JPEGMAFIA, the Iraq War veteran and left-wing Hades, looks like he’s wearing a bulletproof vest, but upon closer examination it’s really just an unleaded military flak jacket. It’s a serrated contrast to the rest of the Coachella audience, who wear their tank-tops with purple heart pride and an unflappable philosophy that adheres to one central tenet: if it’s not neon, don’t put it on. There’s a baby-faced, future Uber VP of Sales actually wearing that axiom on his chest; he’s dancing to “Real Nega,” a song where JPEGMAFIA declares war on the alt-right, screams “motherfuck the flag,” and samples the spirit of the ODB as filtered through the Molotov mind of Ice Cube circa ’92—if Cube was the Bomb Squad too. Welcome to Coachella, 2019.
This deep into the post-modern dystopia, everything is a cliché—especially the words “post-modern” and “dystopia.” Punk Rock and rebellion itself are over-commodified tropes used to sell socks and Saturn’s since long before everyone reading this was conceived. The more popular you get, the more difficult subversion becomes. Brands become wary of rappers who brag about carrying AR’s “built like Lena Dunham,” and no matter how many Kenny Beats productions he incinerates, it’s unlikely that JPEGMAFIA’s Bad Brains-meets-“Bad MF” attack will ever make it to a Spotify Rap Playlist named after luxury Russian fish eggs.
But you can still find JPEGMAFIA on the Polo Grounds, wearing a black bandanna and his vest open at the chest, just past the Heineken House, the Hewlett-Packard Igloo, the Google obelisk, and the #MYCALVIN’S HOUSE—a brand activation Xanadu across from the Gobi and Mojave stages, where visitors become houseguests inside a Brady Bunch hacienda modeled on a Kendall Jenner ad campaign. But since you can’t be Kendall Jenner or even Shawn Mendes (yet), you can first cosplay as both “voyeurs and participants in a multi-sensory experience” with oversized photo mirrors that emphatically encourage selfies. Trust me when I tell you that it’s a playful content capture experience. What filter do you choose in your Calvin’s?
JPEGMAFIA bleeds on the Outdoor Theatre, but hopefully he won’t get any stains on the carpet in the American Express emporium, which I’m sure is insured but still. Can you even imagine the lawsuits if the murder of Morrissey ruins your one chance to get nail art from celebrity nail artist @britneytokyo (217K followers and counting) or a deluxe sneaker care cleaning service by Jason Markk, the world’s most trusted premium shoe care brand. If you cup your ear, you can hear JPEG screaming about the party that he’s going to throw when Donald Trump dies, at the Marriott Bonvoy Lounge, which offers free fortunetelling and a Moroccan-themed suite—the pinnacle of Maghreb opulence. Get a soothing massage underneath an Oriental tapestry while pondering the stakes of a political party’s attempt to manipulate a national tragedy into the murder of one of the two Muslim-Americans in congress. You can charge your phone there too.
If there’s an artist who understands the toxic contradictions and infected hysteria, the collective hypocrisy and viral inanity of the current moment, it’s JPEGMAFIA. He is the artist as one-man arsenal, who anticipates the brutal mugging that awaits you as soon as you open your eyes, steals the gun from the attacker and sticks the barrel down their throat. If trolling and rebellion have become wrongly conflated, the New York and Alabama-raised 29-year-old of Jamaican ancestry is an acerbic gatecrasher reminding us what we knew but occasionally forget: that we don’t have to stand for this cynical pandering and venal corruption, grotesque racism and corrosive exploitation. These aren’t songs, they’re primal screams and on that front Peggy >>>>>> John Lennon.
So he’s here at the world’s largest Instagram symposium dedicating “1539 N. Calvert” to the Bell Foundry in Baltimore, a consecrated DIY space shut down in the wake of the Ghost Ship Fire. He’s loudly asserting the value of community and underground spirit, then in the next breath sneering about “giving this dick to Kelly Conway,” the flaxen Skeletor attempting to give CPR to the corpse of Joseph Goebbels. Few are as gifted at mimicking the collage-art car crash that is the modern brain, leaping from page to page, tweet to tweet, awash in static and noise, bereft of hope but desperate to believe in something better. The rapper/producer born Barrington Hendricks spent his post-adolescence in the U.S. Air Force, and it’s evidence of a stubborn and unyielding fighter’s spirit. He escaped alive and distilled this rage into his albums that that could spontaneously set Tucker Carlson’s bow tie collection and bronzer jars on fire.
In the early 90s, the Poor Righteous Teachers, Public Enemy, Ice Cube, The Coup and Paris comprised an axis of what amounted to neo-Black Panther Rap. Peggy is clearly one of the most important heirs to that tradition, but steeped in the nightmare irony and Internet pop culture scaffolding of this generation. If his most obvious peers ostensibly seem like Tyler the Creator and Death Grips, there’s a higher stakes and deeper sense of loathing. A streak of performance art that never feels performative and free of anything resembling gimmickry. If anything, he’s closest to an outsider artist like Lil B, who could take clichés and ephemeral symbols and re-appropriate them into his own mutant cosmology.
But if the Based God stressed kindness and radiant positivity, JPEG is searching for an affirmation through the negative. He is lancing the boils on the body politic with a machete not a scalpel. To watch him perform at Coachella was to sense a trigger being cocked back for three decades and letting the ammunition spray. His voice sounds like a nail bomb and the crowd chants “Fuck You Peggy.” He leaps into the crowd like a wrester off the top rope and is swarmed by a sea of bucket hats and neon. Back on-stage, he bangs his head against the speaker, writhes like Darby Crash, shakes his head, sinewy muscles sweating in the infernal desert sun.
Once upon a time, there were was the original Lollapalooza, which pioneered the modern American music festival—a place whose entire mission seemed to be to put on for the outsiders, subversives, and freaks, the dwindling sense of counter-culture being swept up in Clintonian neo-liberalism, the last gasp before listening to music become synonymous with a tech company owned by a dreary Scandinavian oligarch. Its legacy was bequeathed to Coachella, a festival whose first decade was largely dedicated to this same idea of underground music as a form of a resistance to encroaching techno-capitalism. At the same time, it was a difficult place to keep your sneakers clean.
For slightly over 30 minutes on Saturday afternoon, JPEGMAFIA existed as more than just a nostalgic throwback to what this festival once was. He seemed to offer a ray of a shadowy light that someone whose sensibility is scarred, whose humor is caustic, and whose catalogue includes light death threats against a legendary British band who have reportedly been offered millions to reunite at this same festival. He even got the bros in backwards Maui snapbacks to headbang, and even if it’s unclear if most of the audience didn’t exactly get what they were fighting against, they were willing to follow Peggy wherever he wanted to take them. I suppose that’s a start.
Drenched in sweat, practically on the verge of collapse from the heat and exertion and energy vortex temporarily created in this branded patch of desert, Peggy crouched in a corner of the stage and smiled, telling the audience “this is my first time of Coachella and it’s really tight and I’m very high.” It was understood by all. Then he told them that he loved them and stomped off-stage, back into the abyss.
Thumbnail image via Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for Coachella.