Coachella: Cultural Appropriation, Rape T-Shirts and Why We Should Care

Ah, Coachella. The most glamorous and star-studded of all the festivals, always enshrined in sunlight and bedecked with flower crowns. We don’t have an equivalent in soggy Britain, not even in the form of our hallowed Glastonbury with its miles of mud and ageing hippies complaining that the whole things has become too commercial.

Coachella is for beautiful young things, dressed in Free People and suspiciously clean for music festival attendees, primed to celeb-spot Bieber or the Jenner sisters. It’s also a hotbed of ignorant sartorial choices, ranging from the Native American headdress to the jewelled bindi. However, this year Coachella has really outdone itself, causing mass offence in the form of one man wearing a t-shirt that reads ‘Eat Sleep Rape Repeat’.

This incredibly clever and nuanced reworking of ‘eat sleep rave repeat’ from the 2013 Fatboy Slim and Riva Starr track manages to perfectly epitomize rape culture in the form of a single, probably home-made, festival shirt.

Jemayel Khawaja, managing editor of Vice’s EDM site THUMP, was the first to tweet a picture of the t-shirt wearer. Khawaja told THUMP that “he seemed really stoked about it when I asked to take a picture, thus the cheeseball smile”. Not only did the t-shirt guy think there was nothing wrong with wearing the offending article of clothing, but he was proud to pose for a snap to showcase his totally edgy choice of attire.

One of the most pervasive elements of rape culture is how rape and sexual assault are normalized to the point that they become amusing. Rape is a monstrous crime. It causes immense suffering, and often leaves survivors battling serious mental health problems including post-traumatic stress disorder. It should not be used as a fun t-shirt slogan, a way to show others how irreverent and daring your brand of humour is. There’s nothing daring about using humour to punch downwards. You risk nothing by reinforcing the status quo: that rape isn’t a big deal, that people just need to ‘lighten up’ about it, and having to consider the fact that 1 in 5 In the UK have suffered sexual violence is a huge threat to your freedom of speech.

It’s not just the ‘Eat Sleep Rape Repeat’ wearer who should think more carefully about his fashion choices. Music festivals have largely become synonymous with cultural appropriation, and none more so than Coachella. Celebrity attendees continue to set a bad example, with Vanessa Hudgens, and Kendall and Kylie Jenner emerging year-on-year as appropriation queens.

By adopting sacred symbols of another culture, you reduce them to cheap fashion choices and disregard the history behind them. White, half-naked festival goers wearing versions of the Native warbonnet is incredibly offensive, and has been likened to wearing blackface or a medal of honour that you didn’t earn.

The difference between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation is not always completely clear cut, but as a good rule of thumb, if you’re wearing a bindi or a warbonnet because it looks cool or pretty or on trend, you’re falling into the appropriation category. It’s not ok to pick and choose bits of another culture to make up your festival wardrobe or to help you up your Instagram follower count.

Donning a bindi or a feathered headdress might not be as immediately shocking as wearing the vile ‘Eat Sleep Rape Repeat’ shirt, but both are ignorant expressions of privilege. To even mention privilege might make me a hand-wringing liberal leftie, but to fail to recognise privilege smacks of a wider lack of humanity and compassion.

If you’d experienced racist harassment and bullying, or cultural invisibility, it might stick in your throat when symbols of your culture are misused and made into accessories for people with no understanding of your heritage. If you’d ever experienced sexual violence, you might not be amused when your experience is packaged as a hilarious t-shirt slogan.

Come on, Coachella party people. Do better.