Ozyfest: The Most Mystifying Left-Wing Festival Of Our Time

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I went to Ozyfest last weekend. I can only begin by saying that it was one of the most mystifying events I have ever been to — and please bear in mind that I once attended a taxidermy festival in Gowanus where I witnessed a posse of deceased, stuffed rodents dressed in tiny haberdashery riding a mini electronic ferris wheel.

Ozyfest is the brainchild of Ozy.com, a little-known news outlet “focused not simply on where the world is but, more importantly, where the world is going”. Ozy.com was started by former MSNBC host Carlos Watson, who also moderated several panels at the festival.

To me, one of the most mystifying things about this festival was its ambiguous identity. All the general public has to work with is Ozyfest’s tagline (“Eat. Think. Rock”), their sales pitch (“part music festival, part TED talk, part food fair”), and their alternate sales pitch, (“SXSW meets Coachella”).

The “Eat. Think. Rock.” catch phrase was bewildering to me for two reasons: (1) It serves to reinforce the mental association with Ozzy Osbourne despite having absolutely nothing to do with him; and (2) there was a notable absence of a rock ‘n roll lineup. Don’t get me wrong — the musical headliners were great (Grouplove, Young the Giant, Common, Passion Pit) — but Young the Giant was arguably the only bonafide rock band in the bunch. Given that information, Ozy’s decision to include “rock” as one of the featured words in a three-word tagline seemed like an odd choice.

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Ozyfest 2018 Lineup

That being said, the Ozyfest lineup was, to put it elegantly, some version of a liberal’s wet dream. Speakers and panelists included Hillary Clinton, Tom Perez, Cynthia Nixon, Hasan Minhaj, Laverne Cox, Chelsea Handler, Malcolm Gladwell, and Roxane Gay. 

The festival kicked off at noon on Saturday in a pop-up-event-friendly section of NYC’s Central Park called Rumsey Playfield. Prior to the event, the only thing that had seemed mystifying to me about Ozyfest was how no one in my life (including me, until this year) had ever heard of it. I found this odd because, based on all of its distinguishing attributes (Festival. Central Park. Music. Food Trucks. Liberal agenda.), it seemed to be exactly the type of thing that the people in my universe would be into.  Despite being on its third straight year, Ozyfest has stayed fairly off-the-radar. This makes the lineup of talent they had managed to secure even more impressive and — again — mystifying.

When I arrived at the entrance to Ozyfest with three friends around 1:00 pm on Saturday, that was truly when the #mystifyingvibes set in. Confusion at will-call. Confusion at security. More confusion at the gate.

I was forced to dump out my reusable canteen water bottle to go through security (okay fine, airport-style, Hillary’s on site, we get it) only to be met by an Ozyfest attendant handing out free plastic bottles of water to everyone who passed through the gate. For a festival with a unapologetically liberal agenda, the blatant lack of environmental awareness was one of the first things that made me question whether or not Ozyfest was all talk.

When we walked into Ozyfest, it felt decidedly reminiscent of anytime I’ve made the mistake of arriving at a party too early. The VIP section took up nearly half of the main festival space, and the general admission area was awkwardly unpopulated in comparison. The first event I witnessed on the main stage was a contestant from RuPaul’s drag race named Eureka moderating a painfully awkward dating game. When one of the contestants recounted his most embarrassing moment as “waking up in the hallway of his fraternity house in college wearing only sunglasses and shorts having no idea how he got there” (umm…it’s called Friday night.), I made a beeline for the alcoholic beverages.

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Former RuPaul’s Drag Race Contestant Eureka O’Hara Hosting “I Love You Like a Love Show, Baby”. Photo: Rolling Stone.

The event wasn’t all bad. The food and drink situation was pretty strong, and it wasn’t even painfully expensive. The bathroom arrangement was completely fucked, but it’s a festival, so let’s be real — anything even remotely efficient or first-world would have been cause for suspicion. As a general statement, I think there was a lot of potentially cool stuff going on at the event at any given time, it was just difficult to know when or where it was happening. Even the handout they provided with the event schedule & venue map was confusing to comprehend. (And okay, I’m clearly an idiot, but my companions were functional human beings, and they confirmed my sentiment.)

I will say that it was exciting to see Hillary in the flesh for the first time. And when I say “see”, I mean LITERALLY SEE….because to my shock and delight, I was actually able to lock my retinas on Hillary the entire time she was on stage — no small feat for someone who is 5’4″, wearing sneakers, and standing in the middle of a crowd of more than one thousand people.

In America of July 2018, hearing Hillary speak was pretty surreal,  and — you guessed it! — totes mystifying. I would describe my sentiment like this: If you asked me to find a visual representation of the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, I would probably pull my inspiration from one of those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. If you’re not familiar, Choose Your Own Adventure books were the way that 1980s children like myself used to entertain ourselves, whereas 21st century children are just tiny robots fueled by kale chips and iPads, or at least it appears that way from an outside perspective. I’m not a parent. No judgement. But I digress.

