“This Is The Whitest Thing I’ve Ever Seen”: Notes From a First Festival


At 22, Samatha Nemana attended her first music festival. “It’s become a thing you have to do at least once,” she says on her first day. Luckily for the New Jersey native and NYU grad, she was attending a festival in a city that she’s been living in for four years and has known her entire life. Being a jaded New Yorker, she went in with few expectations, actually not even psyching herself up too much for the weekend. As Sam reflects, “The key to being content with your life is to not have expectations.”

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After attending more than a few festivals myself, it was interesting to watch a good friend experience one for the first time. Having told her all of my funniest stories of music festivals past, I was mostly excited to watch her react to the same things that happen at all of these events: people in weird outfits on weird drugs acting weird during decent bands. I remembered my first Lollapalooza at 15 when I had been excited to see Pearl Jam headline, met Patti Smith, and smelled weed for the first time. It was one of the best weekends of my life and felt thrillingly cool to be a part of. Annabel Finkel, 16, had a similarly great time at her first festival. Having only attended the first day of Gov Ball, she was able to see acts like the 1975 and Grimes. “I had the best day,” she says the day after. “I’m super exhausted now, but I definitely want to go again next year!” For her, the festival was a “happy place,” filled with dancing people, cool outfits, and free ice cream.

While Sam enjoyed the festival, it wasn’t exactly her favorite place to be. “What I always assumed is that [Governors Ball] would be a chill, indie crowd given what people who have gone have told me,” she says. “However, it was a super festival-y crowd.” She expanded on her use of “festival-y,” noting that it was similar to Cornell’s annual Slope Day events she would attend to visit friends where “a bunch of frat bros hang out on a lawn and drunkenly listen to music.” As it’s been continuously noted over the past few years, festivals are less and less about the music and more about being seen and able to say that you have been to a music festival. Sam, while also a person who prefers to see concerts in more intimate settings, found the culture of the festival distracted from the music, a huge part of what attracted her to Gov Ball. Acts like Jenny Lewis, Neko Case, and Interpol were some old favorites of hers that she was delighted to see (even though she briefly confused Interpol for Incubus).

We arrived to Randall’s Island on Friday in time to catch the 1975 play their mid-afternoon set. Immediately, she turned to me to say “this is the whitest thing I have ever seen.” The first festival staple she noticed was the sporting of fashion bindis, prompting her to start a “bindi count” over the course of the weekend. She reached 30. Harem skirts and someone wearing “some Urban [Outfitters] type shirt with Ganesha” were some other fashion offenders.

“I was really distracted by [the cultural appropriation],” says Sam. “I can’t say I’ve never seen it on such a large scale, but it seemed to be a scene where it was almost accepted.” Sam’s family comes from Andhra Pradesh, a state in South India on its Eastern coast. As a kid, she viewed the appropriation of Indian culture in fashion or music as a desire for people to learn about the culture and educate themselves. “The older I get the more I understand that people aren’t really supporting Indian culture or trying to learn about it. They’re just sporting something because it looks pretty, and that’s just not enough.”

The intersections of minority cultures with “white” culture is something both of us considered a lot over the weekend, especially given where we were. As someone who is black and personally uncomfortable with the use of the ‘n-word,’ I find my awareness of people saying the word at shows to be heightened. I couldn’t help hearing its use from the mouths of white fans rapping along at the Sunday afternoon Odd Future block, whether I liked it or not.

“I was thinking about where the line is between cultural appropriation and self-expression,” says Sam the morning after Gov Ball ended. “In this day and age, you’re exposed to so many different cultures that you can’t help but absorb them. Is it fair for me to say ‘you can’t wear Indian clothes or put on a bindi because you’re not Indian?’ At the same time, you shouldn’t express yourself with a stereotype. What exactly are you expressing when you put on a bindi?”

For her, a lot of her “angry, minority rage” as she calls it, comes from the appropriation of Indian culture not being taken as seriously as the appropriation of other cultures. “There’s this Western thing where Eastern cultures get dismissed as being ‘uncivilized,'” she says. “That’s why that girl wearing the Ganesha t-shirt was really offensive to me because I don’t know if she knows the symbolism behind the figure in our religion. Hinduism is seen as a ridiculous polytheistic religion, and it’s much more complex than that.”

The same can be said for the bindi, which symbolizes chakra and represents a power center. Hindi women wear them every day, and it used to be worn by both men and women as a symbol of intellect. While some aspects of the bindi’s meaning vary by area, its main purpose is to serve as a power center.

Overall, Sam enjoyed getting to hang out with friends and see genuinely great bands (though she feels headliner Vampire Weekend was “good but not great”). Her return to future music festivals would be heavily dependent on the line-up. “The idea of a festival is really great, but the scene of the festival is not my crowd,” she reflects. “Because festival culture is now composed of people who go to festivals to be at festivals, I don’t think it was as great.”

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