Coachella’s Cultural Appropriation Problem
Issue 15, Volume 112
A Native American headdress with magenta feathers. West African dashikis with colorful patterns. Intricate henna snaking up arms cuffed by golden bangles. Each of these important symbols are worn by Coachella attendees year after year, often misappropriating and disrespecting cultures that many festival-goers neither belong to nor understand.
The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival has taken place annually in Indio, California’s Coachella Valley, since 1999. It’s famous for highly-anticipated performances, captivating design installations, and, less favorably, its participants’ questionable fashion choices. The festival takes place on two consecutive weekends in April, with hundreds of thousands of attendees visiting each weekend. This year, the festival took place from April 15 to 17 and April 22 to 24, with performances from headliners Harry Styles, Billie Eilish, Swedish House Mafia, and The Weeknd, as well as Lil Baby, Phoebe Bridgers, Giveon, Conan Gray, Doja Cat, and many more.
Not to be outshined by the bold fashion choices of the Coachella crowds, the musicians’ outfits were filled with the same drama and absurdity as the attendees’. From Harry Styles’s glitzy paillette jumpsuit to Conan Gray’s hot-pink Valentino dress, the stars embodied the fearless fashion that Coachella, at its best, strives for.
Over the past two decades, Coachella outfits have become more elaborate and outlandish, often tapping into the boho aesthetic that’s become intertwined with the festival’s identity. Bohemian fashion romanticizes the “gypsy” lifestyle associated with the Romani people, a traditionally nomadic group that’s been marginalized throughout history. The boho aesthetic is designed to be free-spirited and dreamy, with popular trends including skinny face-framing braids, flowy and florally patterned wrap dresses, fringed vests, and chunky jewelry. However, it’s not just the misappropriation of Romani culture that’s on full display at Coachella. Attendees can be seen wearing significant, and sometimes even sacred, clothing and jewelry from a vast range of cultures.
Many outfits take on a Western theme, mimicking the scenery of the Colorado Desert. They utilize suede fringe, concho belts, and Native American headdresses. Headdresses are sacred, and were worn by individuals honored for their bravery, such as the chief or a warrior. Today, they’re worn during rituals and celebrations, such as traditional wedding ceremonies or pow wows. When people who aren’t Native American wear headdresses, it erodes the honor of those who earned their headdresses and degrades Native American culture. This is especially true at festivals like Coachella, where scantily-clad party-goers can be seen wearing treasured symbols of pride for a culture that they have no rights to.
Likewise, the symbolic value of bindis is abused by Coachella attendees, who use them to casually accessorize their looks. Bindis are worn by South Asian women, and are associated with religion and indicative of marital status. In Hinduism, they’re symbolic of a third eye, which wards off bad luck and maintains a connection with God. They represent a complex belief system, and wearing them casually to accessorize a Coachella look dismisses their importance to religious and cultural practices.
Henna is another regular at Coachella and in Hollywood, with celebrities like Rihanna, Selena Gomez, and Vanessa Hudgens using it to complete their looks. However, it has immense cultural significance, and the practice dates back thousands of years in South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. Originally used for its natural cooling properties, henna temporarily stains skin with elaborate designs for celebrations and holidays. It’s commonly used in Hindi and Muslim weddings as a symbol of strength in marriage, with darker henna indicating a deeper love. Henna is also applied to celebrate births, as it symbolizes the promise of good health and fertility. In Islamic cultures, women apply henna during Ramadan and at Eid al-Fitr celebrations. During all of these events, henna brings women together to share their joy.
There’s a stark contrast between the millenia-old tradition and the purchasing of colorful henna kits online by festival attendees from companies profiting off of the appropriation of South Asian culture. Henna has become more mainstream in the United States, with companies marketing it as a DIY project to add “exotic” flare to everyday outfits and costumes. They veer away from traditional paisleys and peacocks, incorporating chevrons and arrows, as well as customizable touches like quotes, animals, or music notes. The henna advertised on social media has strayed far from the traditional practice, with the American market only paying it any attention when white people misappropriate it in an attempt to profit from the resulting trend.
This is also the case with the West African garments misappropriated by many Coachella attendees. Dashikis are loose-fitting tops with elaborate patterns in symbolic colors, usually featuring some variation of gold, red, green, blue, and white, with each color symbolizing a different value. When they’re worn by West Africans, the color combinations are carefully considered in order to project an image of spirituality, love, peace, purity, and other values. When people who aren’t of African ancestry wear dashikis, many don’t recognize the significance of the messages that these garments can convey.
In the Black community, there’s debate over whether or not African Americans have a right to wear dashikis. For some, they serve as a link to their African origins, as dashikis became prominent during the Black Pride movement in the 1960s and originally played a role in educating African Americans about their heritage. More recently, dashikis have been reinvented and worn as streetwear and sometimes are used as fashion statements by African Americans. Many West Africans feel that the dashiki has become too trendy in the western world, losing its meaning and impact. It’s about intention: when dashikis are worn thoughtfully and respectfully by African Americans who understand their historical significance, they can be a valuable tool for reclaiming their ancestry. However, when they’re worn merely as a fashion statement by a younger generation, they lose the qualities that make them powerful.
Many of these examples may seem relatively obvious, but matters of cultural appropriation are often far more blurry. American supermodel and fashion icon Gigi Hadid posed in Vogue Arabia wearing a hijab in March 2017. Hadid is of Dutch and Palestinian descent, and her father, who is Muslim, immersed her in his culture and religion from a young age. However, critics claimed that she was misappropriating a religious piece of clothing. They claimed that she was neither Palestinian enough nor Muslim enough to don a hijab. At Reebok’s Be More Human event, Hadid addressed the criticism, saying “I am as much Palestinian as I am Dutch…Just because I have blonde hair…I still carry the value of my ancestors.”
Although Hadid has ancestral claims to her culture and religion, she doesn’t wear a hijab on a daily basis and isn’t subjected to the same discrimination as women who do so are. Seeing that she has an international following and a huge influence on the fashion industry and popular culture, there is some validity in critiquing her for wearing a hijab for the sole purpose of the Vogue Arabia photoshoot.
Similarly, Grammy-winning pop star Halsey is frequently criticized for her natural hair, which she sometimes wears in box braids. Halsey, who identifies as a “white-passing” black woman, is biracial. When she revealed her natural curls on Instagram, she was accused of wearing a wig, and when she sported beautiful hip-length box braids, she was accused of cultural appropriation. Due to her light skin tone, people are quick to judge the way she chooses to wear her hair. “[I] have never tried to control anything about black culture that’s not mine. I’m proud to be in a biracial family, I’m proud of who I am, and I’m proud of my hair,” she explained in a 2017 interview with Playboy.
Cultural appropriation is an issue with a lot of nuances. When people jump to conclusions about someone’s religious or ethnic background based on the way they look instead of their cultural expression, it can lead to unfounded accusations of misappropriation. However, in instances where one has no ancestral ties to or knowledge of the culture they’re representing, their actions are wrong, even if they claim to be “celebrating” that culture. It’s not their place to actively and personally celebrate someone else’s culture; it’s their place to respect it.