Immersed in the enveloping darkness, massively tall and lush greenery, and mood-setting light show, André 3000 captivated the audience inside the Garfield Park Conservatory on Chicago’s West Side with melodic winds from his flute. On a cold Thursday night, André 3000 —  one-half of the legendary Grammy Award-winning Atlanta duo, Outkast — and his album’s jazz collective, comprised of percussionist and producer Carlos Niño, guitarist Nate Mercereau, keyboardist Surya Botofasina, drummer Deantoni Parks and local bass player Joshua Abrams, performed as part of his New Blue Sun tour in support of his 2023 ambient, new age jazz album of the same name. And if you loved the album, André 3000 is not stopping any time soon. In Chicago, he announced that there’s more music on the way.

André 3000 concluded his three-night stop in Chicago with two shows on Feb. 15 at the Garfield Park Conservatory, which is one of the largest conservatories in the U.S., and one of the most treasured areas in Chicago where West Siders hold memories of school field trips and learning about plants. Throughout the three-month tour, 3 Stacks is giving mini-residencies across the country at intimate venues. In Chicago, two of the three venues he chose were located in historically Black and Latine neighborhoods, including Chicago’s Garfield Park and Pilsen, respectively. To ensure the crowd vibes out without distraction, concertgoers are asked to place their cellphones into one-way locked pouches, and no cameras are allowed inside the venue.

Mercedes Pickett, a Garfield Park native, waited in line outside the conservatory for the 10:00 p.m. show in the 28-degree cold wind with her friend Antonio, who is from North Lawndale. Once she found out that André 3000 would be coming to the conservatory, which she calls an “oasis,” she said she had to be a part of it.

“It’s free expression and when you are connected to Earth, it’s almost as if you are in a space of meditation,” she said when asked what makes his performance at the conservatory so special. “It’s like the Garden of Eden. It’s like you’re creating this space where all is welcomed and one thing [he wanted] to make sure of is that the community is able to be in this space and that’s why I wanted to show up.”

Antonio Mitchell was introduced to Outkast as a kid. His father exposed them to the group’s music growing up, and he grew to develop his own love for the group. He was amazed that André 3000 brought his tour to the conservatory, which his mother often brought him to visit as a child, rather than a larger venue like the United Center or the Wintrust Arena where many would expect a larger artist like him to perform. Very few nationally-recognized hip hop artists have performed in Garfield Park.

“Chicago was one of the smaller [hip hop] bases, so we were embracing people from the South like Outkast, who came up and weren’t naturally embraced either,” he said about why West Siders gravitated toward Outkast’s music in the mid-1990s “It was a natural connection because we [Chicagoans] were able to do things that were different, that wasn’t naturally seen in [mainstream] hip hop. Outkast came with a different flavor and [in] Chicago we had our own spin on it because we were somewhat excluded and that made us one.”

Inside the Garfield Park Conservatory, the stage is at the Horticulture Hall, which requires a walk down the dirt trail across from the Devil’s ivy, hoja santa, and peacock plants. During the earlier 7:00 p.m. show, André 3000 and his ensemble immediately began playing koto music. The sight was spellbinding; it was as if we were all invited to a mystical jam session of epic proportions, and we were his closest friends with whom he wanted to share his gifts.

“How y’all feeling?” he asks in his baritone, southern drawl like the humble beast he is. He hilariously addressed the crowd as, “Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.”

He continued by telling the audience that this was not just a show, but rather a moment in time where he and his friends were improvising and creating music,  and that we were all a part of that process. André 3000 encouraged the room to “make the craziest, interesting noise you can make,” whether it be animal noises or hollering just because you feel the spirit, too.

André 3000 and his jazz collective were improvising and creating music during the show. Photo by Joel Meinholz.

The apex of the engulfing jam session was the riveting performance of the album’s no. 3 track,  “That Night in Hawaii When I Turned into a Panther and Started Making These Low Register Purring Tones That I Couldn’t Control … Sh¥t Was Wild,” which felt as intense as the ayahuasca trip he experienced that inspired the song. Niño’s low percussion matched with Abram’s bass and André 3000’s brooding flute, making it feel as if the walls of the conservatory were closing in on the audience. That was when all of the audience’s participatory yelling became cathartic because the suspense of the instrumentation was wild.

What makes the New Blue Sun tour so special is that not a single show is performed the same way, regardless of the city or venue. Every night in Chicago, André 3000 and his ensemble jammed out wildly different renditions of songs from the album and engaged with the crowd uniquely. For instance, during the 10:00 p.m. show at the Garfield Park Conservatory, they did a slower version of the opening track, “I Swear, I Really Wanted to Make a ‘Rap’ Album but This Is Literally the Way the Wind Blew Me This Time,” and there were some alterations to other songs like “BuyPoloDisorder’s Daughter Wears A 3000® Shirt Embroidered” that felt much more extensive than what was on the album. There were even tunes performed that didn’t seem to be on the album, fitting the show’s freeform jam session spirit.

The lush nature of the conservatory brought a different feel from the Thalia Hall and Salt Shed shows on Feb. 12 and 13, respectively. While those sets felt like a spaceship ride to an uncharted galaxy, the Garfield Park Conservatory felt like a technicolored jungle, a vibe more fitting for the raw and transcendent nature of the album. 

“This conservatory is f*cking amazing,” Niño whispered to the crowd. “We’re on a transcendental field trip.”

During both Garfield Park Conservatory shows, once André 3000 started passionately speaking to the crowd in his made-up, amalgamated language he called “Queeko,” it felt as if we’d reached our final destination: a trip to see the mystical, benevolent shaman we didn’t know we were searching for.

