Moogfest 2017: A dubious union of wealth and protest in Durham
When the organizers of Moogfest announced in February that the music, art and technology festival would feature a “Protest Stage” dedicated to resisting the current wave of inequality in both North Carolina and the United States (specifically HB2 and President Trump’s travel ban), many were delighted. Moogfest, which attracts hordes of affluent individuals such as entrepreneurs and engineers, has clout: both international and national music acts grace its stages year after year, featuring the likes of Grimes, M.I.A. and Kraftwerk. The head-nod toward social justice and activism seemed noble, especially given the festival had just moved to Durham a year prior, a city with its own rich history of protests for equality.
Still, there were skeptics—INDY Week, a publication that caters to the Triangle area, questioned the sincerity of Moogfest’s protest theme and pondered if it was another in a long line of corporate attempts to co-opt what they see as “trendy”: social justice movements, protests and arduous activism. (Yeah, we’re talking about you, Pepsi.) INDY reached out to numerous local and national organizations advocating for social justice—such as the ACLU, the HRC and Planned Parenthood—but none of those who responded said that Moogfest had contacted them. The festival’s activism, then, seemed to be less rooted in its partnerships and donations and more so in its programming.
So, how progressive (and impressive) was the programming for Moogfest’s protest theme? Undoubtedly, there were acts that performed during the festival’s May 18 to 21 run that epitomized what it means to protest, to make the personal into a political statement. Pie Face Girls, a Raleigh-based trio “navigating feminist/queer experiences one riff at a time” according to their Twitter profile, played on the Protest Stage as drag queens danced about. Rapper and activist Mykki Blanco, who is openly transgender and HIV positive, ended his set by reminding the crowd that black and transgender lives matter and must be protected. Talib Kweli, who notoriously refuses to vote in protest of politics and is a fervent racial activist, performed onstage as well.
But even as I nodded my head enthusiastically while these artists denounced injustice and the institutions that perpetrate it, noticing a similarly positive response from the crowd around me, I couldn’t help but feel torn. On one hand, Moogfest had provided a platform and a safe space for queer performers and people of color, elevating and validating their voices. The festival has visibility and influence, and to use such power to give marginalized artists a place to perform without censoring or limiting them is admirable. On the other, 60 percent of Moogfest’s attendees have a household income of more than $100,000—a point of pride, it seems, for the festival.
To put that number into perspective, the median household income in Durham was around $54,000 in 2015. And when glancing at a map that demonstrates the spread of such wealth—wherein a sizable portion of the city lives on less than $32,000 a year—the stratification becomes evident. That’s why some of Moogfest’s protest themed activities, such as “protest sign-making,” wherein attendees were encouraged to ponder the philosophical aspects of protest signs, seemed glaringly out of touch. While someone living in Durham on minimum wage would’ve had to sacrifice an entire week’s paycheck to buy the festival’s cheapest wristband, Moogfest’s (mostly affluent, mostly white) attendees had the privilege to engage with the festival’s protest workshops—which, inherently, are more beneficial for those who are not privileged, whose livelihood depends on their ability to organize and fight for their rights.
Therein lies the dilemma: while Moogfest’s attempts at incorporating protest culture were not malicious but rather earnest, the festival’s continued inaccessibility has allowed those attempts to fall flat, creating an echo chamber in which more is said than actually done. How, then, can Moogfest rectify this problem?
Accessibility is everything. The largest turn-off for Moogfest is its ticket prices—the cheapest option available is a $250 weekend pass and there are no single-day ticket options. At the very least, the festival could benefit heavily from selling single-day tickets or even single-event tickets. Volunteering is an option, but providing the option to trade labor for the opportunity to attend parts of the festival seems classist at best. However, given the fact that Moogfest has lost a sizable amount of money in the past, a reduction in their ticket prices seems unlikely.
Even more important is community engagement. While Moogfest provided free programming during the daytime for the festival’s duration, those hours were most likely occupied by work shifts and sparsely included any protest-themed activities. Durham is alive and bustling with young activists and non-profit organizations aimed at alleviating inequality—why not reach out to them? Sure, they might not be the engineers or entrepreneurs with start-ups to throw funds behind that Moogfest mainly caters to, but they are masters of their own craft and well-versed in their city’s needs and wishes. Moogfest should reach out to both the community at large and local organizations, create genuine partnerships and incorporate locals and their efforts into programming.
At the very least, Moogfest should take pause to evaluate its role within Durham and its associated industries at large. After all, it is just a music and technology festival—does it have any real obligation to work with local and national organizations to promote equality and justice? Does it have any real obligation to engage with Durham and its residents? Perhaps its only genuine obligation is to schedule musicians and workshops that honor its founder, Bob Moog, to promote electronic music and cutting-edge technology. But when Moogfest moved to Durham, it irrevocably changed the landscape of the city; when the festival decided to incorporate protests as an overarching theme into its programming, it became saddled with the duty to not simply accessorize and trivialize activism. So, yes, some introspection is in line—and considering Moogfest is staying in Durham for its 2018 festival run, that self-reflection should happen sooner rather than later.