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Beyond Beychella: The Rise Of Women Of Color On America's Biggest Festival Stage

Apr 20, 2018

"Thank you for allowing me to be the first black woman to headline Coachella," Beyoncé said toward the end of her headlining set at Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival last Saturday while glistening with sweat and her waist-length, gold hair flowing in the fan-created breeze. The chart-topping Queen Bey paused for only a moment before scoffing, "Ain't that 'bout a bitch."

Bey's candid acknowledgment of this elephant in the desert simultaneously silenced any doubters and ignited her Beyhive.

It's hard to believe that at her level — arguably the best entertainer of this generation — that Beyoncé has dissenters. But of all people, the pop star's own mother admitted to being one before seeing her daughter's Saturday set succeed.

"I told Beyoncé that I was afraid that the predominately white audience at Coachella would be confused by all of the black culture and black college culture because it was something that they might not get," Tina Knowles wrote on Instagram after the Bey's history-making performance this past weekend — a presentation so impressive it received widespread critical acclaim and prompted a renaming of the fest in her honor. "Her brave response to me made me feel a bit selfish and ashamed. She said, 'I have worked very hard to get to the point where I have a true voice and at this point in my life and my career I have a responsibility to do what's best for the world and not what is most popular.'"

In terms of cultural references, concertgoers were treated to the blackest show Bey has probably ever put together. Both physically and metaphorically, she balled up and brought her blackness to the most privileged space in music. She not only highlighted the beautiful parts of black culture that inspire her (Fela Kuti, Nina Simone, Master P and more), she brought them to the forefront of her homecoming set to make a statement. Her success was not only the execution of the songs and steps — those type of wins have long since been synonymous with Bey as an entertainer — it was executing this central idea in a way that couldn't be ignored.

But Bey's triumph this past weekend (and the likely triumph still to come on April 21) was not just her own. It was only the tip of a crown in a more central place for women of color at Coachella; an indicator of mainstream and soon-to-be mainstream taste. Women of color are having a creative renaissance in popular music right now: Cardi B is the prince charming of her own Cinderella story for the Instagram era. SZA is writing songs empowering both the corner-crouching awkward black girl and the steadfast side chick. Kali Uchis is spinning tales of revenge and self-love to the tune of Spanglish, funk and doo-wop. Hayley Kiyoko is promoting LGBTQ love in the package of polished pop. Sudan Archives plucks and loops electric violin to the tune of spirituals and church choir hymns. Princess Nokia is stanning for oddball-out emo kids while jumping between rap and alt-rock. The common thread through it all is that these women are controlling their own stories as artists and that the mainstream is pushing those stories to the forefront. Coachella's 2018 festival lineup, which includes all of these acts, is a testament to this moment.

Although Coachella has been called out in the past for the lack of gender parity within its bookings, this year's lineup boasts a record number of women on the bill. Of the three-day lineup, which is repeated across two weekends, 55 of the 167 acts on the bill — whether band, duo or solo act — counts at least one woman member. Of those 55 acts, 24 include women of color.

Of course, Coachella has come to be known for selling out reliably before the full lineup is even announced. If anything, the bookers at Goldenvoice diversifying the lineup in this way is, considering the high stakes involved, a reflection of the demand for art by women of color by a wider audience. They are considered and acknowledged as central figures in music and the wider culture.

"I'm glad that it seems like the general public are trying to open themselves up to different types of music styles and ways of thinking," says Jillian Hervey of R&B duo Lion Babe, a returning act who performed the day after Bey's momentous set. "That's created a way for us to come in and be in these spaces [and] we can play the main stage, like, 'Yes, we're left of center but we still can give our message'."

This curation could be interpreted as a signal of shifting tastes in genre and of "fringe" acts moving towards the middle — and the faces represented in the crowd seem to have shifted along with them.

"We see more black people," says Ibeyi member Naomi Diaz when asked to compare the duo's first Coachella, in 2016, to this year.

"It's something that still has to improve, and it's complicated to improve when the tickets are so expensive. But I think what is incredible is walking around compared to the last time in 2016," says Lisa, Naomi's sister and bandmate. "There's so much more diversity of color, but also gender, and also of age."

Lisa has a point. Let's compare: Three-day general admission passes for Coachella started at $429 before taxes this year; for the dance music festival Ultra, $379 before tax; Governors Ball in New York starts at $305 before tax; and Lollapalooza in Chicago starts at $335 before tax for four days of music.

First-time attendees Jasmine Goudeau and Miesha McKinley came from Louisiana and started budgeting for their tickets when they heard Bey was guaranteed as a 2018 headliner a year in advance — something that, it's reasonable to assume, wasn't unique to them.

"I think this year is where they're trying to make a transition and a shift so that women of color feel empowered," McKinley says, "and our younger generations feel empowered and not feel marginalized. I appreciate the movement — not just for myself, but for my younger siblings."

Besides Bey, the most conversation-starting sets last weekend belonged to women of color. Main stage sets by rapper Cardi B and R&B singer SZA drew eyes in the fields and generated the most chatter on social media. Instagram reports that the 'most-buzzed-about first-time performer' on their app was Cardi B as well as the the third 'most-buzzed about' performer overall after Beyoncé and The Weeknd. SZA, a returning performer, was the fifth 'most-buzzed-about' artist overall.

Beyond these mid-tier boldface names, other acts featuring women of color understand and appreciate this shift.

"It's a special time for us," says Tank of Tank and the Bangas, a first-time performer at Coachella. "Bey and SZA and Nicki and Cardi, it's truly amazing. It always comes around every couple of years.You know they treat us sometimes like we're purses like, 'Oh, they're the trend now...black is the new black.' But it's an amazing time to be woman."

Contrary to Tank's assessment, this time the representation doesn't feel like a cyclical trend. For Goldenvoice, the parent company of Coachella and which also has a hand in festivals like FYF Fest in Los Angeles and Panorama in New York, these strategic bookings of minority women afford the promotion of their narratives that haven't gotten a chance to be amplified on their stages before.

"I remember growing up, I never had a gay Asian pop artist that I looked up to, so there's still room and space for people to come in," says singer Hayley Kiyoko, a first-time Coachella performer and openly gay pop artist. "Having all this space for women of color to perform, it allows space for people to look up to them and feel like, 'Yeah I have that opportunity.' I feel like everyone in the world is fighting for just opportunity and validation."

"All three of the headlining acts this year were urban," says Tori McCue, a repeat Coachella attendee from New York. "I hope that they take being at this festival that's traditionally very white and seeing how people of color and hip-hop and R&B are the dominant forces in pop culture right now and taking this art that black people are creating and actually thinking about it."

Heading into weekend two, Queen Bey, in all her infinite overachieving, is rumored to be bringing a different, "even more wild" performance to the main stage because, really, what's the point of leading a renaissance if you're going to repeat yourself?

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