Words by Kokayi Nosakhere
For a variety of reasons over the past eleven years, the account related here of my experience at the Beloved Music Festival community was not possible. Answering the question, “Why were you not welcome?” requires a discussion a blog cannot provide the environment for.
Considering the complexity of the subject, I request a measure of grace with the collection of ideas here. I know I am only scratching the surface. Nothing about being human is linear. Our expression lies within a spectrum, hence the concept of nuance. I ask, up front, that you choose to digest the material in its entirety before passing judgment. If you find yourself choking back emotion as you read, or experiencing discomfort as anxiety in your belly, please resist the urge to stop reading – or to skim. There is a practice in slowing down and summoning the courage to continue reading at a rate – and in a space – conducive to digest and integration into your psyche.
Because this series does not center the white American worldview, I am making a request to those Readers who adhere to the nonviolent communications system: please model resilience and digest the entire meal presented here before vomiting it up.
In the beginning.
The more I learn about Oregon, the more I appreciate how and why so many Alaskans choose to relocate here. The environment is distinctly different, yet hauntingly familiar. Meaning, I know these mountains are not the Chugach range. They are not my mountains. Yet, they feel like I have seen them before. They are mountains and I know what that means on the psycho/emotional level.
Although I have lived in Ashland for 18 months – almost two years – I have yet to make the surrounding landscape mine by walking it. I know Alaska. My feet know Alaska. My birth in the early 1970s permitted me a unique opportunity to learn how to seek refuge in Nature and the Ancestors – well, mine Ancestors.
Anchorage’s population in the mid-70s was small, only 50,000 persons. (Medford, Oregon is approximately 80,000 residents.) I can remember lots of undeveloped blocks embedded inside our neighborhoods. Forest animals lived with us, as there was no “city,” so did authentic Native persons.
It is a shame that per America’s social climate, I do not have more precise language to use. By “authentic Native persons,” I mean, Yupik individuals existed in my life who were Yupik by Yupik standards – and White America’s standards. This is equally true for the Tlingit, Athabaskan, and Inupiat persons I encountered.
I grew up knowing I lived on their land: on Native land. I knew Americans, non-Native persons, did not rightfully ask for the land in a manner conducive to relationship-based cultural standards.
I grew up learning the value system of a hunter/gatherer lifestyle is not compatible with capitalistic ambition. Bridge structures must be created to even discuss the distance in meaning behind such simple words as sharing, consent and abuse.
I remember the arguments among the Native adults over whether or not to use money, instead of securing all of their needs directly from the land. The question of how complicit in the individual Native person was in their own oppression by choosing to use money came loaded with an intense emotional charge.
Where the Sidewalk Ends.
The tiny town of Tidewater, Oregon where the twelfth Beloved Music Festival was held, boasts 600 persons. The Alsea River, named after the now displaced Alsea people, flowing through the Oregon Coastal Range is a feature attraction.
Tall, tall trees decorate the landscape. The ecosystem appears vibrant and mercifully intact. The trees are another reminder of home. Just like in Alaska, the forest dominates. The Aurora borealis reminds us Father Sun can touch us in more ways than heat energy.
Four visionary women of color reached out to me approximately one month ago (July 2019,) asking my presence to hold a Black Indigenous Person of Color (BIPOC) space at the Beloved XII Festival.
“What’s a festival?” I asked. In 45 years, I have never attended a festival. The answer did not inspire me. Like many Black men and women, my knowledge with the woods and White-bodied persons comes from horror movies. (Think Friday the Thirteenth.)
Because the description of the BIPOC Sanctuary’s intention is in direct alignment to my work in Ashland, Oregon, I said, “Yes.” I did not fully understand what I walking into, however, I placed my faith in the quality of persons who choose to reach out to me. I know them to be engaged in their own personal growth and capacity to cope with the awesome reality of being human.
I requested, and received, a ride to the festival. The logistics were figured out in hippie-culture fashion. Apparently, festivals happen all of the time. They are a part of Northwest culture. (Who knew?)
A white-bodied woman driving up from San Francisco agreed to pick me up in Ashland Thursday morning and finish the ride with my company. She had room for one person traveling extremely light. I fit the bill.
I am using the term white-bodied following the lead provided by Minneapolis-based trauma therapist, Resmaa Menakem, and his book, My Grandmother’s Hands.
