- advertisement -

Why I'm Reckoning With A Newfound Fear Of Live Music Festivals

Mourning the loss of the last safe space, in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting.

- advertisement -

Growing up black in the midwest, I found freedom at concerts in the way white kids on TV “find themselves” while backpacking through Europe.

I did not find my truth in the church, though I spent years discovering truths of varying degrees and shades of reason. I did not find my purpose in school, though it became a space that made clear to me how I could one day weaponize language to free other girls like me. I am not unique in that it was music which gave me my way out — performing it, embodying it, celebrating it with people who felt the same need, the same desire as I did-or-do to be enveloped by it. To stand in a crowd, or on a stage, and be consumed from the inside out.

I could be angsty, just me and my MP3 player, in a way that I couldn’t be anywhere else. I could cry or be angry or excited while listening to a Death Cab for Cutie or a Paramore album without fear or judgement. And when I went to my first concert, I realized that I could exist in a space without the constant awareness of my body, without the weight of performing blackness in a way that made me more palatable to the people around me (though race eventually did become something I couldn’t ignore the longer I immersed myself in these environments). From then on, live music became an integral part of the way I came to know myself. And to know liberation.

A decade later, and this year was the first time I was going to a music festival. And not just any festival, but Lollapalooza. Maybe it was money or access or convenience or some combination of all three, but my best friend and I had dreamed of making it to Lolla since we were teenagers and had never been able to. It had taken years for the two of us to make the short drive up I-65 to Grant Park for what had, to us, always seemed unobtainable.

We couldn’t name it, but there was a security we felt promised, not just in our bodies, but our sensibilities, in being part of an organism like that. In thousands of people descending on a city to be absorbed in this thing that had saved us before we even knew we needed saving.

I had never experienced a freedom like the one I felt that last night at Lolla.

My childhood best friend and I — two black girls with locs and waist length braids, respectively — held hands and danced in the dirt to the sounds of Arcade Fire and Milky Chance. I jumped and twirled and wore through the soles of my Vans as I sang in a way that I had never sang before: unbridled, unapologetic, free. I cried in Chicago that night, not in happiness, not exactly, but in something akin to relief. I finally felt like that thing that we’d been chasing, the thing that had always been just beyond our hands, was finally within our reach.

Even that sensation, though, is fleeting. In the months following, we’d watch America descend into a sort of chaos that seemed without reason. We’d watch our collective humanity debated in the form of restricted health care access and military bans for trans service members. We’d kneel during national anthems to protest police brutality and watch American citizens be denied access to clean water following natural disasters. And eventually, we’d watch 58 plus people gunned down at a concert in Las Vegas.

When the news broke, I felt, like many Americans, a resigned sense of hopelessness. I was wading between the sensation of just being grateful to still be alive, and the anxiety of being next. It was the largest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, they said. But so was the one before it, and the one before that. We were no more than bodies, it seemed — fragile, temporary, awaiting the moment that another man would enter another space and extinguish us.

And a few weeks ago, we came to understand that the Vegas shooter had considered two other music festival targets for his attack. It was reported that one was Life is Beautiful, a festival held in Las Vegas towards the end of September, and the other, Lollapalooza.

We are living through, what many might consider the most trying times in recent American history, and it seems the thing that had for so long sustained us might now also kill us.

We had already seen children and their teachers murdered in schools, with no lasting or impactful gun policy enacted. We had already watched, just two summers before, black folks shot to death while they worshipped and had seen no real paradigm shift. And we were still reeling from the loss of 49 queer people of color, slaughtered while they danced, and the only thing we had to show for it were funerals and think pieces.

We are a nation constantly being asked to grapple with severe emotional trauma — terror that we refuse to name — but unwilling to reconcile our supposed love of freedom with our lust for blood. The spaces that I was taught to cherish and the one space that I found solace in, have been torn from our hands. The freedom that was born out of finding a home in live music has been replaced with an acute sense of dread. We are left to watch the remaining vestiges of peace in a nation that is rarely peaceful, denigrated before our eyes, and told that it is the price we must pay for good old fashioned American gun rights.

I cried that day, when the story emerged about Lollapalooza. Not in sadness, not really, but in a mourning that I had never felt before. I’m mourning still, for something I have yet to put a name to, but know may never be close enough to touch again.


- advertisement -
Leah Johnson is a multimedia storyteller and Midwestern expat currently residing in suburban New York. Her work is centered on the miracle and magic of black womanhood. You can find her on Twitter ranting about pop culture, politics and the greatest show of all time: The West Wing @byleahjohnson.