The Tanning of Coachella: Beyoncé, Blackness, and the Collision of Cultures

Mrs Beyonce Knowles-Carter (Credit: Christopher Victorio)

In 2011, music executive and advertising guru Steve Stoute, released his book The Tanning of America: How Hip-Hop Created a Culture That Rewrote the Rules of the New Economy. Stoute analyzed how Black culture permeated mainstream America, going as far as proposing its swell helped Barack Obama get elected. 

Stoute and his readership may be the least surprised by the history-making dynamics of Coachella 2018, where Beyoncé became the first Black woman to headline the festival nearly twenty years into its existence.

Other Black headliners include Jay-Z, Dr. Dre & Snoop Dogg, Kanye West, and Drake — who might have come the closest in attracting the dynamic found throughout the Polo Grounds this year. 

And a decade ago, Prince became the first Black headliner at the festival, putting down a performance still talked about today. 

As the talent booked at Coachella evolves from its heavy Rock roots of the past to mirror what is considered cool today, the acts become Blacker, as does the audience. 

Afros, blowouts, and crisp line-ups clustered across the grounds more than any other time in the festival’s history, as noted by regular attendees, including one African-American woman, who brought out her cousins in her third year of attendance. 

“I’m loving it because Black people do it better. So they got on their goddamn Beyoncé outfits,” she said, adding that she’s met other Black people from the Southern states who made it to this year’s fest for the first time.  

Her cousin Danielle, of Desert Hot Springs, was among those at Coachella for the first time this year and spoke highly about the opportunity to get to know herself and music better. 

Niles Rodgers & CHIC (Christopher Victorio)

A chunk of this year’s first-timers were Black; aunties hanging out to hear Daniel Caesar perform or see Nile Rogers and Chic play childhood staples in living color. Others sarcastically twerked to Drum-n-Bass tracks with an aptitude that further distinguished them from the majority of the crowd. One girl hilariously threw up devil horns while an EDM track played.

It even seemed to have an effect on Coachella veteran Vince Staples who had his first experience playing the festival’s main stage, as he called it “the white people stage.” “Thank y’all for having my skinny black ass up here,” he said Friday during his sundown slot. “I know y’all don’t know who I am cause none of y’all look like me, but I don’t give a fuck.”

Air-conditioned hideouts, like the Absolut Openhouse, heard DJs drop the needle on tracks from Crime Mobb, Missy Elliott, and Too $hort, all function favorites that kept the space packed throughout the weekend. Such music choices displayed the house’s understanding of today’s cultural climate and especially that of the festival’s.

“The vibe we give is the vibe we get from the festival. What they want to feel, what they’re enjoying, and so we want to make sure that comes across at the tent,” says Carmen Muhammad, the Public Relations Manager for Absolut Vodka. “Hip-Hop is what is hot and people enjoy it. It’s another kind of music genre that everybody can get into for the most part, so why not?” she adds saying the heavy Rap vibe fits well into the festival this year.

Attendees venturing into the Silent Disco following each night’s performances ran into DJs serving tracks from Blocboy JB, Ty Dolla $ign, and the most playlisted tracks of right now. Much of the festival’s experience molds to the shape of the country’s hottest scene. And considering the lengths some travel from around the world to join the fun, the impact seeps out, magnifying the significance of the moment. 

Vince Staples (Credit: Christopher Victorio)

Considering the last 12 or so months in Black entertainment with films like Girl’s Trip wildly exceeding box office expectations, Black Panther breaking records, and Kendrick Lamar and Migos going #1, Coachella is right on time with their choice to embrace the zeitgeist now whizzing by.  

A friend of mine told me that last year when Beyoncé’s initial scheduling was revealed, billboards and advertisements for the festival could be found in Atlanta, the current hub for Black culture, leading one to believe this uptick in Afro representation was intentional. And since Goldenvoice need not worry about ticket sales, as Coachella sells out every year, the only reason for leaning so hard into this lane could be to maintain relevance. 

That relevance continued Saturday night following Beyoncé’s rattling set when she was responsible for each of the Top 10 trending topics on Twitter and the subject of most Instagram and Snapchat stories. 

One ticket broker shared with me that this year’s “get in” price was the highest it’s ever been going back to the fifteen years he’s been buying tickets for the event. Online, a VIP pass for the first weekend was on sale for $9,000 marked up nine times from it’s original price. Without a doubt names like David Byrne, Jean-Michel Jarre, and A Perfect Circle enticed buyers enough to pay above retail for entry, but the demand of this year’s showings steeps itself in the booking of names like Cardi B, Migos, Beyoncé and White acts performing Black music such as Eminem and Post Malone. 

As this “tanning” has taken hold of culture and intensified, Queen Bee, has too, evolved into a de facto pro-Black figure, peeling back the layers of her ethnicity to share with her ever diverse fanbase and empower those who speak and look like her. The song “Formation” unapologetically laid that out and brought her under the most controversy she’d ever faced in her career.  

Beyoncé, like many Black women before her, has come to symbolize the pinnacle of Black success. Her upholding of all things Black on Saturday night marked another of several recent wins for the culture. 

Naming the performance the “Beyoncé Homecoming Show,” she tapped into the rich history of Howard University and other HBCUs, recruiting a marching band, equipped with dancers to back her throughout the night. She even donated $100,000 to historically black colleges in the wake of her performance on Saturday. Yoncé also flew greek letters in the spirit of Black Greeks, flanked by faux fraternity members yelling and stomping, bringing to life films like School Daze, Drumline, and Stomp the Yard

Arrangements mashed her slew of solo hits with some of those same tracks being played at the Absolut Openhouse including C-Murder’s “Down for My Niggaz,” F.L.Y.’z “Swag Surfin’,” and Yung Joc’s “It’s Goin’ Down” further pushing open the currently ajar door into the culture. 

Coachella’s power comes largely from its ability to host important moments on their stages. This year, the fest continues with its championing of a scene that’s worked its way up from the bottom rungs of society to the hottest ticket in town. Whether it was a Destiny’s Child reunion or Dr. Dre’s cameo during Eminem’s set, another legendary occasion manifested itself on those Polo Grounds. 

The hot sauce type of flavor shaken onto Coachella 2018 brought a welcomed flair, creating a dynamic that, on the surface, seemed to work swimmingly. But will those vibes be as welcomed in the future? 

Where does the show go from here? 

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