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Sweetlife Festival Honcho Can Laugh About the Kendrick Lamar Incident

Sweetgreen CEO Jonathan Neman is optimistic about music festivals in general.

Calvin Harris performs at 2015's Sweetlife Festival. Photo by BFA.

Jonathan Neman is the CEO of fast-casual salad chain Sweetgreen and the co-curator of the company’s annual Sweetlife Festival, but he may be best known on the internet as the guy who got kicked off the stage by Kendrick Lamar for not knowing the words to one of his songs.

Lamar regularly pulls people from the audience to rap the song “m.A.A.d city” with him, and Neman says he was plucked for this role by accident during the rapper’s headlining set at last year’s Sweetlife. “My brother happened to know all the words and was jumping up and down screaming ‘Pick me, pick me,’” says Neman. “Instead of picking him, Kendrick looked at me and grabbed me onstage.”

After fumbling through the first few bars of the track, Lamar decided he’d had enough. He booted Neman and instead chose a young woman from the crowd, who knew every word. But Neman insists he didn’t feel humiliated. “It was fun, standing in front of thousands of people with Kendrick Lamar,” he says. “Sometimes you’ve got to get vulnerable, take a little embarrassment. But you laugh it off.”

Neman’s sunny disposition permeates nearly everything he talks about. He describes Sweetlife Festival—which takes place on Saturday at Merriweather Post Pavilion and features headliners The 1975, Blondie, Halsey, and Grimes—as, simply, “good food, good music, what could be better?” And when asked if he feels any pressure to outdo himself with each successive Sweetlife, he says, “It’s a music festival. We like to have fun. No pressure, man.”

For Neman, who grew up going to Burning Man and Bonnaroo, music and art have been an integral part of his company’s brand since the beginning. The first Sweetlife Festival—which took place in the parking lot behind the Dupont Sweetgreen and was headlined by a Hot Chip DJ set—was in 2010, but Neman traces its roots back even further. In 2009, to help attract customers to that very same Dupont location, Neman and his partners played music from a makeshift DJ booth stationed up in front of restaurant. “It showed the community that we were more than just a restaurant,” says Neman.

Now that the festival is no longer housed behind a Sweetgreen—and is attended by thousands instead of hundreds—Neman’s mission is less about promoting the brand and more about working to maintain the public’s belief in its authenticity. Washington Post critic Chris Richards wrote a scathing review of last year’s Sweetlife, saying it and other music festivals actually disconnect young people from live music. “So teens spent their weekend drifting around the idyllic grounds of Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Md., chewing on lobster rolls and blow-torched doughnuts, and absorbing 31 musical acts in 21 hours through a mysterious form of millennial zombie osmosis,” he wrote.

In discussing the piece by “my good buddy Chris Richards,” Neman’s tone shifts. He agrees with Richards’s assessment about the boring sameness of festivals. “There has been a huge saturation of music festivals,” says Neman. “The same artists are essentially playing every single music festival.”

But, he doesn’t see eye to eye with anyone’s cynicism—he even looks back fondly on the Lamar incident. “At the end of the day we can slice and dice everyone,” says Neman. “The music business has changed. We just want to throw a damn good party.”

Sweetlife Festival takes place on Saturday at Merriweather Post Pavilion. Tickets can still be purchased here