Wakarusa 2015: Glimpses of a Broadening Landscape

Article by: Matthew Cremer|@Cremerica

Mon June 15, 2015 | 00:00 AM

There comes a time in a man’s life where he’s compelled to ride a Ferris wheel. This was my 6th consecutive year attending Wakarusa and for whatever stupid, silly reason I hadn’t been on the goddamn thing once. Standing in line early Sunday morning, a rather friendly candy girl insisted I wear her kaleidoscope goggles, so there I stood, staring at all 2,000 or so gyrating Ferris wheels – and the hyper-stimulation stirred some reflection within me. As my vision gradually returned, I climbed in and pondered how Wakarusa 2015 was beginning to broaden its own landscape and what that meant in the grand scheme of things.

For starters, this year brought the strongest contingent of hip-hop ever to grace this gathering: The Roots, Dilated Peoples, Chali 2NA, and prodigy Chance the Rapper. Indeed, on Friday evening the 22-year-old not only showed why he’s on the verge of hip-hop royalty, but proved his “man of the people” substance – no tossing origami Benjamins into the crowd, no thonged dancers lathered with Turtle Wax necessary. Whether shepherding the jubilant faithful through “Sunday Candy” or the revelatory “Everybody’s Something,” there was one unflinching constant: his resoundingly uplifting presence. 

Wakarusa 2015 Cremerica Chance Rapper

The industry disrupter, who has repeatedly shunned major labels for a fan-centric model, called for empowerment from his audience. After leading a spirited chant of “This is my show!” he followed the ensuing fever pitch with a message: “So if this is your show, this is your iTunes, your music, your Acid Rap, your song – you’re not going to let anybody around you in this space scare you out of acting like you’re supposed to when you hear your song!” Note to self: when Chance the Rapper gives you permission to fully let go, you best surrender.

Holley Dottley of Fayetteville, Arkansas is no dummy. “Chance gave us the show, the music, the words – literally – on screen to sing to," she said. "The whole experience belonged to us. His simple reminder was that we are all here experiencing Wakarusa with intention. It wasn't something we were watching, it was something we were creating.” Perhaps the strongest testament to his dynamism was the post-show glow of an exchange he’d shared with his Waka peeps. As the sound of “Ooooooo-weeeeeeee” could be heard echoing across Mulberry the remainder of the weekend, it served as part mantra-part inspirational check-in that not only could this be your show, but it sure as hell could be your festival.

However, an injection of soulful swagger from an artist may travel only so far. As I made my way throughout the grounds, my goal was to discover how this energy was percolating. The most consistent theme I encountered was not just how the overall vibe was in tip-top form, but spreading rather abundantly. Seth Barbour of Norman, Oklahoma brought it home with eloquence. “I love it because it's in the Midwest and everybody in the Midwest are fucking badasses. The best people in the world. I've been to a whole bunch and this is the best atmosphere I've ever been to.” In case you didn’t get that – the Midwest is full of fucking badasses. It wasn’t because Major effing Lazer was on the bill. Nor was it due to the first rain-free weather in four years. Just five syllables – fucking badasses. Boy, I’m glad we got that sorted out.

Wakarusa 2015 Cremerica Ferris Wheel

Photo by: Stephen Ironside

But isn’t a stout vibe almost a waste if we aren’t able to harness it toward something grander than ourselves? In what ways were merry revelers taking ownership and positively giving back to the flow? It was on Day 4 that I met two on-point stewards. Cassie Huffaker of Des Moines, Iowa had been cooling off heat-drenched folks with a spray bottle when we crossed paths. Even on the home stretch, she still possessed an infectious “Aw shucks” glee.

“Gotta take care of one another…When I see someone that needs help, I feel more inclined to help them instead of just being selfish and taking care of myself. It's just a feeling I get in my gut.” Even though the art of people-spraying is no rare occurrence at Wakarusa, the fact that this was Cassie’s first real festival spoke volumes. Last time I checked, there’s no instruction manual handed out at the front gate. It was while we were talking amongst ourselves that James Hoover of Lake St. Louis, Missouri came up to receive some hot spritzer relief action of his own. It wasn’t very long into the stop-and-chat that he stated his central mission for the weekend.

“I pick up trash all the time," he said. "I always have fun by giving people shit. Like ‘Hey man, why is that trash on the ground in front of you and you're not picking it up?’ It’s trash talk. When people see it in action, they start picking it up too.”