To me, the 2016 Presidential Election was that classic Choose Your Own Adventure fork-in-the-road, the place where you decide to go one way or the other, and it affects EVERYTHING from that point forward. After you choose, you have no choice but to stay the course. As a nation, we had a choice in 2016 between two very different roads — Trump and Hillary — and Trump was the path we ended up on. (…yay.)

Now, nearly two years later, we’re so far down Trump Road that seeing Hillary — the Hillary who very well could have been POTUS — taking the same stage that had just been occupied by a relatively unknown drag queen and three gangly dating show contestants pulled at random from the festival grounds to awkwardly twerk in silence to the forced applause of a sparsely populated audience — was beyond surreal. There she was —  Hillary Rodham Clinton, dressed in a beachy caftan straight out of Sag Harbor, chatting back and forth with Ozyfest investor Laurene Powell Jobs. She almost felt like some sort of relic from American history; a Pre-2016-Presidential-Election mirage that felt awkwardly disconnected from the present.

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From left: Laurene Powell Jobs and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Photo: Charlotte Observer

Perhaps not surprisingly, the two hottest topics during HRC’s time on stage were Russia and the upcoming U.S. midterm election.

“There are some tech experts in Silicon Valley whom I have met who say that maybe what they [Russia] will do this time is really disrupt the actual election,” Hillary told the audience. “We are still very vulnerable.”

Then she followed it up with, “The best way to deal with them [Russian hackers] is to vote in November.”

I hope I don’t need to explain why getting out to vote in November seems like a rather hopeless solution to Russian election hacking.

Okay. I want to end on a high note, because I think it’s way too easy to shit all over an event like this and fixate on all of its shortcomings, when, at the end of the day, I’d at least like to think that it was created with good intentions and a progressive agenda. Press coverage of Ozyfest 2018 has been pretty brutal — with mainstream headlines referring to Ozyfest as “a neoliberal nightmare” and “the ideas festival for people who hate ideas”. 

I think it’s important for media outlets to realize that yes, we have the power to crucify an event, branding it as superficial and shallow — but our media coverage can often be far more soulless than the event itself. The vast majority of the people at Ozyfest were there in support of a similar set of values, and by fixating on Ozy’s mediocre execution, we ignore the completely admirable platform of beliefs that the event was built on. Maybe this is the worst thing about most of us progressives — sometimes we’re too nauseatingly pretentious to prioritize what is really in our best interest — getting on the same pageAfter all, we’re living in Trump’s America of 2018. These days, if I can be in a large gathering of people for over four hours without anyone getting shot or yelling “build the wall!”, I write it down in my journal as a win. 

And on that note, I attended a fantastic panel at Ozyfest that was also handing out free popsicles. I don’t even know what I’ve ever done in life to deserve that kind of royal treatment, but I will always be happy to accept it. The panel lineup was as follows:

  1. Feminist icon, writer, professor, #girlcrush, and Tweeter Extraordinaire Roxane Gay;
  2. Fashion designer to the stars (such as Michelle Obama, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Taylor Swift, Leslie Jones….I mean, HELLOOOO), curvy girl fairy godmother and Project Runway Season 4 winner Christian Siriano; and
  3. SoulCycle Cofounder AND Flywheel Cofounder & Creative DirectorRuth Zukerman.

(The panel was hosted by Ozy Founder Carlos Watson, who was a fantastic moderator.)

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From left to right: Christian Siriano, Roxane Gay, Ruth Zukerman

I didn’t have any crazily inflated expectations as it was my first time seeing any of the panelists live, but this panel ended up being my favorite part of Ozyfest. All three panelists — Roxane, Christian, and Ruth (we’re on a first-name basis now, obvs) — were humble, honest, and relatable. All of the panelists were candid about having to overcome major obstacles and failures before going on to achieve massive success.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a sucker for failure-to-success stories. Something about them never gets old.  (And by “something”, I mean they give me the delusional hope that I, too, am capable of one day setting the world on fire despite failing at life for my first 32 years.)

For example, after launching SoulCycle with a close friend, Ruth Zukerman was eventually pushed out of her own company (although she won’t disclose any details #classyAF #IWillNeverBeThatBigOfAPerson). Christian Siriano was rejected from NYC’s Fashion Institute of Technology (aka F.I.T.) when he applied to college (although Christian shared on the panel that recently, F.I.T. asked him to be their keynote speaker at their graduation. Christian’s response, as told to the panel audience: “I was BUSY.”😂) On a far more serious note, Roxane Gay went on to become a celebrated writer, associate professor and feminist icon despite suffering from the all-too-fucking-common atrocity of childhood sexual assault.

For me, this panel served as a much-needed reminder that struggle and failure are just a part of the road to success. Too often, we fail to acknowledge this, because once someone has landed on every list of fastest growing companies, we tend to solely fixate on their achievements and all of the money and glamour that comes with it. At the end of the day, after anyone or anything reaches a high level of success, no one gives a shit about the times that everything looked like a hot mess. And maybe one day, Ozyfest will become a perfect example of that — but only time will tell.

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