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WeTheFest: Headbangers, Hijabs and Wholesome Fun

Two local girls enjoying their first day at WeTheFest in Jakarta
Two local girls enjoying their first day at WeTheFest in Jakarta | © Kintan Ayunda
With a stellar lineup and over 50,000 participants annually, WeTheFest has stretched beyond the music festival category: it’s a celebration of life. Set to make Indonesia proud, this event embraces diversity and challenges conservatism, in its own special way.

WeTheFest is held at the Jakarta International Expo centre, a concrete jungle set amidst more concrete jungles in the second largest city in Southeast Asia. Getting to the site is a mission in itself: public buses and motor-taxis cut through the sweaty air and a thick coat of pollution.

Once here, the excitement is high. The venue is huge and perfectly ready to host and guide the huge flow of people. Multiple (and very clean) bathrooms, chill-out areas, food stalls and a fully-air-conditioned stage make the experience smooth and cozy.

It’s not your usual festival – where you’re lucky to find a clean long-drop toilet on the first day and the most comfortable place to sit is a muddy campground. Still, camping, dirt, mess and the smell of beer are, for many, what spices up festivals and makes for an epic time.

Participants queueing for photos at WeTheFest, Jakarta © Kintan Ayunda

None of those things hit Culture Trip upon arrival at WeTheFest. Flashy lights, makeup areas, boutique food stalls with sushi and truffle pizzas, topped up by perfectly polished and glamorous outfits welcomed us into what on first look resembled a huge Instagram booth.

Indonesia is the biggest market for Instagram in the Asia-Pacific, with no less than 45 million people logging on per day. Almost all attendees had a camera, most likely chasing the perfect Insta shot. Some participants, the so-called ‘influencers,’ were followed by a full-troupe of photographers and videographers.

At first, overwhelmed by this commercial culture, Culture Trip let down the judgemental walls to try and appreciate the differences between this festival and those this writer was used to back in Australia.

WeTheFest is an event with such a diverse crowd: a place where contemporary culture and tradition beautifully collide to create an inclusive experience unlike anywhere else in Indonesia.

Loving hijab-unicorn outfit! © Elisabetta Crovara

What is WeTheFest?

WeTheFest, a name inspired by the band We The Kings, was launched back in 2013 by Ismaya Live – an Indonesian lifestyle group responsible for organizing the largest music festivals in the country, including Djakarta Warehouse Project, Ultra Bali and SunnySideUp.

“We wanted to create a non-EDM festival, a gathering for bands, live singers and live performances,” explained Kevin Wiyarnanda, PR and Media Relations Officer at Ismaya Live. “A festival made up by the people.” That’s why the inclusive word ‘We’ appears in the festival name.

Thus, WeTheFest was born: open to everyone, of all ages. The crowd is young and in order to have alcoholic beverages, participants need to show ID and collect a dedicated bracelet stating 18-plus. This is wildly different from the neighboring country of Malaysia. At festivals there, if your ID shows that you are a Muslim, you’re not allowed to buy any alcohol.

Music festivals in conservative Indonesia

WeTheFest grounds also have a mosque, with two separated areas for men and women. At prayer time, the whole venue stops and the music gets shut down, no matter which performance is on. Culture Trip found it fascinating to see how the same young people stomping their feet under the main stage, go on to take their shoes off and gather in prayer. Ancient religion and modern culture marrying each other in a smooth union.

Participants put their shoes back on after praying at the mosque on the festival grounds © Elisabetta Crovara

“We want our festival to be as inclusive as possible,” Kevin says. For the 2018 edition, they teamed up with the British Council and launched a campaign called Festival Tanpa Batas, (festival with no boundaries), to make WeTheFest accessible to people in wheelchairs. Each stage has a dedicated reserved area to give them the same opportunity to enjoy the event – one of the first times a festival has provided this kind of infrastructure in the world, let alone Indonesia.

The vibe around the grounds is relaxed. Instead of chugging beer and rushing into the portaloos to take a cocktail of drugs, many people are simply drinking ice tea and water. The crowd is tidy and well behaved. Participants queue to get glitter face paints and temporary tattoos, showcasing the logo of some of the festival sponsors. That’s the most raffish it gets.

A girl with a temporary tattoo by the local company Go-Jek © Elisabetta Crovara

In a country where there’s a death penalty for dealing and possessing drugs, the usual festival weed-scent is nowhere to be sniffed. No one is passing out on the ground, grinding teeth, chewing jaws or flipping their eyes. A funny moment took place when the vocalist of The Neighborhood, Jesse Rutherford, yelled to the crowd: “Anyone smoke weed? I’ve been told you shouldn’t!” Or when Miguel sang: “Do you like drugs?” and the audience cheered loudly. It may be clean at WeTheFest, but that may not be indicative of the true habits of Jakarta’s young darlings.

Putting Indonesia on the map

WeTheFest is a festival where Indonesia’s rigid conservatism merges with the rock and roll glamour of the contemporary music scene. People from all over Asia, and even from as far as Australia, are summoned by its lineup, putting Jakarta firmly on the festival map. Kevin says: “Some of the participants have never been to Indonesia. Some of them have never been on a plane before!”

WeTheFest: where tradition and fashion beautifully collide © Kintan Ayunda

After the interview, Culture Trip heads back to the stage area. Kevin pops out from the backstage and looks at the participants.“There are moments when I’m in the audience and I see this ocean of people singing along and having the time of their life,” he says. “That’s what makes me feel good. We are making our country proud.”