On Friday, Verzuz postponed the Ashanti and Keyshia Cole battle set to air tomorrow night, breaking the hearts of R&B fans for a second time. “This has been an emotional week,” the VerzuzTV page posted on Instagram, citing Wednesday’s insurrection at the Capitol. “In addition, as COVID-19 numbers continue to increase, safety is a top priority for us. As much as we enjoy having everyone together in the same room, to protect the artists and everyone who works with us in putting the shows together, we’ll be going back to separate rooms for a bit.” Certainly, none of us want to continue watching Verzuz on whatever shoddy internet connection Teddy Riley was using, but this response reads as if COVID’s infection rates have not been increasing all along. It also makes one thing clear: Touring and live shows may have ceased, but the grandeur of celebrity keeps the haves and the have nots in completely separate worlds.
Swizz Beatz and Timbaland’s pivot to Instagram Live battles in March didn’t just redefine who gets to be considered a legacy artist, but it made celebrities look like humans. They were confined to their four walls too, and even if they were sheltering in place in mansions, they were trying to adjust to a new normal like the rest of us. In a matter of months, the series evolved from a camera-phone quality operation from remote locations to a more fleshed out production, via an Apple Music partnership. The show began uniting artists and entourages in relevant locations, like Bounty Killer and Beenie Man’s show in Jamaica (the series’ first in-person battle) and Gucci Mane and Jeezy’s Magic City takeover in Atlanta. With Verzuz, Swizz Beatz and Timbaland did what hip-hop has historically done: turn a shitty situation into a (virtual) party. The series’ success (with its viewership beating out 2020’s MTV VMA ratings) is a direct reaction to COVID and quarantine, but as time has passed, it began to feel like Verzuz’s in-person was largely ignoring the reason it began in the first place—until the series, and its participants, were forced to address the pandemic-sized elephant in the room.
In December, many prepared to time travel back to Y2K, breaking out our defunct two-way pagers to watch Ashanti and Keyshia Cole defend their titles as staples of R&B and hip-hop of the 2000s. But 2020 had other plans. “Hey yall I can’t believe I’m saying this but I tested positive for COVID-19,” Ashanti shared on Instagram. “I’m ok and not in any pain. I’m actually down to do the Verzuz from my house… We’re trying to figure it all out.”
A look at Ashanti’s Instagram page makes the unbelievable a lot more believable. In October, she celebrated her birthday in Antigua, and was vacationing in Nairobi when the Verzuz battle was announced. Days before her arrival, the CDC issued a travel notice naming Kenya a Level 4, the highest level, for COVID infections: “Travelers should avoid all travel to Kenya.” According to the notice, all travelers should be tested after their trips and quarantine for one week upon return. On December 8, Ashanti posted Verzuz merch, tagging Nairobi as her location, which seemed odd given that she was set to be in the same room as Keyshia Cole days later. But the next day, Nairobi News, a local paper, documented her arrival to the country. “Ashanti’s visit comes a few days before her most anticipated Verzuz battle with fellow RnB singer Keyshia Cole slated for Saturday, December 12, 2020,” the paper wrote. If you’re keeping up, you’re right: It would be impossible for Ashanti to return to the states in time in order to quarantine 7 days before sitting in a room with Keyshia Cole and a production team. But the larger question is, why was it scheduled when she was abroad to begin with?
Verzuz has been the closest thing we’ve gotten to live music in nearly a year. The news of yet another postponement stings, but it goes to show that the virus can affect everyone. A new year didn’t wash away the residue of how traumatic 2020 was, and experiencing an insurrection in the first week of 2021 didn’t make it any easier. Watching celebrities charter private jets and private islands to retain a sense of normalcy while 140,000 jobs in the US were lost in December alone and D.C. is in shambles is a grave reminder that the privilege of money transcends turmoil.
Kristin Corry is a Senior Staff Writer at VICE.
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