Protest Music Gets Meta at Sasquatch! Day One

Vince Staples performs at the 17th Sasquatch! Music Festival in a bulletproof vest. An air raid siren sounds between songs and he watches the sky for signs of danger. When his earpiece shorts out with a whine, the rapper cringes but continues playing, like an animal trained through negative reinforcement. He even keeps looking and waving offstage as though checking in with a strict taskmaster.

It’s hard to tell how much of this the crowd at Sasquatch’s panoramic main stage picks up on.  Despite Staples’s anxious stage presence, the beats keep coming, and they keep dancing. They didn’t come to The Gorge expecting prickly political statements—but then again, with day one headliners like Vince Staples and David Byrne, expectations are made to be broken.

Vince Staples/Photo by Mathew Lamb

The political messaging of the festival’s first day started out straightforward enough. Earlier on the main stage, country singer-songwriter Margo Price made a call for more women to headline festivals. She then took to the piano for her unflinching ballad, “All-American Made,” which recalls the Reagan administration’s selling weapons to Iran before concluding, “It won’t be the first time/And it won’t be the end.”

Similarly, Price wouldn’t be the last artist of the night to comment on the America’s repeated mistakes and perceived lack of progress. Around the same time, Hurray for the Riff Raff’s frontwoman Alynda Lee Segarra dedicated the bilingual track “Pa’lante” to her fellow Latinos and other marginalized immigrant communities.

Margo Price/Photo by Mathew Lamb

“I wrote this as a big fuck you to a couple of fascists running the country—well, more than just a couple.”

Staples, on the other hand, was less direct about stating the intent behind his songs, preferring to let the meticulous visual and performative aspects of his set impart meaning for him. He seemed to strut and stagger across stage like a marionette puppet parodying common rap postures, restricting his stage banter to uncharacteristically sappy clichés like, “Y’all having a good time? You guys are so cute.”

Behind him, a giant display splintered into a dozen separate feeds, flashing snippets of race riots, police brutality, static noise, and soft drink advertisements throughout. “That’s enough of that,” Staples declares at one point, momentarily cutting off the disturbing footage of the dystopia in which we live.

The mechanical performance comes across as a ruthless satire of the restrictions placed upon musicians—especially black ones—by America’s police-state-esque culture. Like the football players who faced backlash for kneeling during the national anthem, rappers like Staples walk a fine line between fame and reproach, where saying anything too inflammatory about America’s racial disparity is likely to result in public ire and character assassination—if not just regular assassination.

Perhaps that’s why Staples delivers his confrontational message without saying it outright. He plays his part as an entertainer while subverting it all the same, getting the predominantly-white audiences to bop along with dance floor mantras that express his anxieties of powerlessness as a prominent minority in this country, under this president. Despite all their positive vibes, he seemed to suggest, music festivals like Sasquatch! aren’t immune from the sins of modern America and its long history of ethnocentrism.

David Byrne/Photo by Mathew Lamb

Next on was David Byrne of Talking Heads fame, for whom the mainstage was entirely cleared of chords or stationary instrument rigs and shrouded in a transparent beaded curtain. Performing barefoot in matching gray suits, he and his 11-piece mixed race backing band appeared as a model of cheerful diversity, but look closely, and you’ll notice a degree of falseness to their lock-step movements and propaganda-esque poses, reflecting the loaded title of Byrne’s new album, American Utopia.

Despite their disparities in age and genre, Byrne shared with Staples an uber-choreographed aesthetic and themes of artistic confinement in American culture, poking fun at the conventions of pop music while capably fulfilling them at the same time.

He and his band performed Talking Heads classics like “I-Zimbra,” “Once in a Lifetime,” and “This Must Be the Place” as though staging a court-ordered Stop Making Sense reunion, while newer track “I Dance Like This” juxtaposed vulnerable verses with industrial-dinning choruses to satirize the highly-structured demands of dance music. When it comes time for an encore, no sooner had the last performer left the stage before David Byrne stepped back out from the curtain’s opposite side to continue the show without missing a beat.

Speaking directly to the crowd, Byrne also advocated in favor of involvement in local elections, albeit while stammering like a collar-tugging city councilman fearful of talking too long. The performance’s most powerful message came at the end, however, with an extended cover of Janelle Monae’s protest anthem “Hell You Talmbout,” listing the victims of police brutality over a tribal beat and calls to “Say his name!”

Thundercat/Photo by Mathew Lamb

Written in 2015, the list of names has only grown longer since, making for a disturbingly repetitive performance that begs the question—how many times must we make the same mistakes before something changes?

Over on the Bigfoot stage, jazzy hip-hop bassist Thundercat echoed the feeling of déjà vu in regards to race relations during a crooning cover of his Kendrick Lamar collaboration, “Complexion.”

“Complexion… It all feels the same.”

There were other political acts playing Sasquatch! this year, to be sure, but none that felt as dire as the artists stacked back to back on Friday, all wrestling in their own ways with the stagnancy of American political culture and the part they play within it. Even with this large a platform to express oneself, it’s easy to feel hopeless given the modern climate, in which the Trumpians remain free to abuse their power at will.

Leaving the festival amidst a deluge of other campers, I sense I wasn’t the only one affected by the night’s performers. I overhear a group recounting instances of racial violence like Charlottesville from recent years, while one of my own friends verbally overcomes her previous disinterest in David Byrne to admit how impressive that final protest number was, and how uncomfortable it made her with the current state of our country.

It’s hard to say how much of a difference any art makes, but there’s something to be said for live music powerful and confrontational enough to spark conversations and leave audiences wondering, “That was great—now what can I do?”