Cultural Appropriation != Outlaw Culture

Can alternative communities wake up enough to ever significantly oppose the white supremacist control of resources? Or, are hip, white revelers being trained through “outlaw culture” to be the shock troops of gentrification, the ones at the edge of their culture who establish colonies, er, communes and collectives, which eventually make it safe for the big investors to move in?

I should have known I was asking for trouble when I decided to attend Bonnaroo, which Rolling Stone called “the American rock festival to end all festivals.” Held on 700 acres in Middle Tennessee (only 50 miles from my home), the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival sells 90,000 tickets at about $200 each for its four-day event. My boyfriend and I decided to go because we wanted to see Femi Kuti (son of legendary Nigerian Afrobeat musician Fela Kuti) perform and we could get in for free by agreeing to perform at what we thought would be the radical stage.

I sent Bonnaroo a description of my performance, which I told them would utilize satire, juggling and stilt-walking to explore the “racial history of Tennessee and how that has created the current white supremacist culture.” They freaked. While they assured me that they are not racist, they said they could not publicize such a description because they had to be mindful of how the festival impacted the local community and they could not risk being offensive. I should have pulled out, but I was really looking forward to seeing Femi Kuti. In the sweltering June heat, we raced back from the G8 Summit protests in Georgia to head for the festival. After the G8 I was in the mood for amazing music. In short, I placed satisfying my desires above thinking clearly about the mentality that silences discussion of racism and white supremacy. Bonnaroo accepted a more generic description of my performance (which essentially did not say anything) and we proceeded as planned.

What a shock to arrive at this farm in Manchester, Tennessee, and find an extremely open drug culture. Before our tent was set up we were offered many different drugs for sale. I have never seen so many dreadlocks in my life. We’re talking zillions of white hippies with dreadlocks.

Cool man, dreadlocks. I am aware that there is lots of debate about whether it is ok for white folks to have dreadlocks. I am not crazy for the idea of European Americans taking on the fashions of oppressed cultures. The hipeoisie reeks of too much mockery. A party held in Montreal with the theme “Cowboys& Indians & Rastafarians” showed how the dominant culture ridicules “exotic” communities. Our local weekly had another example of how dreads are viewed as cultural capital when a white person sports them: “With her dreadlocks and earthy sultriness, vocalist Sellick succeeds in bringing jazz standards to the hacky-sack crowd.” Yep, white folks with dreads can make cultures accessible. In my world of dreaming the impossible I fantasize that thousands of white folk will get together and cut off their dreads, pledging their hip hairdo energy will instead go into strengthening their efforts as allies to African Americans.

Maybe I just need to lighten up. Well, back to Bonnaroo: After less than an hour there I had serious doubts about how entertained this crowd would be by my stage explorations of race history and land theft.

There were some radical performers and people grooved on it. The first rocker we checked out was Patti Smith. She sang about remembering Martin Luther King, Jr.:

Awake from your slumber

And get ‘em with the numbers

Get ‘em with the numbers

Long live revolution.

I wasn’t trying to be cynical, but having just come from the G8 where there were merely hundreds of protestors amidst 20,000 cops, it was hard to see how this crowd of thousands of mostly white people (I’d guess far less than 10% of the audiences were people of color) cheering on Patti Smith was going to usher in a revolution.

I paid more attention to the festival environment and its many different venues and stages. Bonnaroo set up checkpoints at certain concert entrances to keep bottles and coolers, etc. out of certain areas and to keep areas free of concertgoers while they cleaned the grounds. Tens of thousands of people walked from stage to marketplace to stage under the blazing hot sun, then waited in lines. Nearly all of the workers standing in the open sun at the checkpoints were African Americans. All day long impatient hippies agitated to get in quicker. I couldnít tell if anyone was thankful to the workers. There were lots of visible white workers there too. They were mostly driving around in shaded golf carts or working in shaded concession tents.

It dawned on me that Bonnaroo has managed to create the largest Hippie Plantation, with Black workers (largely bussed in from Atlanta, it turns out) standing in the sun sweating to serve the leisure set (substitute a joint and a homebrew beer for a mint julep and you get the picture). Although there were plenty of anti-war images, there were also plenty of visible Confederate flags and even some Bush/Cheney bumper stickers on cars. Oh, yeah, but it is a party. As they say on their Website, Bonnaroo is “Hailed among critics and fans for its near-flawless logistics, peaceful vibe, and progressive lineup.” If you drop a couple hundred bucks to get into a party and then spend more on drugs and food you might not want to give much thought to what kind of exploitation goes into making your fun possible. Or whose backs you are dancing on.

