Originally published for The Root on September 11th, 2018.
For Matthew Morgan and Jocelyn Cooper, it has been a long, 15-year journey to get the Afropunk Festival from the small, local hangout for passionate message-board friends in the alt-punk space congregating in Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn, NY, to the internationally renowned entertainment juggernaut it is today.
Borne out of a titular documentary exploring a “subculture within a subculture,” Afropunk has expanded well beyond the original source material, becoming more inclusive of the nuances of alternative black spaces as the years have progressed. But with rapid growth comes criticism—and in recent years the festival has withstood a fair amount, from pushback over the rapidly rising ticket prices for admission to dismay over the perceived erasure of the punk fanbase it was created to serve to rumblings of an increasing nonblack presence.
This growing friction between the paradox of “punk” and commercialism has been an ongoing conversation for Cooper and Morgan, which they have worked to address year after year, as they continue to cement themselves as the ambassadors of an independent black media company with a large global imprint.
“I think there’s a misconception that we are not-for-profit,” says Morgan, who co-founded the current iteration of the festival with Cooper in 2009 (prior to that, Morgan had collaborated with James Spooner, the creator of the Afropunk documentary, in what was known as the “AfroPunk Music and Film Festival”). “Although we worked in the last few years with local authorities and the mayor’s office and the local government, we are a for-profit business and we were a for-profit business even when we were free.”
“If you pick any two acts, headliners in a direct support of any of the four stages and you put those together, you cannot see two acts for the price that we have,” Morgan further clarifies. “We are still the cheapest festival in America, and we do that because it’s more important for us to have a black audience that pays for a ticket that supports their culture and enables us to have black people in marketing, editorial, sales, sponsorship. It creates a business that is for the community. That employs the community.”
Despite the relative affordability of tickets, the uptick over the years is still unmistakable, going from a previously “free” (with donations requested) event to most recently charging $60 per day, for the two-day festival.However, Afropunk Brooklyn has had a continued partnership with Chip’N in the Earn A Ticket program, which provides the opportunity for Brooklyn residents to get a free day pass in exchange for a set amount of volunteer hours. According to Cooper and Morgan, approximately 20 percent of all tickets were earned tickets this year.
With regards to the punk legacy of the festival, both Morgan and Cooper admit that they’ve veered beyond the confines of the source material envisioned by film creator James Spooner, but resist being confined to its initial definitions as their brand continues to grow.
“In 2007, 2008, I think I started to expand the definitions and not be locked into what traditional punk rock dictates because we’re already outside of those lines, so why did we have to work things that were already not for us? Why weren’t we supposed to create our own space? And that also means that, for me, the music genre is not important. It’s about the attitude, it’s about the people, it’s about the resistance, it’s about resisting in a place that is normally not associated with people of color,” Morgan says.
Morgan also draws onto his own background as to why he felt compelled to expand the musical offerings:
“I love an audience of 250, 300 people … but if I kept going down that road, I said that we would miss the people like myself. The kids that lived in the projects, like where I grew up, not what people write about but where people actually live can grow up and form community, friendship. I would miss those kids because the music would tell them that it wasn’t for them, as opposed to being an inviting place that had all types of music, therefore would bring different types of black people. So I think it’s not for me about when the decision was made about the genre of music. It was a position to bring more black people in than to exclude.”
Despite the expansion into other genres, they continue to book punk artists, and claim to book more traditional punk bands (11 this year) than any other major festivals, including artists such as the Fever 333 and Black Pantera from Brazil.
“We create alternative marketing materials solely for the punk bands so people are more aware that they exist,” Morgan says. “And the way that they’re described between the other bands is done so people go for Yuna and see the Fever 333, and that is what we do. It’s what we’ve always done. If people are new to what we’re doing, then my assumption is that they don’t know the history and they’re joining now too… which is fine. We welcome that.” “The reality is that we have more agents and we have bigger bands and if anyone can tell me how we tell the bands with their white agents and their white friends and their white bandmates and their white girlfriends and parents that they can’t come to the festival … tell me how to do that without coming across like a bigot,” Morgan says.
As to the social media buzz of an increasing nonblack presence in recent years, Cooper adamantly states, “This is not true. Come to the festival, you’d see,” adding that there were arguably more white attendees when the festival was still held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Morgan adds that the highest possible concentration—which, they both emphasize, is still not high—may be in the VIP section where the sponsors, band managers and special guest lists are: “The reality is that we have more agents and we have bigger bands and if anyone can tell me how we tell the bands with their white agents and their white friends and their white bandmates and their white girlfriends and parents that they can’t come to the festival … tell me how to do that without coming across like a bigot,” Morgan says.