Wakarusa 2015 Cremerica Leave No Trace

Wait a minute. You mean to tell me you’re not just out here giving away free high fives and blowing obscene amounts of glitter in people’s faces without asking? Can’t we just test the limits of intoxication for 4 straight days without having any responsibilities? Surely, the festival can clean up everything for us and practically wipe our asses while they’re at it too, right? It really got me thinking – maybe we’ve been preemptively patting each other on the backs? You know, regarding this “trash talk” business, there is a statistic floating around that “an estimated 80 percent of trash generated by music festivals comes from what’s left behind by campers.” Granted, in terms of this festival, the number lends itself much more so to hyperbole than actuality. Even though Wakarusa by no means belongs in the same conversation as a Reading Festival, consumptive waste is still an issue constantly in need of attention. So much so that Waka and the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics teamed up to bring an information tent to promote green-friendly camping practices. Volunteer Jeffrey Hamner filled me in on the details.

“We're having a clean camping contest. We pick winners everyday who are putting forth the most effort towards keeping their campsite sustainable.” The criteria for campsites focused on three areas: Cleanliness (are campers safely disposing their cigarette butts?); Sustainability (are campers utilizing clean energy sources like portable solar panels to power campsites?); and Creativity (is a campsite making use of unique camping techniques?) The contest had 8 winners overall with the grand prize being tickets to next year’s festival. “I feel like throughout the week we're going to impact more people and just turn on some light bulbs in their minds," said Hamner.

Even with 82 participants total out of 20,000+ daily festival-goers, this was still a much needed pro-active step in a positive direction. Kevin Seagraves, the Information Coordinator for LNT, had reason for optimism. “One of the waste management administrators said it was the cleanest Waka he'd ever been a part of, giving us and the weather the credit. It was a blast and definitely a success.

Wakarusa 2015 Cremerica Chompdown

Exploring the matter further, the New Belgium Brewing Company contributed to the green-conscious effort by selling stainless steel beer containers to help eliminate single-use containers. Although this might’ve been new to the Mountain, the concept has been well alive for the last 9 years at an annual free breakfast held during the weekend. Lovingly known as “Chompdown,” the communal meal may not be sponsored by Wakarusa, but is absolutely an emblem of the ethos that should be present at any festival. Money is never exchanged nor is there any official chain of command; the gathering is just as inspiring as it is an autonomous, collective effort. Festival-goers who show up are asked, but not required, to contribute a donation in the form of bacon, eggs, juice or at least offer a helping hand. With a line ranging anywhere from 300 to 1,000 sleepy-eyed festival-goers, the volume of potential single-use silverware and plates could easily pile up in half a heartbeat. However, one of the core values behind Chompdown is to not only hold an enlivening space, but do so responsibly with regard to respecting the land. Staying true, the crew only supplies old plates and silverware, which it diligently cleans to keep up with the stream of hungry campers.

Jenny Jones of Kansas City has been an integral team member for 6 years. Friday morning, when she wasn’t keeping cooks lubricated with a healthy dose of Bloody Marys, she oversaw the dishwashing. Even during peak Chomp time, there was no shortage of those fed wanting to be a part of the exceptional example being set. “If the dishes stacked up, we were lucky enough to have several people ask what they can do to help.” Talking with Charissa Barnes of Memphis, who was attending her first Chompdown, she was taken aback by both the camaraderie and awareness being generated. “This is exactly what I needed. A morale shot in the arm and a kick in the rear. We need more of these kinda good folks showing kids how to respect Mother Nature when we’re out here gettin’ all crazy.”

Wakarusa 2015 Cremerica Nahko

J Bratlie is the banjo player for Dirtfoot, who has been the house band for the gathering every step of the way. When not helping revive festival-goers after their late night journeys into Lord knows where, he has a finger on the pulse of the operation. “The Chompers make an extra effort to keep the process as clean and environmentally friendly as possible. At the end of the Chomp, all that should remain are footprints and good vibes.”

A-ha! So we meet again, “good vibes.” Apparently this “vibe” mumbo jumbo can go hand-in-hand with staking a claim in something bigger than ourselves. And here I thought there was going to be a bunch of heavy lifting involved. Come to think of it, if an inspirational feedback loop like a Chompdown could be its own little epicenter flowing into the Mulberry life force, in what other ways does Waka up the "good vibes" ante?