I was depressed by the contrasts. My boyfriend (who is African American), meanwhile, was tirelessly fending off white people who would walk towards him and (possibly unconsciously) expect him (being the Black person) to move over so that they would not have to alter their path. The more he noticed this the more determined he was to stand his ground, and some people literally bumped into him, rather than yield. He was saying “EWPS” (Entitled White Person’s Syndrome) out loud to deaf ears. There is this pervasive dynamic in alternative white cultures where people have become so accustomed to living in a segregated, privileged world that they cannot or do not want to examine their part in maintaining their privilege, and raising the issue of racism is just gonna be a downer on the great, alternative time people are having. People then often become defensive and complain that they are being guilt-tripped, rather than view education about racism as a gift.

We decided to spend more time over at the “political area” called Planet Roo, the place where the environmental and food activists who had invited us were based. The political scene consisted of, among other things, five environmental groups, mostly focused on liberal causes like the Sierra Club’s campaign to get more support for hydrogen cars. This feel-good carnival of activism had no tables, booths or literature focused on environmental racism, racial profiling, police brutality, gentrification, the prison-industrial complex, attacks on immigrants in Tennessee, or discrimination in land ownership patterns and resulting further displacement and marginalization of people of color in the US.

The eco-crowd we joined had built a beautiful earthen structure that housed Earth First literature and crafts for sale. Bonnaroo was a lucrative marketplace for folks with food, drugs or crafts. The joke was that you could sell anything there. One person in our group’s booth had attraction-getters described as “primitive”-inspired pottery, including “Shamanic Whistling Pots”. Another person offered a workshop on “Shamanic Plants”. I objected, explaining that people who are not shamans are capitalizing on the colonization of cultures and profiting either financially or through status attained as “experts”, while the indigenous cultures continue to suffer from the ravages of imperialism. He said the name of his workshop wasn’t important
, that he wanted to present information about mind-altering plants, and that he didn’t have to refer to them as “shamanic”. Unfortunately, months later the group’s newsletter extolled his workshop on “Shaman Plants” as one of the successes of their Bonnaroo activities, and how much they looked forward to returning to Bonnaroo 2005 with similar expectations of greatness. The write-up mentioned that their Earth First presentations were well received, but didn’t have one word of criticism about the festival’s blatant racism and appropriation, and it certainly did not link it to larger issues of white supremacy and imperialist culture. The justification of exploitation is often expressed through silent consent.

In my fantasy they will decide not to participate in the same event this year, but instead write a letter to Bonnaroo explaining that the festival needs to examine why it presents “progressive” artists in an environment not accessible to many communities. They might opt instead to share their growing, cooking, earth-building and activist skills with communities who do not normally have such access (assuming that they are welcome), places like Brunswick, Georgia where the majority African American residents are still talking about continuing hardships endured from the G8 Summit come and gone. For now, the score is Bonnaroo 90,000, G8 protests 400.

My boyfriend and I left early, before our performance (and Femi Kuti). Enough is enough. I haven’t even begun to break down the endemic sexism, homophobia and misogyny, but in this case, it was the white supremacy nurtured by hippie culture and the complicity of anarchist activist friends that was too much. Some of our friends offered their condolences about “it not working out.” I offered up some critique of the festival and saw some nodding heads and heard that, while there are problems, it is a good chance for them to explore things like “outlaw culture.” Outlaw culture strikes me as something that white folks create in opposition to the dominant paradigm, but it is more or less tolerated by the government. Sure, white folks get busted for drugs too, but “outlaw cultures” like Bonnaroo are tolerated by the government. Bonnaroo hires a private security force to keep the peace at the festival. They are not there to bust people for drugs. The police are outside, directing traffic and playing their role as community relations liaison, because the leaders of the local community want all of the money that a huge festival brings to Tennessee. Bonnaroo, in turn, strives to create an environment of comfort they perceive will not rock the boat. History is filled with the ruling class passing laws and then making exceptions for the privileged to blow off steam. It is an integral part of creating an illusion of freedom that ultimately encourages the status quo.

“Outlaw culture” is not so embraced a few hours down the road in Atlanta. That city has played host to Freaknik, an African American spring break party that has not been tolerated like Bonnaroo. New laws, such as the infamous “no cruising” ordinances, were enacted to restrict the festivities. The city’s main newspaper editorialized that it would be better for the city if they would keep their activities to Black parts of town.


I write this from the perspective of a white person looking for ways to actively challenge racism and undermine white supremacy. I am working on a longer writing project on white supremacy in alternative, queer, anarchist and environmental communities, and welcome correspondence on these topics (