Why A Popular Music Festival Banned Headdresses


Picture your average music festival. When it comes to attire, everyone seems to wind up in the same unofficial uniform. Ironic tees or breezy, barely-there tanks or no shirts at all; flower crowns and face-paint and neon sleeves of bracelets. And there’s always at least one attendee in a headdress.

Bass Coast, a Canadian music festival, just instated a policy banning concert-goers from wearing headdresses on-site this week in Merritt, Canada. Paul Brooks, Bass Coast communications manager, wrote the announcement and posted it on Facebook on July 23; it quickly went viral. I spoke with Brooks about the decision behind the ban, why he doesn’t want to “force other festivals” into following Bass Coast’s lead, and how to know if you should be wearing a headdresses at all. (“If you’re asking yourself the question of whether or not you should be wearing it, you probably shouldn’t be wearing it.”)

How long has the conversation about banning headdresses been happening with the Bass Coast team? How did the conversation begin and how were advisors chosen to discuss this topic?

It’s de-humanizing, the dollar store kit that people buy and put together. I know people aren’t coming with malicious intent but hopefully people will look into this and make the discovery themselves that what they’re doing is disrespectful.

The festival started in Squamish in 2009, closer to Vancouver, but we eventually outgrew our site and moved to Merritt, which sits on Aboriginal land and has a lot of Aboriginal people living there on reserves. When I started with Bass Coast last year, the conversation about the ban was already on the table. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the resources and couldn’t get the message out to our security team for 2013’s festival. We regretted not being able to implement it but did have some education on site, including a few Aboriginal groups set up with workshops talking about cultural appropriation.

Headdresses have not historically been an issue at our event and the number of people who have appeared has been very small. However, we’re a community that looks out for itself. We wanted to start discussions with people. We felt that we had to deal with this issue as it made all of the core members of our team uncomfortable. Throughout our decision process, we worked with some of the local bands here, including Coldwater & Lower Nicola as well as Upper Nicola, Nooaiatch, and Shacka, and they were all on board with us making up a policy for this. We wanted to implement this dress code not just for the Aboriginal people of the area, but also for Indigenous people across Canada and North America.

What was the tipping factor in terms of deciding to ban headdresses for the festivals attendees? Was having A Tribe Called Red as one of this year’s performers a contributing factor, given the statements they released last year to HuffPost Canada about headdresses at festivals?

This was something we had already been discussing back before we knew who would be performing. When we failed to get the policy in place last year, that was the first thing we discussed for this year saying to ourselves, “We have to do this.” We were really pushing for ATCR because we’re big fans, but we had already been pushing this headdress issue as well. I’ve been speaking with Deejay NDN [of A Tribe Called Red] since last year. I ran a segment on a radio station I work with on why people shouldn’t be wearing a headdress. He is an influence on the team but also on me personally, and having had these discussions with him, I’d say he’s definitely an inspiration on this. He’s been taking on the Washington Redskins and speaking to this issue a lot and I really admire him for that. In our conversations, I definitely got more insight into this and now often encourage people to look into the history of the war bonnet and cultural appropriation and challenge people to rethink their beliefs.

How is the security team being briefed in terms of identifying a headdress or “anything resembling them,” as was posted on your Facebook page? How is this enforcement planned to occur if someone does show up wearing one?

It won’t be heavy handed. It will come from an approach of educating the person.

Before we even wrote the post, we had gone over this with our security team. Only the supervisors of the team will be approaching individuals who might happen to don a war bonnet. I think it’s highly unlikely that it will happen, and it won’t be heavy handed, it will come from an approach of educating the person. They will be asked to put it in their car or their tent for the remainder of the festival if they’re seen wearing one. In terms of identifying them, we’ll be going over this as well. But to concertgoers, if you’re asking yourself the question of whether or not you should be wearing it, you probably shouldn’t be wearing it. People on our team have been doing research on this subject. I actually didn’t know Aboriginal people were actually banned from wearing them for a period of time in history. It’s de-humanizing, the dollar store kit that people buy and put together. I know people aren’t coming with malicious intent but hopefully people will look into this and make the discovery themselves that what they’re doing is disrespectful.

What does Bass Coast think about the national and international attention this announcement has gained? What message does Bass Coast hope to send to other music festivals by enforcing this ban?

Leadership is a strong component of what Bass Coast is all about. From our team to the thousands of people who help us on-site, those helping with lighting or parking or performances, we felt we needed to take a stand on this issue. We did it for very personal reasons; we didn’t do this looking at other festivals, and we don’t want to force other festivals into doing this. This is based on our community in which we operate. I’m amazed at how far this has gone, but obviously it’s the right time. We said it in a way that I think people are starting to comprehend the gravity of this, of the situation. I often ask myself the question: why did wearing a headdress become a part of electronic festival culture? I personally would like this to be something that isn’t associated with house music. If this inspires other festivals to do this, great, but that’s not our intention. This is a very personal decision.

Is the headdress policy something that Bass Coast expects to enforce at all shows to come? Absolutely, for all events here on out. Bass Coast, besides being a music festival, also hosts workshops throughout the year in western Canada. A lot of people are asking questions about other instances beyond just headdresses, but nobody has yet to show us a group of people who are asking for some other potential form of appropriation to be dealt with. This is specific to the war bonnet, it has spiritual and cultural significance and we are confident that we’ve made a good decision. It’s part of what Bass Coast is about. The issue obviously resonates with a lot of people who are uncomfortable with this practice. The support has outweighed the people who don’t support it and the conversation around this is very thoughtful and inspiring. We’re very much about learning and leadership, it’s a part of who we are and if we can create positive change in the world by something as simple as writing a Facebook post, we’ll continue to stick to our guns.

In the festival video promo, you write: “A mutinous spirit manifests itself in the uniqueness of the people in the Bass Coast community. Intelligent dissent represents a mutiny against the status quo. Take heed: when we gather, a force is unleashed in which the seeds of a bright future grow.” Does this theme fall in line with your decision to ban headdresses?

I wrote that piece. The festival started incorporating themes annually, for example, last year’s theme was “zebra.” This year, Liz and Andrea (the founders of Bass Coast) came in and said the theme should be “mutiny” — [there are] all kinds of amazing applications of the term. I started looking into the etymology of the word and my writing partner and I came up with a manifesto that Bass Coast stood for. I actually didn’t really think about this year’s theme initially when we were putting this headdress policy together. Later on that day, we realized that this was a mutiny against the status quo so. It does fit in. It has been on all our minds, and it did have an influence even though we didn’t put it together immediately. Bass Coast is a mutiny against the status quo: it’s about changing the world by being unconventional and being creative. I’m excited to see how else this plays into the festival. We really lifted the positive aspect of the word — the world needs a mutiny right now, we feel.