This year’s festival was punctuated with a viral incident in which Ebony Donnely and his partner Ericka Hart claimed they were removed from the VIP section by security on Morgan’s orders for wearing a T-shirt noting that “Afropunk Sold Out For White Consumption.” In his own words, Morgan gave his own accounting of the incident, contributing it to a disappointing miscommunication:
“I walk up to three people after scanning who went backstage and I said, ‘Interesting shirt,’ or, ‘What’s that shirt?’ Unbeknownst to me, they had been taken backstage by our film crew to do an interview, which they did. And our film crew gave Ebony backstage a marker, and backstage, Ebony wrote on the shirt. I don’t know what selling out for white consumption is and I was actually interested in what that was, but I commented on the shirt and then I asked for what credentials do you have and I was told, and in my English [Morgan is from England], I was told to mind my own business and I think, in American, it was ‘why are you asking so many questions?’ The amount of conversation about the T-shirt was perhaps three seconds. We then went on to talk about the credentials. When they basically told me to mind my own business, I asked the security. They asked me what was going on, and I said—this is where the ‘my house’ thing comes up—I said, ‘Back here is my house. You can do whatever you want outside but you don’t have the right credentials to go backstage. You have to go.’
“Other people were being asked to leave backstage. It’s not a VIP as I’ve read. It’s not an area for uninvited guest. It’s a backstage working talent area. I noticed Erica. I said, ‘Erica.’ And she said, ‘You know me.’ And she said, ‘Yeah, I know you,’ and that was kind of how the interaction went. It was very, very short. They were escorted out. Erica asked me, ‘Are we being kicked out the festival?’ I said, ‘Absolutely not. Just not backstage,’ and they were escorted from backstage to the entrance of backstage and they went on their way.”
Morgan adds that the removal had nothing to do with the T-shirt, noting that prior to the incident, he had a lengthy and productive exchange with someone else who had a shirt stating “Make AfroPunk Free Again” without conflict. It was in this spirit of discourse that Morgan and Cooper invited Donnely and Hart to their Solution Sessions podcast, which they chose to decline.
Cooper took direct issue with the implications of the shirt itself, highlighting the impact of Afropunk in the black community in Brooklyn and abroad.
“We have supported 250 black businesses in our market,” she says, from food businesses, to homemade earring designers to organizations that have built schools in Ghana—in addition to a fully black, live-event production company. To Cooper, the greater objective of Afropunk is to create an ecosystem of a self-sustaining dollars within the black community and its diasporas, a concept that would directly counter any notion of white consumption.
“I just looked at an impact study that we helped to generate to the city of Johannesburg almost a hundred million Rand (approximately 6.6 million USD) worth of business that we brought into that city in our first year. We’re just getting started,” she says.
On the heels of this discord also lies some internal tensions made public by longtime editor-in-chief of Afropunk.com, Lou Constant-Desportes, who announced he had stepped down in a Facebook post that claimed the “philosophy and actions of some of the people who run the company are so at odds with the values that they claim to stand for.”
From Morgan and Cooper’s end, they both lamented the loss of a beloved family member from their team, indicating that bringing on Emil Wilbekin as chief content officer and Constant-Desportes’ new boss to expand their editorial vertical approximately six weeks ago may have contributed to the situation. (The Root has reached out to Constant-Desportes for comment).
Afropunk is rapidly expanding with no signs of slowing down—this year’s officially reported attendance numbers for Afropunk Brooklyn was 25,000 people a day. Next year will be the inaugural Afropunk Brazil, which will officially place the black-owned festival in four continents, with teams and offices being built in each of the other corresponding locations—Brooklyn, Atlanta, London, Paris and Johannesburg.
Concurrently, both Cooper and Morgan are eager to expand their reach into other branches of entertainment—expanding their podcasting efforts with an upcoming partnership with the HowStuffWorks network, as well as looking to undertake a few film projects. By all estimations, their dream of a fully realized digital media company is within arm’s reach—but as their network continues to expand, the dialogue of reconciling seemingly conflicting legacies of capitalistic enterprise with their punk ethos and an enmeshed association with black activism and empowerment will likely be a continuing one. On their end, they are prepared to have it—just tune into their next Solution Sessions. As Morgan puts it, “we’re able to do more when we can finance the revolution.”