh, Jeezy’s on the yard. Cool.’ Now it’s more like a Made in America type of concert," Howard says. Coy, meanwhile, holds the mirror up to alumni: "The only campaign that probably could’ve kept us from charging for Yardfest would’ve been if the entire alumni base came together and gave $5 or $10."

While Bailey understands the resistance to change, he wants everyone to approach this year's Yardfest with an open mind. "I understand the tradition of Homecoming, but you have to be a little bit reasonable," he said. 2013 will be remembered as the year that Yardfest—and Homecoming as a whole—became more about business. Even with the push to make money, 2,000 free tickets were given away to students earlier this week. As expected, demand was high, and security was most likely needed to execute an efficient, orderly ticket giveaway.

If Yardfest has become a festival much like Made in America, the question of how this new traditional festival format will be enforced lingers. Though professors wisely cancel afternoon classes, suppose students attempt to wait it out in university buildings on the yard's permieter until the show begins at noon. What is being done to curb that? "To my knowledge, a third partywhether it’s campus police or the Metropolitan Police Departmentis bringing barricades and they’ll treat it like a music festival where you’ll show up with your ticket and we’ll slap a band on you," Coy says.

There will be re-entry, but be certain not to lose your wristband. Still, the notion of needing re-entry to the yard is another change that students and alumni scoff at, as the freedom to come and go with ease is another component to Yardfest's tradition. Change is hard to accept and people will naturally be opposed to it. In this case, they have no choice. Homecoming staff has heard the complaints and promise to overcompensate for the changes.

"We didn’t just accept the fact that we had to charge and decide we were going to deliver that same caliber of show," Howard said. "With Howard students, you know that if you change something with them, you have to add something great."

Regardless of how anyone feels about what Yardfest morphed into this year, it's still the anchor of the Howard Homecoming adventure, a sublime staple of the black college experience. Just like Kanye's pre-stardom performance in 2003 or Drake's scene-stealing appearance last year, 2013's Yardfest will always be remembered. This marks the end of an era and the beginning of a new one, which, for many, is a sign of aging. Still, the show must—and will—go on.