By Nicholas Deckmejian
From July 15 through 17, the Gratitude Migration Festival came to Keansburg and transformed hELLO Beach into a biome of spiritual wonder and a haven for creatives. The beach became a village of tents and stages, acting as an epicenter for musicians, painters, performers, and enthusiasts of all things strange and beautiful. It was an esoteric experience; those involved understand the struggle in translating the events of the weekend into words, and those who weren’t there might never grasp the magic that was created. This wasn’t just a concert that served as an excuse for a bunch of kids to party and trash a beach, and once people understand the essence of the festival, the entire community will be eagerly awaiting its return.
The weekend was nothing short of spectacular, and every facet was either inspiring or captivating. Stemming from Gratitude*NYC, co-founders Drew Meeks and Avi Werde orchestrated an event to create a community of dreamers who can feel released from the day-to-day grind and immerse themselves in a dream world. 2015 was their first year bringing this festival to Keansburg, with the intent of providing positivity and support for the community while pouring in the culture and art typically found in Brooklyn. Now, only in its second year, Gratitude Migration is already being considered one of the best boutique festivals in the world. Those familiar with Burning Man may consider it akin to that event – but covered in a tropical theme and transported onto a beach that sits directly across from the New York City Skyline.
For those thinking it was just a big concert for people to fight over front row views of their favorite bands, you’re already on the wrong track. Yes, music played a huge role, but wasn’t meant to be the focal point. In fact, attendees were encouraged to not even face the stages while they enjoyed the music. With multiple stages found along the beach, it was normal to stumble upon people laid out in front of a stage with air mattresses and lounge chairs, listening to some tranquil beats as they had their bodies painted, performed group yoga in the sand, or danced in majestic costumes ranging from angels to mermaids.
The actual grounds were broken into several camps, all with their own atmosphere and vibe. There was the Gratitude Earth stage, decorated with art depicting a Phoenix rising from fire. Walking a few yards down the beach, one was suddenly in the Water Healing Temple, or the School of Dreams where speakers gave TED-style talks to expand the minds of listeners resting in the sand. Wander a little bit further down, and you’d find the Center Camp Wind Temple, where artisan vendors, workshops, and a puddle of bodies were found doing yoga, meditating, or taking a quick nap in the cool shade. Continuing along, one would pass the soft illumination of a tent filled with black lights and glowing paintings, or follow the more fast-paced beating of bass and find the PEX/Incendia Fire Stage, where a stage covered in flames shot bursts of fire into the sky and was surrounded by caged lounges where fire danced on the ceilings.
Clearly, each region of the festival had its own style of energy, which provided people with the option to experience whatever melded best with their current mood – which was basically the whole point of the festival: a place that brought all sorts of elements together to become a harmonic collective. What really enabled these different influences to gather cohesively were the people, who – no matter how different they appeared – all shared the same collective mindset. This is something that, unfortunately, is rare to find these days. Imagine a place where people asked “Hey, how are you?” and were genuinely interested in how you were feeling. People who listened, instead of just waiting for their chance to speak – and when they were presented with an opposing point of view, they weren’t offended or dismissive, but rather made the effort to understand and find a way to develop a new perspective on the topic.
Not only did the typical social barriers wither away over the course of the weekend, but so did the normal concert barrier between the audience and the show. “There was no delineation between creator and consumer,” explained Rishe Groner, director of marketing and communications. “Every single person present was a co-creator of a magical experience.” Proof of this sentiment was abundant, as everyone there brought something to share with strangers – whether it was homebrewed coffee, heart-shaped pins with flashing LED lights, extra water for those in need, or even just the willingness to lend a hand. If someone saw a group struggling to build a stage or a piece of art, they gladly offered their assistance and made a new bunch of friends through hammering nails and carrying lumber. Helping put together a makeshift stage in the morning and passing it in the evening to see a large crowd gathered around to take in the sights and sounds immersed people in ways most other events never could.
This cohesive, collective nature of the event helped keep it like a dream, and prevented it from becoming a logistical nightmare. When people invested their own energy into building the structures and art around them and established real bonds with everyone they came across, there was zero motivation to try and ruin it. Nobody wanted to vandalize an art piece, for instance, because they most likely knew someone who helped build it. Nobody wanted to start a fight over spilt beer, because that beer was probably given to them by a kind stranger who had some to share. The majority of people were self-governing themselves out of sincere care for others, with no room for bad nature to fester.
The epitome of the festival’s nature was especially manifested in the volunteers, who dedicated countless hours to provide numerous services to the thousands of people there. Some spent a few hours passing out boxed water to the thirsty bodies basking in the heat; others worked in a sanctuary tent, where they helped provide a space for the overly-stimulated to gather themselves. Some people helped drive entertainers to and from the airport and others made sure trash was being dealt with properly. They all felt a shared sense of responsibility and duty to help the weekend run smoothly.
Last year, Gratitude Migration took pride in being a “Leave No Trace” event, where they focused on leaving the location as clean as they found it – no small feat with thousands of campers for three straight days. This year, they stepped up their efforts and made their goal to “Leave a Positive Trace” and try to leave the location better than they found it, while also providing workshops to teach people how to be more environmentally conscious. The effort put into respecting the host town of Keansburg, even long after the event ended, was nothing short of admirable.
During the days following the weekend, the event organizers had locals voice their concerns for the event. It’s only their second year, so there is a lot to get right, but learning what needs to be improved is priceless knowledge for the organizers, who want this festival to not only be welcomed by Keansburg, but integrated into the community, and they welcome the feedback.
Gratitude Migration, as majestic as it is, is still a work in progress and the quality of the festival has yet to reach its full potential. All of the attendees and performers who experienced one of the most magical weekends of their lives can look forward to an even better version. The idea of it is absolutely invigorating, and hopefully the community will embrace the festival again next year…and share the gratitude.