Tidewater is approximately 6 hours driving from Ashland. Six hours is a lot of conversation time. A person can learn a lot in six hours. I did.
Beloved is different than most Oregonian festivals. The Oregon State Fair, for example, is so awash with alcohol consumption it is dangerous at times to persons of color, depending on the mental food available in the media. Impressionable minds echo suggested ideas. To weed out these persons, no alcohol is sold by vendors at Beloved.
The second factor separating Beloved from the other festivals is its controlled size. Only 3000 persons get in. Recent experimentation with population size did not maintain the quality of intimacy necessary to produce a healing space. The decision was made to err on the side of humanity and lower the number of participants.
Privilege, anyone? That was my first thought. Privilege is a word weaponized in some political circles to make an “other” out of the person the word is being directed towards. I think it is appropriate here, because on many levels Beloved is a collection of elite individuals.
Point and Counterpoint
Singularly, last year (2018,) the question was asked from the main stage: Why are there no Black people here? Meaning, why are there no Black people enjoying the festival with us, other than the ones hired to play music.
My call and travel towards Beloved was, in part, the answer to that question. Certain strategies were employed to dramatically change the 2019 crowd’s composition.
Strategy Number One: Beloved decided to brave the counter winds of protest and offer a lower fare to persons of color. Detroit’s AfroFuture Fest did not succeed in their attempt to utilize this strategy.
Strategy Number Two: Book as many local and regional PoC-dominant acts for the festival as possible.
Strategy Number Three: Establish a PoC-only space and prominently market its existence in distributed materials.
My transportation to the festival was evidence those three strategies were working.
I did not experience any Texas Chainsaw Massacre flashbacks as the nose of the hippie-ish van carrying me up the mountain pointed towards adventure. The tall birch, alder and fir (?) were mesmerizing. So mesmerizing, I forgot my cellphone was now useless.
I received a wristband from the welcoming station and knew, as the van parked for the next 96 hours, a milestone was reached. A chapter was ending in this spiritual adventure. The white-bodied woman could not bring me back to Ashland, I would need to find another ride back. I felt such confidence in being able to meet that challenge.
Because I have nothing to reference a festival experience too, I chose to leave half my materials with the van and carry the rest with me to the BIPOC Sanctuary. From there, with more information, I would make more decisions.
Unlike Burning Man enthusiasts, entering an old growth forest has a surreal effect upon me. I spend most of my time pounding my feet on concrete. As I walked the quarter mile from the parking lot to the festival proper, all of my senses were alive – like on my first day of kindergarten.
In my mind, reality played like a slow motion movie. The colors of the mountain side were enriched and I could perceive the actions of the humans walking with me in a detached manner. The adventure was becoming real and playing itself out THROUGH my physical body.
In that state, I walked right by the BIPOC Sanctuary – twice. The map drawn in the festival village did nothing for my spatial understanding of the landmarks. When I did make it to the sanctuary, I was greeted with smiles and hugs.
The sanctuary was housed inside a 100 square foot yurt. It screamed comfort. A bookshelf was present. Pictures of Sojourner Truth and Black Lives Matter victims were present. An altar was present. Rugs and pillows were present. Hot water and tea was present. The space felt intentionally made for PoC.
I secured my other belongings. I was escorted to my tent site, which was a small field about the size of a four car garage slowly being transformed into a pop-up tent community. Different sections gave themselves names to make it easier to find similarly looking tents. In the midst of a sea of sensory data, it gets hard.
I disclosed my ineptitude with my neighbors and immediately received assistance erecting my tent.
Then, I faced the challenge of navigating the terrain from my tent space and the BIPOC Sanctuary.
Down the Rabbit Hole.
Easier said than done. Now, while alcohol is not an element of Beloved, the other substances are. Weed is ubiquitous. This stereotype of hippie culture is true.
So is the high psychedelic usage.
Interestingly, binge-ing, or overdosing, on substances, like recreational users do, is not a cultural standard at Beloved. For example, drunkenness equals overdose. The Beloved attendees I encountered prided themselves on being able to handle their highs. Those who did overdose and freak out were provided a care yurt to recover in – away from the Festival masses.
Nerds. I am surrounded by nerds, I thought. I successfully navigated the terrain and upon return to the BIPOC sanctuary and read the Festival’s booklet. From there, I made my decisions about which workshop to attend.
