Embracing the primal, letting it out and letting go at music festivals

Original article from NPR

In the California desert, under heavy heat and against a hazy horizon, I fell for music festivals. 2013 was my first year as a teenager, the year I began to flex into my own agency and find my place in the Gen Z zeitgeist. It was the year I convinced my father to take me to Coachella, under the guise of a “growth opportunity.”

There is a feeling of complete bliss when the bass reverberates in your chest — you float with the synchronized movements of the crowd, spiraling into the pockets, letting it out and letting go. For a 13-year-old, it was a feeling of absolute possibility.

Despite their excesses and absurdities, there is something primal about attending music festivals. At Coachella, the aroma of marijuana lingering with the desert dust was redolent. The discomfort is some part of the authenticity. The sprinkler of ambiguous liquids glitter bodies. As festivalgoers we untether, if only for a moment. Hypnotized by the performer, drifting through a music- (and, for many, drug-) induced haze, making our way across a soundscape satiating all flexible parts of our bodies.

In 2014, my dad and I saw A$AP Ferg at his peak, nestled against the stage barricade. My first real mosh pit was at that set. A vortex opens up in the crowd and the audience slams their bodies against each other. It definitely wasn’t what my dad had signed up for. But Ferg, A$AP Rocky and the rest of the Mob were so New York. They had the swagger, style and bravado, and this resonated with my hip-hop-head dad. Sharing this experience with him was extending a legacy — dating back the seminal New York hip-hop scene, which thrived in cramped quarters and obscure venues. He left the show understanding my passion.

The City Girls performing at Rolling Loud.
Pilar Galvan

I’ve been to 10 festivals, some as many as three times, and that passion remains as the events and patrons evolve. This year, I traveled to Inglewood, Calif., for Rolling Loud’s LA festival. In 2019, I attended their New York event. Perhaps it was the coastal contrast or the effect of the pandemic on social intimacy, but something was different. The crowd was younger and there was an unspoken understanding among them. In this space, kids can find themselves outside the oversaturated technological void. There seemed to be a greater social consciousness — the festival incorporated local vendors and provided immersive experiences, touchpoints to hip-hop culture, a basketball court for pick-up games, a barber for shop talk and a tattoo parlor for spontaneous remembrances. The urge to get a tattoo to honor my own festival experience was palpable.

Rolling Loud LA was the much-publicized return of Travis Scott since a crowd crush incident killed 10 concertgoers during his Astroworld Festival in 2021. That tragedy illustrates the worst of the festival experience but doesn’t define it, and the Rolling Loud crowd showed the collective resilience of the culture.

While the dangers of substance abuse, crowd control and overindulgence are still present, when people look out for each other it fulfills a sense of humanity. When the pit opened up at Travis Scott’s Rolling Loud set it gave more of a dance battle. Rather than bodies thrashing against each other, people made pockets for one another, hyping each other up, performing within the show. It was evident throughout the festival that there was a heightened awareness around safety.

One of the founders, Tariq Cherif, dealt with crowd surges during the headlining sets. When there was an issue, the attendees jumped into action — calling for help, clearing space, flashing lights. They seemed to be more aware of and responsible for each other. Suddenly strangers became friends and allies.

The capacity for music to reinforce bonds and create community is realized through these festivals. They are a spectrum of taste and discovery, allowing fans to experience their favorite artists and introducing them to new ones. I have experienced festivals with friends, family and strangers. I am never happier than when I am in these spaces. Coming from New York, the city of people-watching and never sleeping, festivals remind me of home. It may be overwhelming, but they remind me that I’m not alone. At a festival I can express myself, wear the wildest fit, belt at the top of my lungs, and meet people who share a love for music. At a festival I tried my first donut ice cream sandwich, endured a flash flood and a dust storm, got photographed for Cosmopolitan, sat on my dad’s shoulders swaying to Lorde’s “Royals,” bought my first crystal with my mom, entered a VR experience, rode a ferris wheel — and came into my adulthood.


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