The Uncomfortable Whiteness of America's Most Famous Music Festivals
he flashy multiculturalism of music festivals presents a seemingly harmonious alternative to the racial tensions that bristle in society at large. Now at blockbuster events like Coachella, Kendrick Lamar is able to weave tales of the black experience to massive audiences, and a new generation of stars with intersectional identities can capture the imagination of the crowd. But no cultural phenomenon can be divorced from the tectonic social processes underlying it.
In the heady optimism of the early Obama years – which coincided with the stateside festival industry’s sixfold attendance boom – the phrase “post-racial” began to creep into the lexicon, and music festivals began promoting themselves as spaces where lofty ideals could be realized. On grassy fields and under big tops, differences of race, gender and sexual orientation are supposedly set aside in pursuit of a diverse, multicultural harmony-via-hedonism. In terms of race, this has proven to be a half-truth. On stage, America’s deep pedigree of black influence rings loud and clear, but look out over the crowd at most major music festivals, and more often than not you’ll see a sea of white faces.
The makeup of Americans aged 18-35, the prime festival demographic, is 58% white, 13% black, 5% asian, 20% hispanic, as of the 2010 census. Numbers drawn from Nielsen suggest that white people comprise 69.2% of the festival-going public, which in itself is not an overwhelming over-representation, but direct statistics from single festivals paint a different picture. Burning Man, not a music festival per se, but still a preeminent entity in festival culture, released figures in 2014 listing their attendees as 87% white. In a 2013 poll on the festival’s website, Coachella-goers were only 4.9% black.
Music publicist Michelle Kambasha detailed her experiences as a black woman attending predominantly white festivals in the UK. “When I’m asked: ‘Why are you at this [insert any indie band] show?’ and I explain that it’s because I do their press, I know what they’re really asking is: “Why don’t you do press for someone black, because you’re black?’,” she wrote in 2016. “It is as if my race inherently makes me underqualified.” In her piece she mentioned Britt Julious, the music writer and Guardian contributor who created Blackfork – an annual headcount of black people she sees at Pitchfork festival in her hometown of Chicago. After attending this year’s Coachella festival, Teen Vogue journalist Jessica Andrews wrote about what she dubbed “Coachellappropriation” ie white attendees borrowing style from other groups (bindis, dashikis and braiding their hair). “Black hairstyles are not ‘lewks to try’ when you want to feel ‘edgy’, only to discard them once you’re bored and ready to retreat back to your privileged bubble,” she wrote.
On stage, music festival line ups are far more diverse than they were even a decade ago. But that shift has brought with it new problems. The past few years in particular has seen most mainstream festivals swing their booking heavily to include hip-hop and R&B. The Coachella lineup in 2007 gave no hip-hop acts top billing – although further down the order acts such as Ghostface Killah and Pharoah Monche could be found. A decade later, five of 20 bill-toppers were hip-hop, and if Beyonce had not dropped out, two of the three headlining acts would have been black. The trend continues at electronic music festivals such as HARD Summer. In 2012, its urban elements were limited to Albanian American chef turned rapper Action Bronson, Canadian electronica producer Lunice and funk veteran Bootsy Collins – out of more than 50 acts. This year’s edition features Snoop Dogg, Rae Sremmurd and Migos as headliners topping a bill that’s hip-hop heavy.
But the inclusion of certain manifestations of hip-hop at festivals where audiences are majority white doesn’t sit well with everyone. “It’s awful for me,” says Matthew Morgan, founder of the globetrotting Afropunk festival. “Participating in an audience, particularly with rap lyrics, when you have a majority white crowd using the n-word, it’s a very uncomfortable environment.” This awkward appropriation of other cultures rankles many artists who perform at the very same festivals. Underground house and techno DJ Seth Troxlersuggests the fault is shared between the artists, the audience and the festivals themselves. “The imagery and music that a lot of these rappers are putting out focuses on the negative aspects of ethnicity,” he says. “It attracts a culturally ignorant crowd.”
To Morgan, it’s a case of opportunism and greed. “These promoters predominantly don’t care, because they’re selling tickets,” he says. For Troxler it’s business as usual for an industry that’s rarely been interested in ethics. “I don’t think, at any point, most people in the music industry are concerned about the welfare of the music they choose to promote or the implications of their decisions,” he says. “You have this weird cultural system in place where for a black person to be successful, it’s like indentured servitude.”
“In music, just like sports, black people are allowed to participate on the front-end, but we have no say in the back-end,” adds Morgan. “If you pulled back the curtain of the music industry, people would be shocked. When booking Afropunk, I work with hundreds of agents, and only two of them are black.”
Therein lies the reason for the glaring dissonance between the intent and effect of the festival industry’s push for diversity: those in executive positions, from the record label to the management to the promoters to the corporate sponsors, are usually caucasian.
A positive trend counteracting this is niche festivals that are driven by cultural production more than profit. Festivals like Tyler the Creator’s Camp Flog Gnaw in Los Angeles and Nyansapo in Paris approach Afro-centric intersectionality in a similarly progressive fashion, because they’re made with input from black and minority individuals behind the scenes as well as on stage and in the audience.
Afropunk has editions in New York, London, Paris, Atlanta, and Johannesburg, and features a predominantly black lineup that intersects hip-hop, punk, blues, soul, pop, queer and dance culture. “Putting a black audience in front of black artists is cathartic,” says Morgan. “It’s absolutely imperative that we participate in feeling good about serving a community with music that is created from our community.”