Under an elaborate red tent named, The Arms of the Mother, I watched the greater part of Talicia Brown-Crowell’s workshop: African Grief ritual. The sanctuary and Queer Magic Temple were situated right behind the Arms of the Mother so, each workshop held there was easily accessible to me.
I estimate 300 persons were sitting cross-legged, or milling around nearby; listening as Brown spoke, educating those gathered about grief and its function in human being-ness.
Brown did not use any Mystery God references to explain herself. She spoke from lived experience and the science of somatics. What does that mean? If you do not have an agrarian monarch as your God concept, you develop one based on being a part of the Earth’s ecosystem. Human beings are nervous systems wrapped in an earth suit. Rattle the earth suit at specific vibrations and it – the body – accesses various abilities.
Grief, i.e. traumatic experiences and loss, are felt in the body. In somatic thinking, the body is the temple where divine activity occurs: where human being is experienced. The grief ritual is a method for releasing an emotional entanglement lodged in the body, so the memory association lessens and there is no pain response around a negative experience when it comes up in conversation. The ritual is designed to create a certain psychological distance.
The wailing the ritual inspired out of the participating white bodies led me to begin respecting Beloved. Tears streamed down white cheeks. White bodies writhed in pain as the grief metabolized.
The goal is to heal.
Beloved is a healing space.
Or, it aims to be.
The grief ritual ended around 8 pm. The mountain was getting dark. Hungry, one of the BIPOC leaders and I traveled up the slope towards the marketplace. I carried a bag of traveling food, b.u.t. a view of the menu offerings sounded appealing.
Just past the main stage, we saw the beginnings of the sacred fire ritual, a Thursday night standard. An area approximately 10 feet square was outlined. Small split logs were arranged in the middle. All that was needed was a spark.
When we descended the slope, towards the BIPOC sanctuary, the spark was a crackling fire. The BIPOC Leader and I curiously approached the large group encircling the flames. Several guitars were present. Men and women swayed as they sang.
A look of disgust played across the BIPOC leader’s face. “This sounds like a Native American song. I’m going to leave. I can’t do this.”
Despite my curiosity, I chose to follow her lead.
Several musicians now occupied the Arms of the Mother’s stage. Approximately 200 persons were in attendance. I marveled at the site of all these persons at a festival congregated to do real work.
Drawn by the sweetness of the music, I decided to push through my resistance to new things and come within the limits of the physical tent, much closer than when I bore witness to the grief ritual. The sound system soothed me, as Shimshai strummed his guitar.
Never heard of the guy. Those in the audience had. Seems, he was singing old chants in a signature bilingual manner.
Perhaps, because I was tired, or high, I allowed myself to close my eyes and fall into rhythm with the music. Chants are repetitive. The melody becomes calming. You hear the words so many times, you know what is coming up.
I swayed. I allowed my defensive guard to fall and took my awareness away from the actual fact I was surrounded by 200 white bodies. I chose to ignore their presence. This freed up enough psychic energy to begin connecting to the mountain.
Connection did not stop my intellectual (monkey mind) from firing. I told Myself, I did not know where I was. Mimicking Smeagol, Myself countered we were somewhere on the Oregon Coastal Range. What did we benefit from knowing the name of the mountain? It was a mountain.
Intellectually, I knew I was not welcome on the (historical) Oregon Trail. I chose to direct my thoughts into the present. I was physically present on a mountain. I fought the haunting awareness concerning how my Black body was not wanted in Oregon.
The practice worked. Giving White Supremacy distance in my mind freed up enough psychic energy to feel the mountain; to ground myself. I learned, through my feet, as my body weight rocked from left foot to right foot, that the mountain was alive.
It was not inert rock. It was a mountain – composed of various elements.
It was moss.
It was tree.
It was earthworm and underground water.
It was nests and leaves falling to the ground.
Somewhere inside Shimshai’s chant, I glimpsed why Beloved is different from the other festivals. Our bodies are meant to receive and integrate sensation. Beloved provides an opportunity for that to occur, for us to grow the nervous system’s capacity to cope with perceiving reality.
Somewhere inside that chant, I felt – alive. When I opened my eyes, I knew I was standing on sacred ground.
What a way to pop my Festival cherry.