How EarthGang Performed at a Music Festival in 2021 & Why They’re ‘Hopeful’ They’ll Do It Again Soon

EarthGang went and did the unthinkable for any American touring act right now: They performed at a music festival in 2021.

Two weeks ago, Atlanta-based rappers Olu (aka Johnny Venus) and WowGr8 (aka Doctor Dot) performed at Bay Dreams festival in New Zealand on Jan. 3 as the sole American act on the bill that highlighted more than 30 international and Kiwi acts. It had been on the duo’s schedule since the opportunity presented itself following their last performance in New Zealand, in December 2019.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic nearly erased Bay Dreams from their calendar, which previously included other festival gigs like Glastonbury. But the festival organizers in New Zealand, which completely closed its borders in March and had successfully eliminated the virus by June, proposed a solution as mandated by the country: quarantine for 14 days during Christmas up until New Year’s Eve, test negative at the end of the period, and perform at the top of the new year.

For the past six years, EarthGang has been opening for major acts such as Billie EilishMac Miller and J. Cole, who signed them to his Dreamville label back in 2017. They embarked on their own Welcome to Mirrorland Tour from 2019 to 2020 to support their major-label debut album Mirrorland. Naturally, the world is EarthGang’s stage — and they found a way to return home to it.

“Building EarthGang on a global space has always been part of our master plan,” said Barry Johnson, president and co-founder of EarthGang’s management company Since The 80s, in a statement to Billboard. “The earth is our turf and getting the call to be the only performing hip-hop act in New Zealand proved just that. We playing global Monopoly and I love it.”

Billboard hopped on the phone with EarthGang shortly after they returned home to Atlanta to discuss how quarantining in the U.S. has inspired their upcoming sophomore album, which they said would be released this year, and how performing in New Zealand reminded them of the magic of live music.

How did you feel when you got on stage in front of thousands of people again?

Olu: It was ecstatic. Like it had literally been months since we’d been in front of thousands of people. Then we actually got a chance to do it again, be in front of the people and really vibe with them. And that energy’s insane. It was amazing, it was magical. It was a reminder of how magical it can be.

You were the only American act performing at Bay Dreams. When the opportunity came up, how were you sure about pursuing it safely?

WowGr8: Last time we were in New Zealand in 2019, we did an end-of-the-year show. And they mentioned [performing at Bay Dreams] then. We were like, “Yes!” right away. And then when COVID happened, they go, “Well, it might not ever happen.” But then they told us all we had to do, right around October actually, they told us all we had to do was quarantine and we’d get to do the show again.

What was it like to quarantine in New Zealand during Christmas?

WowGr8: Yeah, that was an interesting quarantine. … They had us like all in separate hotel rooms. And it was like military outside. We got the COVID test about three, four times maybe [a week]. Like every two days, they would do another test. It was a very serious process. After awhile, it got a little maddening to be just staying in one building. You can’t even go outside and have a little peep of land for a little while.

What COVID-19 measures did the concertgoers have to obey in order to attend the festival?

Olu: Zero! There’s zero COVID measures. The government took all the measures when they made us quarantine inside, and they took all the measures earlier in 2020, when they actually shut down the country. When we got outside, the only people who had masks on were Uber drivers and people who worked at hotels. And that was only in some of the cities. Everybody else did not have a mask on unless they just wanted to, but no, you did not have to have a mask on. You did not have to socially distance. Of course, hygiene is always a focus, so they had hand sanitizer stations and things like that available. But other than that, nothing.

Dr. Fauci announced during a press conference that concerts could return “some time in the fall.” How hopeful are you feeling about performing in the U.S. again?

Olu: I feel hopeful all the time, I will always feel hopeful. I think one of the things that keeps people in this nation going and believing is the music and just the healing properties of music that it brings to the world.

You joined Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms on Instagram Live to talk about voting and performed on Stacey Abrams’ Fair Fight’s Rock the Runoff Virtual Concert. What parallels do you draw between your experiences as performers and your efforts mobilizing voters in Atlanta?

Olu: It’s clear that if you put positive energy into something, and you empower people with that positive energy, then there’s no limit to what you can accomplish…. There were people who couldn’t believe that we were in New Zealand performing in front of thousands in a COVID-free environment, just like there were people believing that we couldn’t turn the state of Georgia blue.

Congratulations on your song “Collide” with TianaMajor9 earning a Grammy nomination for best R&B song! How did you react to the news?

Olu: Lost my sh–. Ran around an AirBnb screaming, FaceTiming people, answering texts. It was a very peaceful morning watching Moana and then everything else got crazy. 

WowGr8: That sh– was super crazy, super crazy.

Thinking about music you released in 2019 feels like ages ago. What quarantine-induced inspirations have helped evolve your sound on your newer music, like the new Spillage Village album that came out this fall or your most recent collab with Wale, “Options”?

Olu: For me personally, before all of this, I used to make music based off of past experiences. But now it’s the manifestation, the things that I’m creating, the things that I’m making, I’m putting out there in order for things to grow. It’s not so much as a recording of time, but a production of time…. You making these things happen rather than just letting life happen to you and writing about it.

I don’t want to sit at the crib and make sad music. [Laughs] Like I might do it one or two days, but life is to be enjoyed and to be rejoiced. It can be very tough at times, but I feel like those are the times where we have to balance it out with rejoicing and celebration, because this is a blessing to be alive. You can’t let the things that are going on around us make people feel like we shouldn’t be here or that this is a curse or something, but being alive is a blessing.

Once the pandemic is over, where are you headed first and why?

Olu: The first place I’m going to go to is Africa. I’ve been to three countries in Africa. I would like to visit much, much more of Africa. I would like to go to West Africa.

WowGr8: I’d like to see Asia. We were supposed to go to Asia before the pandemic and everything got canceled. So I would like to get that little round of Asia — the shows, the trips, whatever it takes me to just see more parts of the world.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.