Coachella sues Moechella
Moechella's Juneteenth event at 14th and U streets NW; Credit: Jalen Best

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It’s been less than six months since JustinYaddiyaJohnson declared: Moechella isn’t going anywhere. The free go-go music protests pulled their trademark application at the end of July 2022 after California’s Coachella arts and music festival fought to block its approval. But it appears Coachella’s wrath remains fixed on the local community collective. On Feb. 1, the behemoth music festival filed a 20-page federal lawsuit against Johnson, the founder of Moechella and Long Live GoGo, and Kelsye Adams, the executive director of Long Live GoGo.

“It’s an attack on go-go music not just Moechella,” Johnson tells City Paper, referring to the lawsuit. “It’s another attack on go-go music and the culture of the city and I think that it has a way more symbolic meaning than just a logo or name.”

Since its founding several years ago, Johnson says, Moechella has never been designed for profitable gains. Instead, he says, it remains an organized protest to uplift community. “I don’t see how you can sue a free protest,” he adds.

“I need people to understand that—because if you’re an outsider looking in and you don’t know about Moechella, you might think this is just another moment where they ask someone to stop using their likeness … But the difference with this is just what [Moechella] means to a whole community of people,” Johnson says.

One of the most startling claims in Coachella’s suit references the death of 15-year-old Chase Poole, who was shot and killed shortly after Moechella’s free Juneteenth demonstration last summer. Coachella, like D.C.’s own mayor and Metropolitan Police Department chief, accuses the event of operating without a permit and alleges Poole’s shooting death harmed Coachella’s reputation “given Defendants’ infringing use of similar looking and sounding MOECHELLA marks, which cause confusion as to the source, sponsorship, affiliation, or endorsement of Defendants’ events with those of Plaintiffs’.”

Though unpermitted, the Juneteenth event had at least 100 police officers on-site and was co-sponsored by various city agencies. Deputy Mayor John Falcicchio endorsed Moechella in an interview with Fox 5 DC several days before the event.

As City Paper contributor Alona Wartofsky wrote shortly after the shooting: “[Robert] Contee and [Muriel] Bowser’s focus on Moechella is a familiar deflection: Instead of addressing the underlying causes of violence, they quickly blamed an organization that promotes and celebrates go-go culture. Politicians and police, who were unable to reduce street violence during the crack cocaine epidemic in the mid to late ’80s similarly pointed their fingers at go-go bands, but in truth, the music had nothing to do with the carnage.”

Likewise, a Rolling Stone article noted that Moechella has been supporting the movement for Black lives since forming in 2019. During their unpermitted musical protests during the summer of 2020, an estimated 40,000 people attended the entirely peaceful rallies. 

The recent lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for D.C. continues to argue that both “Coachella” and “Chella” are trademarks of, and synonymous with, the southern California festival. (Chella Celebrando La Comunidad, aka CHELLA, is a smaller festival held in between the two weekends of Coachella; it became an annual event in 2018, with a two-year pause in 2020 and 2021, due to the pandemic.) Coachella’s lawyers say the name “Moechella” confuses poor music fans who might be unsure if the two are connected. The suit also claims that the font used by Moechella is “strikingly similar” to the one trademarked by California’s festival.

Johnson notes, however, that Moechella events aren’t known for their Moechella signage or giant merch booths. The merchandise was made, not for profit, but so members of the community could keep a bit of the protest with them, says Johnson. “We’re not looking to confuse people in any way, shape, or form,” he says. “It was a name that we got from the people.”

Coachella says in the suit that it has “no objection” to Moechella’s “lawful activities, including the hosting of live music and entertainment events, producing and selling merchandise, or engaging in other entertainment activities.” The festival’s LLC wants Moechella to stop using its name—“or anything similar to COACHELLA or CHELLA in connection with those activities.” Likewise, the suit claims that Coachella has tried to avoid litigation, but Moechella has “no intent of ceasing their infringing activities, forcing Plaintiffs to file this action.” 

In August, Johnson told City Paper he planned to continue using the name: “It’s a protest,” he said, and it was never about making money.

“It’s ridiculous that they’re really looking to stop us from using a name that means so much to the culture before they even actually look deeper into what was going on behind Moechella you know?” Johnson said at the time. “A multimillion dollar festival, probably earned billions over the years, how you all worried about a free advocacy space, a free protest?”

The suit includes a list of Coachella’s accolades, noting that it’s “truly” an experience with hotel packages, and its “reputation as an unofficial kick-off to summer styles,” which has led to sponsorships from major brands ranging from Ray-Ban to BMW, and Adidas to Swarovski.

The suit asks the federal court to issue a temporary restraining order, preliminary injunction, and permanent injunction to stop Moechella from using language or font in connection with Coachella. Lawyers for Coachella are also asking for attorneys’ fees, punitive damages, “all profits” that Moechella has made via its name, and compensation for “corrective advertising.”

According to the Post, Johnson had already agreed to stop using “Moechella” on merchandise and thought the issue was resolved until the suit was filed. When asked about the name, he tells City Paper the case going to court and organizers are taking this one day at a time.

“I just feel like, symbolically, it stands for a lot. A lot of times people feel like ‘oh, you could change the name and still have the same impact,’ which is true, you might be able to have an impact, but symbols are so significant,” Johnson says. “That’s the importance of it. It’s the symbol of what it has meant to the city for the last three or four years and the cultural impact it has had, and I think that needs to be taken into account.”

This article has been updated with comments from Justin Johnson.