André 3000 invited the crowd at Garfield Park Conservatory to be a part of the improvisational experience. Photo by Joel Meinholz.

Since Outkast’s groundbreaking 1994 debut studio album Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, the duo naturally grew a cult following among hip-hop fans on Chicago’s West Side. The Dungeon Family’s smoked-out and funky production paired with the slick-tongued flows on Outkast’s first few albums between ’94 and ’98 conveniently fit into a similar cultural and musical pocket as some of Chicago’s own West Side pioneers. Rappers such as Twista, The Speedknot Mobstaz, Crucial Conflict, and Do or Die were also perfecting rapid-fire flows with that smooth pimp flavor in their respective ways while having a slight southern dialect in contrast to their Chicago South Side brethren during the 1990s. Due to the West Side’s pimp culture and southern roots, the latter thanks to the second wave of the Great Migration, West Side rappers meshed perfectly with their Atlanta, Memphis, and Houston peers. Some of them were even signed to Houston’s independent staple, Rap-A-Lot Records.

West Side-bred Briahna Gatlin, former hip-hop journalist and principal owner of Swank PR, grew up a die-hard Outkast fan since her days of hanging out at The Circle in Garfield Park, watching local rappers hold ciphers there and singers would perform.

“The pimp culture wasn’t on the South Side like that. It was definitely the West Side,” she said with a laugh. “So I feel like we identified with Outkast a little bit differently, just because of that. And we did have a lot more to relate with them. There was always some level of connection because we could just understand what they were actually saying. I feel like we were a little bit more privy to that style because we were doing it as well.”

Rappers and producers from the South, such as DJ Premier, Pimp C, Scarface, DJ Paul and Juicy J, Zaytoven, Drumma Boy, and the overall collective of the Dungeon Family, spent their early beginnings playing an array of instruments and even participating in marching bands and church choirs. To Gatlin, André 3000 finding new ground with his flute isn’t as uncommon as some might think.

“People underestimate rappers and forget that they are also musicians. I think they’re not used to somebody that’s a rapper playing an instrument. There’s plenty of rappers that play drums in church and again that element of artistry from rap is not far-fetched because it’s music. It’s just people aren’t used to it,” Gatlin said.

Pickett said that while some might not understand why André 3000 chose the flute over giving fans the God-tier lyricism he’s known for, he’s always been ahead of his time and many fans like her understand the positive frequency he’s gifting us.

“It’s going to take a while for individuals to understand the type of music that he put out, but it’s something that I’m looking forward to in the future to see others incorporate that type of art, that type of sound,” Pickett said.

A concert program given to audience members during the Garfield Park Conservatory show. Photo by Joel Meinholz.
André 3000 jamming out with his jazz collective at Garfield Park Conservatory. Photo by Joel Meinholz.

While André 3000 has declared that performing flute music was how he wanted to express his art for the time being, he hasn’t completely thrown away his love for rap music. He’s coming off another Grammy win for his 2023 verse on Killer Mike’s “Scientists & Engineers,” and appeared on Kanye West’s heartfelt 2021 track, “Life of The Party.”. 

While onstage at the conservatory, André 3000 explains to the mystified audience how he started playing the flute in the first place and how he built a relationship with Niño. He also discussed how he realized every nationality has a flute as part of their culture. 

“I never thought I’d be in Outkast. I never thought I’d be producing music,” André 3000 shared with his audience. “I just keep going towards what I’m attracted to. Keep doing it ‘till it turns into something.”

It was also at the 10:00 p.m. show that 3 Stacks revealed that he’s coming out with more flute music soon. He will release the sessions he and Niño created together. And Chicago bass player Joshua Abrams, who isn’t on the New Blue Sun album, will appear on André 3000’s forthcoming new music too. Abrams was an original and former member of Grammy Award-winning group The Roots before he moved to suburban Evanston in 1991. He has written music for many films, including the 2013 sports documentary The Trials of Muhammad Ali.” 

Over the years, the Garfield Park Conservatory has played host to many jazz shows with some ticketed ones like 2019’s Black Monastic show from the Red Bull Music Festival, and more often, events that are free to the public like the annual JazzCity: Women In Jazz performances

As far as mainstream rappers, not many have played at the conservatory. Chance the Rapper performed there in light of his second album, 2019’s The Big Day. Still, some concertgoers say that they have never been to the conservatory for a concert.

André 3000's show is an intimate experience. Photo by Joel Meinholz.

For Folake Dosu, the show highlighted the underutilized potential of Garfield Park for the modern music scene in Chicago.

“I’ve been to a lot of shows in Chicago and I’ve never been to a show here before, and I think [to myself], why is that the case?” she said. “It underscores that it’s been a missed opportunity that other artists don’t think to use this space to come out here the way he did.”

After seeing his show, Dosu, who came because she said she knew the conservatory would be the best place to watch it, was inspired by the child-like joy André 3000 exuded on stage, stepping into the artist he has evolved into now. He’s a driven flute player who was not at work, but at play.

“It’s really inspiring to me. It’s always inspiring to see somebody stepping into their power and being unafraid to go where life is taking them and to be able to put themselves out there doing something new, especially when it’s a Black person,” Dosu said.

For Mitchell, André 3000 coming to the conservatory was another opportunity to showcase the true beauty and potential of Garfield Park. He wants the underserved, but talented community to have more chances like this. 

“The West Side of Chicago is a hub of amazing talent and when you give us an opportunity like it, we get a chance to show it. We always want to show the positive parts of our community,” Mitchell said.

is a freelance writer for The TRiiBE.