While music trends tend to come and go, the punk scene has always featured an abundant number of Blacks on and off stage helping to steer this genre forward. From Bad Brains and Poly Styrene, to Tamar-Kali and Game Rebellion, Afropunk is everywhere. Enter the festival that will not let the movement die.
The sound of what seems like thousands of 30 plus-cm skateboard wheels slapping against wooden skate planks rise like a noisy mist. It’s a roar that can be heard nearly three blocks beyond Brooklyn’s Barry Commodore Park. Coupled with the screaming whoops of cheering fans, screaming children and general festival chaos, the air is rife with mingled sentiments, the smell of delicious food and confusion as 20,000 plus folks mill about the grounds of AfroPunk 2012’s venue.
Afropunk 2012 was a considerable melting pot of Brooklyn’s best, featuring an amazingly diverse community of artists and attendees cooked up fresh from the remnants of yesteryear’s Afropunk. While 2011′s planned event was cancelled at the windy behest of 2011’s Hurricane Irene, this year AfroPunk was the storm. Heady with excitement as skater kids, a dynamic array of headlining artists from Erykah Badu to TV on the Radio, families of every creed, age and medley came together to celebrate music, art and culture. Vendors shouted their wares set to the backdrop of ongoing, dope live performances.
Begun 8 years ago by James Spooner and Matthew Morgan, the AfroPunk festival was originally born from the founders’ 2003 documentary of the same name, which touched upon a subculture of kids whose tastes deviated from typical mainstream pop and urban. Spooner and Morgan sought to clarify the plight of the BMX bikers and skateboarders who, though raised in urban areas, found that their tastes aligned much more with a punk/alternative movement characterized by the rise of bands like Bad Brains and the Dead Kennedys in the early 2000’s. The 66- minute film does well, delving deep, while clarifying the lines between race, identity and the overall punk rock music scene.
Today, the festival has grown to include not just members of the Afro-punk subculture which Spooner and Morgan have helped to highlight, but an ethnically, economically diverse crowd of folks coming together to support a now iconic medium of celebrating individuality and acceptance. NYC councilwoman Letitia James summed up the festival’s sentiments nicely: “It’s not about race…gender…[or] sexuality. It’s about AfroPunk!”
In line with its idiosyncratic roots, the weekend festival consisted of a hodge podge of alternative music which kicked off with performances by the likes of electro-punk rap duo NinjaSonik and trap rap DJ Roofeo on the Red Stage. Headliner Erykah Badu, clad in a prominent, royal purple Bandolino hat, graced the Green stage later in the evening and bought along special guest Mos Def for a wonderful rendition of “Love of my Life.” The duet saw folks climbing over fences to get a backstage glimpse of the “neo-soul” demi- gods.
Sunday, the festival’s second and final day, bought headliner Janelle Monae to the Green Stage who, in true Afro-punk form, proceeded to crowd-surf during her finale “Come Alive (War of the Roses).” Monae stayed true to her signature style with jitterbug-happy dance moves tapped out by her classic black, patent leather Oxfords. In fact, Monae’s success is somewhat of a testament to Afropunk’s success given that her 2008 performance at the festival led to her popularity, and has since helped to bring lyrically substantial music into the mainstream with hits like “Tightrope.”
Body painted black hipsters (“blisters) swayed to the ambient rock vibes of Sunday’s other headliner TV on the Radio, while brushing arms with 30- somethings holding sleeping babies. DJ EZ Mo Breezy had folks clapping various cheeks to the rhythm of some of today’s top Southern hits and a few classic gems, like Lil Boosie’s “Wipe Me Down.” Toro Y Moi to Spank Rock to Das Racist were also among the group of talent to perform.
A live art wall and BMX bike ramp were also set up for those who preferred to dabble in the other arts as the music played on. Considering Afrofunk festival’s humble beginnings, it has certainly set a standard in terms of bringing mainstream acceptance to once sidelined subcultures through music and general community. Though despite AfroPunk’s important position, organizers still have trouble bringing mainstream sponsors on due to both the “racial” inclinations of the festival’s name and its “urban” appeal. Says festival co-founder Matthew Morgan, “Everybody, particularly people of color, they… hear ‘punk’ and they reject it immediately… Brands should be falling over themselves to help these kids and to work with these kids in ways that help them develop. They’re not. They’re buying into more norm stereotypes.” Only time will tell how AfroPunk’s role grows in this burgeoning young movement as they fight to survive against typified thinking.