Existing somewhere at the intersection of “Just what the hell is that thing?” and “Where've ya been all my life?” there emerged the kind of colossal creature that might’ve once been unfathomable within previous Wakarusas. Perhaps viewed as mere role players inside a festival space like this, an “art installation” could easily become an afterthought amidst such chaotic splendor. However, when the group behind Walter Productions got the go-ahead to bring their three-time Burning Man veteran art car “Big Red,” that silly notion was annihilated. Comprised of an original fire truck frame, a tractor engine, a motorcycle chain drive, an 8,000 watt sound system, 10,000 or so LED lights and a 1959 VW Beetle frame welded to achieve street legal status, you've got just as much automotive marvel as a highly interactive art installation. Beaming from the back of the Main Stage field during the first two nights of Waka, with imaginary ley lines connecting to the Playa and quite possibly The Monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey – among other dimensions – Big Red’s presence was beyond magnetic.

Wakarusa 2015 Cremerica Art Car

On Friday night after our man Chance’s set, I decided to carefully approach the 4-wheeled neon beacon. While doing so, I wondered, “Do I take a picture or just stare at it?” Getting closer, chants of “Get on the bus!” from those aboard roared at me. One girl in particular was issuing a challenge, literally pointing at me to join the melee. “Who me?” I responded coyly. “Yes! Get your ass up here now!” I then realized that if a grown man can ride a Ferris wheel, he sure as hell can mount an art monstrosity. After entering by way of a step ladder, there was no going back. As blissed-out kids poured from every conceivable structural orifice, I made my way to the rear, where the girl who’d demanded my company danced with an uncontainable grin. Sammy Boren of Oklahoma City, only 17 and at her first festival, was dialed in and couldn’t wait to share her affection for Big Red. “On this big car I feel absolutely free and amazing.” With a vibrant atmosphere of togetherness, a rich dose of Deep House, and plenty of intangibles oozing throughout, the allure was irresistible indeed. Whether it was their first art car rodeo or not, people were touching, loving on, hanging out of, and riding that giant mechanical bull of weird – all the while making it their own.

Later on, Jeremy Watson imparted the main intention of the Walter Productions team, which brought Big Red to Waka. “As kids, we're taught to put our hands in our pockets or behind our back when we go places. You observe, but you don't touch. With this, we want people to touch it. To play with it. To climb it. It's all about inclusion.” Even as the worlds of Black Rock City and Mulberry Mountain merged and everyone's minds were getting blown in the process, the revered principle of radical inclusion was alive and strong. Stephen Kolar of Aurora, Illinois had never been to Burning Man and it didn’t seem to make a damn bit of difference. “There was just something so industrial about slapping the hood of this machine from outer space, hanging out the window with onlookers in the crowd staring wildly in amazement. Suddenly I was a part of the show and it felt awesome.”

Anna Warble summed up the significance of this invaluable lesson entrenched within the experience. “Being immersed within an art piece is really the evolution of art. We've kind of lost that as a culture. That sense of awe, wonder and possibility. Seeing this for the first time, I was like 'Wow, that can be done? What else is possible?'"

Wakarusa 2015 Cremerica Art Car 2

When stepping foot inside a space like Wakarusa, we are presented with a unique opportunity not afforded in our everyday lives: a chance to unplug and detach ourselves from the distractions driving us further into a state of separation from ourselves and each other. Perhaps the idea of a festival as a makeshift “experiment in freedom” or being subversive by nature for that matter should be considered absurd. For where is this society of ours at when we have to take refuge in a temporary sanctuary for 4 days just to receive a glimpse into what’s been missing?

Then again, instead of attempting to make sense of that incalculably complex quandary, perhaps the more pressing matter is addressing the flip side to that coin: Are we fully tapping into the potential of these safe containers? Is it just “X” number of stages and a Ferris wheel? Make no mistake, the music drawing us in is not just a universal language, but an absolute necessity. Whether it’s a Chance the Rapper or a Nahko or a Chompdown, they are empowerment portals that allow us to open ourselves up to one other, and break down the walls of separation. So what should be done once those obstacles are removed? We must unwaveringly continue to broaden the landscape of the festival-going experience with values like “Leave no trace,” "Communal effort," and “Radical inclusion” – which are not exclusively Burning Man values, but everyman values – in order to realize what else is truly possible. Because Lord knows life ain’t just six stages and a Ferris Wheel.