I did not expect to cry last night. Matter of fact, I planned to watch other people cry, and then write about it. But there I was, standing in the breezy cold of LA’s Greek Theater on Halloween night, with a tear running down my face. I remember the exact moment: an image of a young Mac Miller leaning on the shoulder of his mother, Karen, fading onto the Greek Theater big screens as part of a montage of old Mac photos and home videos. It’s not that this photo was unique from the rest, but there was something strange about watching an idol lean on someone else.
The rapper born Malcolm James McCormick was that idol for a decade—a cult hero who gave kids the confidence to rock snapbacks again, skip class to do what they wanted, and open up about their depression when needed. The plan was to grow with him, not outlive him. Instead, on Wednesday, his voice existed only in memory, as a backing track while fans, friends, and artists (many of whom represented all three) commemorated his legacy for a benefit event billed as “A Celebration of Life.”
Some variation of the phrase “you don’t know what you have until it’s gone” was uttered a few times on stage last night. Cliché on its surface, but with Mac, I don’t think any of us realized how many people he had touched. The show put the scale of his impact profoundly on display. Rarely do so many dissimilar acts manage to paint such a cohesive portrait of an artist who holds weight in a range of genres. A video collection featured messages from celebrities ranging from Donald Glover to Jason Sudekis to Karl-Anthony Towns, all expressing their gratitude for the late rapper. And the lineup itself was studded with names like Earl Sweatshirt, John Mayer, SZA, Thundercat, Chance The Rapper, and Rae Sremmurd.
Some small moments were transcendent, like for the young woman sitting in front of me who sobbed as Anderson .Paak slowly sung the hook, “I can’t keep on losing you” during his performance of his Mac collaboration “Dang!” And Vince Staples stormed the stage with a caustic performance of “Norf Norf,” only to leave with watery eyes as he yelled out, “Thank you ... for having a beautiful son!”
Throughout the night, the audience of 6,000 or so moved from solemn to celebratory. Mayer’s rendition of Mac’s “Small Worlds” felt haunting and poignant: “You never told me being rich was so lonely / Nobody know me, oh well.” And later on, Chance’s performance of “Blessings” proved a perfect requiem for the night. He ended with an expression of gratitude, “Thank you for the music you made, the music you provided other people with, thank you for the opportunities you provided me…Thank you for the relationships.”
Each artist only performed two or three songs, with some amounting to little more than snippets (e.g. Travis Scott’s minute-and-a-half version of “Sicko Mode”). The format didn’t work for everybody. Some fans I spoke with were more disappointed by the lack of fleshed out performances from some of their favorite artists, than they were affected by revisiting Mac’s passing.
Maybe they missed the point. Nobody was really there to perform a concert. They were there to show Mac how much they cared about him. So was most of the audience. We just hoped he was watching.
After the show, I found myself speaking to a 20-something year old woman on our walk outside of the theater. She’d flown in from London to be there. I asked how she felt. “Empty,” she said. I didn’t have to ask why. The entire night felt surreal and disparate from a grimmer reality where mortality feels more threatening than ever before. Until the lights cut back on and it didn’t. Being a music fan in 2018 is to be urgent and at times possessive. In part because discourse could require you to defend your fave at any point, but mostly because there’s a heightened fear of how quickly they can leave or be forgotten.
It’s been almost two months since Mac died of an apparent overdose in his Studio City home at the age of 26. In just the past week, Kanye has gone from lovably crazy to full-on Uncle Ruckus and (maybe) back again; Brazil has elected an authoritarian and neo-fascist dictator; and a neo-Nazi opened fire inside a synagogue in Miller’s hometown of Pittsburgh, about a mile from where the Jewish rapper went to school. If Mac were still here, maybe he’d have been able to show us how to to smile through it. Or at the least, we would have one less artist taken too soon.
But he’s not. So instead of looking to him last night, we lived through him. It wasn’t a send off, a memorial, or even a revival, but an escape, a night where tributes mirrored his own selflessness, and coping was communal. And while it didn’t satisfy everybody, it was honest to Mac in that way: It did its absolute best.
Just as everyone started to exit their seats, a home video of Mac playing piano popped up on the big screen. His voice cracked as he sang: “ Why don’t they take their time? … every now and again baby I get high… every now and again they’re just getting by… once a day I cry.” We sat back down, thinking maybe there was more to come, but the video shut off and it was over.
Myles Andrews-Duve is a writer based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter.