What It's Like to Be a Black Woman at Coachella
Last weekend at Coachella, about five different drunk people tried to touch my hair without asking. I was questioned about why I was in certain areas while it was taken for granted that other (white) people were just supposed to be there. And I was asked by security — more than once — to show my wristband, after I'd already swiped for entry. This wasn't a fluke. “Honestly, more often than not I am the only person who looks like me around,” Wilhelmina model and Revolve influencer Uche Nwosu told InStyle of her Coachella experience.
Even a cursory glance at festival hashtags including #Coachella and #Lollapalooza reveals that despite the influence of black creativity on popular culture, music festivals remain alarmingly white. A 2018 Nielsen Music 360 report found that 52 percent of Americans attend some sort of live music event every year, but according to another Nielsen study published in 2010, within the “prime festival demographic” of 18- to 35-year-olds, a mere 13 percent of attendees were black. This disparity puts a sad dissonance on display. On the one hand, black performers often receive top billing: Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, and Childish Gambino — all of whom have explored the complexity of their black identities through their music — have taken the Coachella main stage. But they were performing for mostly white audiences.
Last year the festival tapped Beyoncé as the first black female headliner in its 20-year history. Her performance was undoubtedly a landmark, but for black audiences in particular, it was special because it was an unapologetic ode to them. From sampling Fela Kuti, Nina Simone and Sister Nancy to her inclusion of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” to the loving treatment of Black Greek letter organizations, the performance truly encompassed the diaspora. The widespread celebration of “Beychella” might've made the festival feel “post-racial,” but to black influencers who were there — and returned this year — the scene still isn't as inclusive as it could be.
“I definitely do believe that there's a lot of under-representation for women of color,” added Nwosu from the Revolve festival (the brand hosts its own mini-festival outside of the Coachella grounds), alongside her boyfriend, trainer and fitness influencer Clinton Moxam. “I do think it's tough when it's really whitewashed at times. Even for me it's been a little hard getting into it. We both started on an MTV show, which gave us a little bit of exposure, but I definitely have experienced discrimination.” Both Nwosu and Moxam first found fame on millennial dating show Are You the One? And as Nwosu notes, the exposure they received from their time on TV helped open up spaces where they previously felt unwelcome.
For black attendees who don't have the protection of social influence or a VIP experience, Coachella can mean standing in majority white crowds while they yell triggering lyrics at the top of their lungs with zero regard for how it makes anyone else feel. I actually left YG's set early, tired of having the N-word screamed around me, and that wasn't the only set in which that happened. At another (mostly white) party, the DJ played a dance remix of Childish Gambino's “This is America,” which was received rather ecstatically as a turn-up anthem, effectively draining the song of any deeper meaning. It was an odd experience, considering the dialogue the song and video sparked about America's historical violence against black bodies. However, looking around me, it was clear the context had been divorced from the song; no one else at the party connected to it in that way.
Last year, Revolve experienced social media push back via the hashtag #RevolveSoWhite for the perceived lack of diversity in its influencer pool, with comments like, “where are the people that look like me?” as Teen Voguereported at the time. But at this year's party, Kinya Claiborne (pictured above), editor-in-chief of Style & Society Magazine, who has been attending Coachella primarily for its surrounding events for a decade, said she feels that the brand does prioritize inclusivity.
“My experience with Revolve is that they've been very inclusive. I started working with them about a year ago. I'm an African-American woman so I'm not your typical cookie-cutter image of an influencer that you probably think you would see at Revolve. I'm a little bit older than most influencers and I don't have a million followers on Instagram. I'm not a model. I'm also not 6-feet-tall and 100 pounds.” Yet with over 40 thousand Instagram followers, a successful publication and on-air credits under her belt, Claiborne's age and race actually hold inherent value to a brand that has struggled with diversity.
TV personality Cierra Brooks was also pleasantly surprised by her Coachella experience. “My whole perspective and everything has changed,” she admitted. “At first I was like, I don't know. I don't really want to go,” she says — she'd always thought Coachella attracted exclusively white crowds and worried that between microaggressions and overt prejudice, like what I experienced, she might be made to feel unwelcome. “You can't knock it until you try it. Plus there were actually more black people than I expected at the events.”
Even events where there have been whispers of one-note guest lists seemed to attempt to be more conscious of their demos this year. The 1Oak pop-up, for instance, hosted singer Justine Skye and models Duckie Thot and Jasmine Tookes as celebrity guests. Additionally, the DJ broke with the normal top 40 club playlist to spin music by African artists like Davido, Wizkid and Mr. Eazi (who performed at Coachella for the first time this year). Over the years, 1Oak has been accused of exclusionary behavior, particularly regarding black women.
Longtime Coachella-goers like Claiborne are slowly seeing shifts. “I definitely think there are more people of color than when I first started going. I think before, Coachella was much smaller, it used to only be one weekend, and it was a lot of indie artists. Now it's changed to mainstream blockbuster artists and that has brought new demographics.”
Others are taking a more active part in that change. Lifestyle and wellness coach Daver Campbell saw an opportunity to create more inclusivity around Coachella's wellness experiences. This year he launched Tha Sanctuary, a black-owned and operated wellness house that provided influencers relief from the desert heat in the form of complimentary personalized fitness classes, vitamin IV drips, guided meditation, and one-on-one healing sessions. “Wellness is a 4.2 trillion dollar industry,” he told InStyle, “but when you look at the demographics of a lot of wellness programs, and even the influencer serving wellness activities at Coachella, they are mostly white. Unfortunately, people tend to think of self-care as a luxury that only very wealthy people can access.” Consider Gwyneth Paltrow's goop devotees, or even Kourtney Kardashian's new site Poosh, both of which offer products and lifestyle advice tailored to a certain echelon of consumer.
“We already have huge racial disparities in the healthcare system so it was important to me to create a space that was inclusive and put every guest in the driver's seat of their healing,” Campbell added. “Curating a Coachella space that offered options for those who might not always have access to these experiences felt right.”
For singer-songwriter Anne Dereaux, who has been attending Coachella for five years, Beyoncé's performance last year was ultimately a reminder that until black attendees are brought in from the fringes, like performers of color have been, the uncomfortable festival dynamics will remain.
“It made me realize that this festival is and always has been an event catered to a specific demographic,” she said. “While black people are often a spectacle, they are rarely the consumer. The year of Beyoncé was palpably more diverse, and this year there were pockets of safe spaces, mostly at parties, especially Instagram's Desert Chill. Even still, it was largely back to white boys screaming YG lyrics,” she said. “Half of them walked out when he performed ‘Fuck Donald Trump,' though.”