On Friday night, Bad Bunny (aka Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio) made history at Coachella, and not with a new collab or hit song (he has plenty to choose from, but got to that later). Bad Bunny was the very first Latin American artist to headline the festival. He kicked off his two hour-long set with a video, played before he arrived on stage. Speaking entirely in Spanish, the artist emphasised that, whatever happened on stage during the next 120 minutes, the fact he was on this particular stage at all was a big deal. “The sun and the moon have witnessed epic moments, magical nights. Artists have found their purpose, their inspiration, the answer to all their questions, that perhaps weren’t questions in the first place. Here, history has been made thousands of times,” Bad Bunny said over a montage highlighting the festival’s past headliners. “My head is spinning. It’s incredible to see the list of all the other artists that have performed on this stage. So many of them, but no one like me. It’s the first time a Benito closes the festival. It may be the first time, but perhaps not the last time.”
There were plenty of other firsts this weekend. Alongside the Puerto Rican artist, K-pop group Blackpink became the first K-pop artists to ever headline, and R&B singer Frank Ocean returned to the stage, performing for the first time since 2017. For the first time in the festival’s 24-year history, it was headlined entirely by nonwhite artists.
It was a big moment. Standing in the crowd during Bad Bunny’s set, you felt like you were a part of something pretty great. The crowd, made up of both Latine and non-Latine fans, sang along enthusiastically in Spanish; embracing the language, culture, and community Benito was celebrating. At one point, the rapper asked the crowd if they’d prefer he speak in English or Spanish. The answer was a resounding yes to the latter.
For Tiffany Nguyen, watching Blackpink perform to a crowd of Blinks — as the band’s fans are known — was a surreal experience. The 25-year-old traveled from Mississippi to attend Coachella for the first time specifically for the fan fave girl group, after connecting with their music three years ago. As an Asian American woman, “I resonate with [their music] because it's nice to see women who look like me on this stage getting some representation,” Nguyen told Refinery29.
This hasn’t always been the case. Like Hollywood, academia, and pretty much any space steeped in systemic racism, the music industry in the United States has long been overwhelmingly male and white, both in front of and behind the mic. This lack of visibility and diversity has historically applied to music festivals as well. While statistics on racial diversity at festivals like Coachella are limited, a 2020 survey from Beatportal looked at race when it comes to electronic musical festivals. The survey found that out of 34 mainstream music festival lineups around the world, 76% of artists booked were white. While there aren’t hard stats, a look at headliners past indicates that the racial diversity at Coachella is probably similar to that of dance music festivals. Between 2009 and 2018, of the 32 headliners, only eight were artists or duos of colour.
Coachella has had a mix of diverse performers since 2018, the year Beyoncé and The Weeknd both headlined alongside Eminem. But what makes the 2023 festival unique is the fact that two of the headliners don’t primarily sing in English.
Nguyen, an avid festival goer and music lover, says the majority of festivals she’s been to have typically featured non-diverse headliners. These are artists she may have loved, but hasn’t always been able to relate to on a personal level. Having her first Coachella feature artists like Jackson Wang, Burna Boy, and Diljit Dosanjh — the first Punjabi singer to perform at Coachella — and having fans come out in droves for a K-pop group like Blackpink is a big deal. “It shows that people are much more open to Asian culture and accepting of us, especially in today's time.”
“It shows where the world is going in terms of diversity, and how barriers aren't holding us back anymore,” Nguyen says. “Especially for people who look like me, for people who look like Bad Bunny, and for people who look like Frank Ocean. No barriers are holding us back.”
“It's incredible,” agrees music industry executive Matthew Cancel. “We're finally having a moment within music that celebrates walks from all over the world.” The founder and CEO of Cancel Communications, Cancel has co-produced events from The Met Gala to NYFW, working with clients in the entertainment industry. Festival lineups, he says, have become more diverse over the past several years; a shift seen in other places in the industry too. In August of last year, Cancel attended the VMAs, which saw performers like J Balvin, Bad Bunny, and Annita perform and proudly represent their communities. “Throughout the night we heard songs in Spanish, Portuguese and Korean,” Cancel says. “I remember thinking, ‘the US mainstream audience has finally embraced global artists. This is going to change the way [people] experience music.’”
That includes changing the experience for artists themselves. “I'm excited because that means I'm kind of a part of history a little bit,” says rapper Flo Milli, who performed at Coachella for the first time this weekend.
For the members of boundary-breaking Mexican American band Conexión Divinia, the first all-women Gen Z sierreño group, who also had their Coachella debut this weekend, more diversity in the festival line-up means an opportunity for them to be that representation they always hoped to see growing up. “This event is revolutionary,” singer Liz Trujillo says. “Because it has been a long ass time where we're not represented…we didn't have any other people of colour, up there. Us being part of that, I’m honoured.” And seeing diverse artists like Bad Bunny as headliners at a massive festival like Coachella gives artists like Conexión Divinia hope for their own career trajectory.
Since Coachella launched 22-years ago, community-specific and more diverse music festivals have popped up across the country, like Broccoli City Festival in Washington DC and Afrofest in New York City. And while these festivals are essential, indicative of the need and value in creating spaces for specific communities, there’s still something to be said for being recognised within the spaces that are still viewed as places of power. The reality is that performing at Coachella can be a career-maker.
“I feel like I'm hitting a milestone,” Milli, who partnered with Depop and Amex at the festival says. “I can remember when I was a kid, wishing and praying for [this]. Coachella is a big deal for me. It's not like a regular festival. I feel like once you make it at Coachella, you're the real deal.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean everything is changing for the better in the desert. For Cancel, while headliners have become more diverse, everything around the fest has remained the same — “incredibly elitist and white-washed,” Cancel says. That includes excluding the Latine community that makes up a large majority of Coachella Valley, where the festival has been held since 1999. As Kaitlyn, a 22-year-old La Quinta resident told SOMOS ahead of the festival the cost for many residents is inaccessible, “A lot of people I know can barely afford to go,” she says. “The price of a ticket plus everything else could be rent.”
“We have a long way to go in terms of minority groups having access to these types of cultural moments,” Cancel says. “If you're not sponsored by a brand, getting here is incredibly expensive. If you're looking to get sent out by a brand, this takes power, access, and connections and a lot of these opportunities are very hard to penetrate if you're not cis, white, rich and connected.”
For Cancel, the answer is for festivals like Coachella to go “back to basics,” focusing more on the music and fostering of community than influencer posts and VIP parties. Whether or not that’s actually feasible remains to be seen, as does whether or not this bid for diversity remains a constant. Until then, the women of Conexión Divinia are celebrating this historic moment, and planning for the next. “We’re manifesting it,” Trujillo says. “We’re manifesting in two years, we’re gonna be headliners.”