The Coachella Valley Arts and Music Festival, California’s festival supreme, had big shoes (and stages) to fill for 2019.
Welcoming its 20th anniversary this spring, the historic desert fiesta has ripened into a musical and cultural melting pot since its 1999 genesis. Every year, the organizers of AEG Live’s Goldenvoice amass a myriad of the creative world’s most eclectic tastes, sounds, style and visual arts into two weekends.
Its lineup teems with some of the most prevailing, epochal musical talents of all influences, from Hollywood’s most powerful A-list entertainers to grassroots bands that are only a few live performances away from cracking the stubborn mainstream glass ceiling. Befittingly, Coachella’s embryonic stages were rooted in grassroots efforts also.
After delivering a successful one-off concert in 1993 by grunge rock band Pearl Jam in Indio, California’s Empire Polo Club – the official residence of the annual fest – Goldenvoice financially faltered beneath the weight of larger concert and entertainment production companies four years later.
Paul Tollett, Coachella’s co-founder, pivoted to the idea of an all-inclusive music festival as a result of the shortcoming. Tollett took to England’s Glastonbury Festival to promote the idea to talent managers and emerging artists in hopes that the strategically designed pamphlets he handed out depicting a summery, paradisiacal music festival experience would attract their participation. It worked.
What began as a 37,000-attendee event struggling to meet the return on its investment (and toppled Goldenvoice into a financial hole for two years in its trial-and-error phases) grew to one of the world’s most popular multi-million dollar-grossing, multi-stage and multifarious live concert forces that it is now.
Setting the stage for other music festivals of its kind, like Chicago’s Lollapalooza, Tennessee’s Bonnaroo and New York’s Governor’s Ball, Coachella’s cultural impact became a blueprint for live concert experiences everywhere.
But even in establishing itself as a cultural staple and attaining several milestones in its two-decade lifespan, Goldenvoice still had more gaps to fill in music’s history book, which turned a page when global megastar musician and performer Beyoncé took center stage in 2018. Touted as “BeyChella,” the Queen Bey upgraded Coachella’s landmark moments as the first Black female headliner in all of its history. Ain’t that ‘bout a b*tch?
The extolled HBCU-homaging spectacle – which received a deep-dive Netflix documentary treatment – not only introduced the most brilliant essence of Blackness the Coachella stage had ever witnessed, but furthered the years-long conversation on exactly how culturally inclusive and culturally conscious Coachella is.
Among the festival’s loudest of cacophonies are the controversies around whiteness in its most negligent forms, which send the eyes of Black Twitter rolling to the back of their collective heads every year.
Navigating the swarms of white attendees infamously known for their mosh-pitting, culturally appropriating, “n” word-spewing tendencies under scorching desert conditions would be an understandable turnoff for most Black people. While New Orleans’ Essence Fest and New York’s Afropunk, for example, aim to offer Black festival-goers a safe space away from such vexatious environments, the lure of Coachella’s annual megastar headliners, double weekend-long festivities and West Coast bliss is still a powerful incentive for a live concert experience that prides itself on embracing everyone.
Still, that’s not to say that culture-specific festivals designed for cultural niches and communities within music fandom are unnecessary. If that were the case, Goldenvoice’s country music Stagecoach festival, which follows up Coachella’s closing weekend and is often designated as its “sister festival,” would be redundant, at best.
The matter of whether California needs its own version of Coachella tailored to the preferences and needs of Black festival-goers comes into question. BET dropped in on Coachella’s second weekend to learn how some of its Black attendees felt about the idea, and their opinions on a “Black Coachella” were surprisingly varied:
“Yeah. New York has Afropunk, so we do need our own music festival. The more spaces for Black people, the better. Not a lot of Black people are in California, so it would be nice to have that kind of space.” — Mikhail, 26
“I don’t necessarily think we need a Black Coachella, I just think we need more Black artists at Coachella. I feel like there’s a lot of good representation at this specific Coachella. We have Childish [Gambino], we have Lizzo, we have Playboy Carti. There’s a ton of Black artists, and I think that even a lot of other ethnicities—Asians, white people—do enjoy listening to Black music. So, I don’t think we need a separate festival, we just need more representation. Starting with last year, we had Beyoncé, and that changed the direction that Coachella has been going. This year, we have Childish headlining, so I think they’re trying to integrate more representation, and I think we’re on the right path. I don’t have any complaints. —Mesgana, 26
“Not a Coachella at this scale, but maybe [California’s] own Essence Fest, California-style. I was just talking about expanding and adding more Black artists to the roster, actually. That would draw more people of color to the festival. We do have hip-hop and Anderson .Paak, for example, but when you look at the entire lineup, it’s a small proportion. No one will ever top Beyoncé’s moment last year, though. I think that opened the door to the idea [of more Black inclusion.]” —Stacey, 44
“I don’t think California needs a Black Coachella. Just look around—music doesn’t have a color. Coachella could do better with having a variety of Black artists. If you compare it to Essence Fest, there is a drastic difference. This is my first music fest, so I’m just soaking it in, but if you want to see more people of color, that starts with the lineup.” —Darren, 42
“Just bring Afropunk to L.A. [Beyonce’s] Beychella was banging, though. It brought a lot of Black people here. Coachella could be doing way better with implementing Black artists on its roster. There’s great Black artists here already, but I think you can always do better when it comes to representation of the culture. There’s never enough of us, ever. I think 'Black Coachella’ isolates people too much, so it should be its own thing. We can make our own thing, or Afropunk should come to L.A.” —Kelsey, 30
“California for sure needs a Black Coachella, we just wouldn’t call it that. We can’t exclude everyone else either, but having the lineup lead with Black artists and sprinkle in artists from other ethnicities would be the idea. I feel like a lot of major festivals know hip-hop, and R&B is the music that attracts a lot of fans, so of course they include them because that’s where the money is at. But for real representation, California should have a music fest that’s specific to Black people.” —Caleb, 22
“No, because the minute you add ‘Black’ to something, white people will come flocking to it and then it defeats the purpose. I think Afropunk, Essence Fest and even Roots Picnic are doing a great job putting on for the culture right now in the music festival space, so it’s important for us to just keep supporting and showing up to those festivals how we’re showing up to this one. Our coins matter, and if we’re buying tickets at festivals and events created for us, there won’t be a need for a Black Coachella. We can make those fests just as big as this one.” —Tatyana, 29
(Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Coachella)