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Beloved Festival: decolonizing music

Oregon festival of music and dance from many cultures addresses issues ranging from terminology to privilege.


For eleven years, Oregon’s Beloved Festival has embraced multicultural musical diversity, environmental sustainability, a peace-and-love vibe. In a sylvan setting on private forestland in the Coast Range, about 3,000 attendees could dance, meditate, practice yoga, eat vegan, and celebrate secular spirituality in a “spontaneous village.” But while many of its invited performers were musicians of color, its audiences were overwhelmingly white.

It’s an issue common to blues, jazz concerts and so-called “world music” concerts. (Oregon has other events that feature music from many cultures, most notably the Salem World Beat Festival.) Beloved founder/director Elliott Rasenick decided to do something about it — “to really ask why is it mostly white people here? And to take responsibility. The lazy way is to say ‘we’re in Oregon.’” Last year, he led a discussion from the main stage and promised changes. This year’s festival, which runs August 9-12, shows the festival beginning to respond. 

The reform effort got off to a rough start. “Last year I really wanted to start to talk about racism and white supremacy,” Rasenick recalled, envisioning an on-stage discussion between him and an activist of color. “I started asking black women who did anti racist work and kept getting these subtle ‘I’m not comfortable with that’ vibes.” Finally, Portland activist Teressa Raiford “made me understand how difficult that is — to ask a black person to teach white people about white supremacy, and to ask someone I haven’t worked with to build trust to work with me. That showed me that I need to show up and demonstrate I’m worthy of trust before I ask for things that require trust.”

Photo by Jess Stewart Maize.
Trust demonstrated at Beloved Festival 2018. Photo by Jess Stewart Maize.

This year’s trust-earning steps include providing “affinity spaces” in two yurts for black and indigenous people of color and queer attendees. “We know that in a predominantly hetero, cis-[gendered] and white space, there should be a guaranteed safe space to talk about things that might come up,” Rasenick explained. 

Then there’s the “Braver Space” vows to challenge oppression, address injustice, respect boundaries, apologize for mistakes and otherwise promise positive “village minded” intentions and behaviors. One of the festival workshops, De-Colonizing Bhakti Yoga, discusses issues raised by a practice that draws on Hindu influences and is often associated with kirtan singing, practiced by legions of white West Coasters. Another discusses reparations for historical injustices.

The festival also jettisoned the long-criticized term “world music,” which musician David Byrne (who helped bring African sounds to American pop in Talking Heads) called in a 1999 New York Times op-ed “a none too subtle way of reasserting the hegemony of western pop culture. It ghettoizes most of the world’s music.” This year’s more specific categories (replacing “global voices”) include folk futurism, diasporic music, and sacred/devotional/classical.

“We always knew that ‘world music’ was a stupid category,” Rasenick said. “We had tried to avoid the implicit colonialist attitude, but we failed. Let’s acknowledge that most of the music we‘re presenting is part of the African diaspora. Let’s eliminate this category that’s either stupid, lazy, racist or combination of all three.”

(The issue of trying to fit something as inherently hybrid as music, or any art, into a single generic category applies to other terms like “classical,” country, and many others, as Lil Nas X famously found out this year.)

Photo by Amandala Photography.
Photo by Amandala Photography.

The festival corrected another terminological transgression by renaming its Far Mosque campground, whose name was drawn from a Rumi poem. “This year we finally realized that to use the word ‘mosque’ — pulling something sacred to a people out of its context — is profoundly disrespectful to Islam,” Rasenick said.

Still, wokeness is a journey, not a destination. In recognition of the historical injustices that often led to long-term income disparities, this year’s festival offered discount ticket prices for audience members of color. But its ticket provider removed that option on the grounds that it would entail discriminating on the basis of race. “That’s a gross misunderstanding of what those protections are for,” Rasenick said. He intends to “engage them in deeper conversation after this festival.”

Such efforts have drawn praise. “At Beloved, the mainstream music industry boxes are gone,” said one of this year’s performers, New York based Puerto Rican singer Taina Asili. “I don’t have to conform to them. I can be multi-dimensional and responsive as an artist and have that embraced.” 

The festival’s lineup is also one of Oregon’s most culturally diverse. Along with its customary extensive slate of mostly white, American performers specializing in electronic dance music, kirtan devotional singing, and healing sounds, it offers traditional and contemporary sounds from India (Alam Khan, Nagavalli ), Afghanistan (Homayoun Sakhi), Madagascar (Razia Said) Ivory Coast (Dobet Gnahoré), Congo (Jupiter and Okwess), Tibet (Yungchen Lhamo), Siberia (Olox), Brazil (Poranguí), Senegal (Youssoupha Sidibe), Denmark (Be Svendsen), Jamaica (Hempress Sativa), Argentina (Uji, Dat García, Sofia Viola) and many more. 

The program also features American musicians who embrace non-Western influences, including California’s Dirtwire and Sudan Archives (Los Angeles based African American electronic musician Brittney Parks), Sufi musicians Fanna-Fi-Allah, and Washington’s Shimshaim. Portland based performers include Indian music singer Michael Stirling, Ghanaian dancer-drummers Nii Ardey Allote-Ekome, and Nahko and Medicine for the People. African American hip hop (Brooklyn’s Digable Planets), blues/R&B (Ron Artis II), funk (Stout, Ghost-Note), and Native American (Pura Fé) artists also appear. 

Photo by Melissa Robin.
Photo by Melissa Robin.

But even with the festival’s multicultural profile, Rasenick acknowledges there’s more to do. Even the now-common land acknowledgment that admits the event takes place on grounds seized from indigenous Americans turned out to be fraught. Rasenick didn’t just want to put an apologetic statement on the website; he wanted to discuss it onstage with tribal representatives. He got a similar response to last year’s white supremacy discussion, about the difficulty of being put in the position of teaching white people about historical injustice. “It’s the lesson I thought I learned last year,” he said ruefully. “I didn’t learn well enough.”

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Rasenick advises others in similar situations “to really listen” to people they want to build relationships with. “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, because you’re going to. We know that this is difficult territory and there’s a lot of pain, so we’re gonna get called out. I’ve made a lot of mistakes and will continue to make them, and that’s OK.” At least he’s trying.

This year’s Beloved Festival runs August 9-12 in Tidewater. Tickets and info at belovedfestival.com. A shorter version of this story appears in The Oregonian/OregonLive.

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Brett Campbell is a frequent contributor to The Oregonian, San Francisco Classical Voice, Oregon Quarterly, and Oregon Humanities. He has been classical music editor at Willamette Week, music columnist for Eugene Weekly, and West Coast performing arts contributing writer for the Wall Street Journal, and has also written for Portland Monthly, West: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Salon, Musical America and many other publications. He is a former editor of Oregon Quarterly and The Texas Observer, a recipient of arts journalism fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (Columbia University), the Getty/Annenberg Foundation (University of Southern California) and the Eugene O’Neill Center (Connecticut). He is co-author of the biography Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Indiana University Press, 2017) and several plays, and has taught news and feature writing, editing and magazine publishing at the University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication and Portland State University.


One Response

  1. Thank you for writing this critical article about this music festival. I have been scratching my head trying to figure out WTF and this helps clarify everything. Thank you again for your journalistic efforts!

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