Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio, better known to his millions of fans as Bad Bunny, is the most-streamed artist in the world. The Puerto Rican trap-meets-reggaeton icon is also the first Latin artist to headline the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, sharing the weekend with female K-pop quartet Blackpink and the ever-elusive Frank Ocean for one of the most multicultural main-stage lineups the Indio, California, music festival has ever hosted.
This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.
Thanks to insanely high ticket prices and the weekend-long stream of Instagram photos of privileged, flower-crowned and jorts-wearing millennials (along with some Gen Xers, like the ubiquitous Leonardo DiCaprio), Coachella has become easy to mock. Yes, it’s cheesy and corporate. (The head of its parent company is even a major donor to pro-life and anti-LGBTQ groups.) But despite all that, few artists pass up the chance to play for the relatively diverse crowd of 125,000 who gather each year at the Empire Polo Club.
What started in 1999 with Rage Against the Machine, Morrissey, and Jurassic 5 has grown to attract megastars like Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, and Madonna. Bey made history in 2018 as the first Black woman to headline, rolling out a jaw-dropping tribute to Black culture—now known as Beychella—that included a contingent of meticulously choreographed dancers and musicians from historically Black colleges and universities.
Next week, it’s Bad Bunny’s turn to represent, as he brings his sexy vocals, hip-grinding bangers, and gender-fluid persona to the stage.
“Bad Bunny has been a long time coming,” says Brian Blueskye, an arts and culture reporter for the Palm Springs–based Desert Sun who’s been covering Coachella for nine years. The self-identified LGBTQ Native American writer has also covered the largely Latino and Mexican migrant communities in the eastern Coachella Valley often overshadowed by the festival. Blueskye notes that a few Latin artists have appeared in the past, including Los Tucanes de Tijuana and Banda MS, but that Bad Bunny is by far the biggest and most prominently placed artist.
Jesús Triviño, senior director of industry relations and global Latin at the music-streaming service Tidal, says that Bad Bunny “transcends different genres and stereotypes that Latin artists are put in.” A longtime observer of reggaeton music (he wrote an article about it for the Source in 2004), Triviño has some thoughts on how the 29-year-old artist changed the genre while crossing over so massively. “The way he dresses. He’s very vocal about LGBTQ rights, women’s rights. His ‘Yo Perreo Sola’ song is all about if a girl’s dancing at a club by herself, let her. She doesn’t need a guy to rub up on her. She’s out there having a good time. These are topics that have never been written or sung about in this genre. It’s very revolutionary.”
Bad Bunny’s eclectic, genre-flouting vibe may feel very 2023, but it’s consistent with Coachella’s counterculture roots, which combined ’90s rock, hip-hop, and electronica.
The festival is the brainchild of Rick Van Santen and Paul Tollett, the latter of whom promoted ska shows in Pomona before dropping out of college to work for Goldenvoice founder Gary Tovar, a Latino surfer from Los Angeles he met at a punk show in Long Beach. The original idea came after Goldenvoice brought Pearl Jam to the polo club in 1993 at the height of the alt-rock band’s boycott of Ticketmaster over price gouging, a fact that feels ironic in light of Coachella’s current prices, which start at $549 per weekend.
I was one of the 25,000 flannel-clad fans who made the trek to Coachella Valley on that unforgettable November night. I was 14 at the time, and I still cry every time I hear “Release,” the emotionally charged song Pearl Jam opened with at the bare-bones, palm tree–lined field. The success of that show validated the venue’s viability for hosting large-scale events, and after teaming up with Urb magazine founder Raymond Roker, Coachella was born.
The fest has come a long way from its largely white and male early lineups. This year, a number of diverse California artists, including Eagle Rock pop-punk teens the Linda Lindas, L.A. house DJ Juliet Mendoza, Inglewood’s Becky G, and Palo Alto’s Remi Wolf, will perform.
“My favorite thing about Coachella is being able to discover artists I would have never heard of,” says Carly Bernal, who’s camped at the festival six years in a row. “Many artists who are lower on the lineup end up becoming huge. We saw Kendrick Lamar in 2012, and he was playing at like 2 p.m. on a Friday—and look at him now. I got to see him headline in 2017.”
But for some fans, this year’s Coachella is all about one artist. “I swear every set I play, people ask for Bad Bunny,” says Angela Ramirez, a Chicana DJ from the San Gabriel Valley who goes by Spiñorita. “It’s great that we’re getting that shine as Latinos. Who better to do it than Bad Bunny?”•