The African Diaspora Takes the Main Stage at Coachella 2019

Stephanie and Yvonne (Credit: Nick Nuk’em)

In 1998, my dad, a Cameroonian native, used to listen to Afrobeat cassettes sent from back home. The sounds never made it past our Southern California garage.

In 1994, Daddy Yankee coined the term “Reggaeton” on a project with Puerto Rican DJ, Playero. The sound wouldn’t officially touch down in the US until 2004 when “Gasolina” hit the Top 40.

Twenty-five years after the Reggae descendant was born, J Balvin and Bad Bunny, the respective Colombian and Puerto Rican powerhouses rocked Coachella’s main stage with help from the African drums that have made their way from the motherland to every part of the earth. But those were just two of several moments that showcased how the African Diaspora had it’s coming out party at this year’s festival.

J Balvin performs on the Coachella Stage on Saturday, April 13, 2019 of Weekend 1 of the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival on the Empire Polo Fields in Indio, California. (Photography by Christopher Victorio for OC Weekly).

It kicked off 5 p.m. Friday when Calypso Rose, the trailblazing Trinidadian singer stepped into the Gobi tent and carried all the way through to Sunday’s end when the Haitian-born Canadian super producer Kaytranada closed the Mojave tent. The remixing heavyweight dug into the sounds of ’90s R&B and mixed them with samples ranging from the Black London trio Delegation to Gal Costa, a native of Brazi — the home of the highest population of African descendants in the world. These Afro-Brazilians carry with them not only African blood but the indigenous culture that lives on today.

Brian, a Black native of Houston was especially excited to see Kaytranada during his first Coachella experience while he buzzed on Kanye’s Easter edition of Sunday Service calling the AM set “highly impactful”. He was brought to the festival by his friends, three-year veterans Keandra and Derrick–also Black Houston natives–who were themselves exposed to music born of the Diaspora that has put the music industry back in the black after two decades of deficits.

Derrick found himself “jamming” to Burna Boy during his 3 p.m. set at the Coachella stage, while Keandra’s perspective of the festival was reaffirmed by the Nigerian artist’s performance.

Burna Boy, a native of Port Harcourt, Nigeria used tracks like “Ph City Vibration” to talk about hardships and struggles not unlike those explained at length by Compton native YG during his sunset slot at the Sahara tent. Burna paused during his set to reflect on the deaths of Nipsey Hussle and Kolade Johnson, a Nigerian man killed by the police. The two were murdered on the same day and drew a more clear thread on strife Black people worldwide are yet to escape.

“That’s what Coachella’s all about. It puts all different types of music in one place for lots of different people to listen to. That’s the spirit of it,” Keandra said of discovering acts who share similar features as her.

Coachella art designed by Burkina Faso architect Francis Kéré (Credit: Nick Nuk’em)

Upon Coachella’s unveiling of the lineup this year, Burna Boy trended on Twitter for his outburst against his placement on the 2019 marquee. In January, the “Soke” singer took to Instagram to say “@coachella I really appreciate you. But I don’t appreciate the way my name is written so small in your bill. I am an AFRICAN GIANT and will not be reduced to whatever that tiny writing means. Fix tings quick please.”

Nothing was done but it echoed the ways plenty felt about Black music’s treatment leading up to what was a breakout year for the African Diaspora’s art.

Atlanta natives, by way of Kenya, Yvonne and Stephanie echoed that sentiment on the Polo Grounds.

“Being from Atlanta, there’s a lot of underground music that isn’t nationwide yet but could be represented —stuff like Lil Baby. And they could do better at not having Black acts in the middle of the day when it’s freaking burning up,” Yvonne said.

They’d also like to see some East African artists representing gong forward but acknowledged how content they were to have Hip-Hop and Afrobeat names populate the bill this time around.

“When we moved here we were African booty scratchers and that was a long time ago but it’s really nice to see people starting to respect African culture and wanting to know more about it,” Yvonne added.

Mr. Eazi performs on Saturday, April 13, 2019 of Weekend 1 of the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival on the Empire Polo Fields in Indio, California. (Photography by Christopher Victorio for OC Weekly).

A day before Burna Boy’s set, Mr Eazi, another Nigerian product, played a mid-day main stage set raising his profile and that of his genre-mates. His dancers took the stage dawned in indigenous patterns while the “Leg Over” singer led an Africa-originated music practice (that Kacey Musgraves’ fans embarrassingly botched during weekend one); call and response. On top of introducing droves of mostly unknowing fans to musical traditions and newfound treasures (Mr Eazi credits himself with the creation of the Afrobeat offshoot Banku), Eazi’s dancers mashed their moves with the American Rap dance du jour “The Woah”.

Essie, Sandra, Julie, Arabelle, Garme traveled from London (Credit: Nick Nuk’em)

This clash of Black art marks a peak for the experience of Africa-descendant experiences at Coachella. Soulection, the Long Beach-born collective, who have made much of their name on mashups and remixes, played to a predominately Asian crowd on Saturday but DJs Joe Kay and Andre Power delivered another look under the hood of Afrobeat when they blended Washington D.C. singer Goldlink’s remix of Afro B’s smash hit “Joanna” into the 2014 Afrobeat behemoth “Ojuelegba” by Wizkid.

At 100 BPM, “Ojuelegba” could be seamlessly meshed with J Balvin & Willy William’s 105 BPM chart-topper “Mi Gente” on account of the similar drum patterns.

Fans were no further immersed in the traditions of Black music and the African Diaspora during the two and a half hour groundbreaking experience that was Kanye West’s Easter edition of Sunday Service. For the first time, the public was made privy to more than the clips floating around social media and welcomed with open arms into arguably the greatest ever African-American institution; the church.

Yeezus! (Credit: Google Pixel 3)

Ray Romulus of the Grammy-winning production team The Stereotypes (Bruno Mars, Mary J. Blige, Justin Bieber) led the open air service reimagining staples like Stevie Wonder’s “Do I Do” that have helped Black music make its undeniable impact on society. Alongside West, Romulus, Kid Cudi, Chance the Rapper, Ty Dolla $ign, a full band that included Grammy-nominated producers like Kosine Palacios, and a choir of around 50 thundered Gospel standards like “This is the day the Lord has made!” around the Coachella Valley leading to shock and awe. Those who would have never stepped foot into a Black church were washed with traditions going back to American slavery when the church was the only way African-Americans could socially advance.

Over the past 15 years, Kanye West has weaved Gospel into his biggest records, proven when West —mostly dormant during the session— popped up to perform songs like “Ultralight Beam” and “Jesus Walks”. His formula and foundation as a Black creative were put on full display to convey a deeper understanding for fans unaware of the centuries of both struggle and triumph that all stem from Africa.

Kanye West, Mr. Eazi, Kaytranada, J Balvin, and Calypso Rose forcefully followed up what Beyoncé, Black Coffee, Wizkid, and MHD helped kick off in recent years. Collectively, these artists have set the culture up for a proliferation in the spotlight at Coachella that further emphasizes the strongholds Black art and struggle perpetually have on the worldwide zeitgeist.

I listen to music. I write about it. I like hot sauce on my chicken.

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