Originally published for VerySmartBrothas in Aug 25, 2017.
This weekend, a sea of unapologetic blackness will descend upon Fort Greene’s Commodore Barry Park for Brooklyn, N.Y.’s 12th Annual Afropunk Fest. Instagram feeds and Twitter hashtags everywhere will be peppered with twist-outs and bold prints; your favorite vibe curator will inevitably make a thread of the best of the best of the audience’s fabulous crochets and Afrocentric jewelry. For 48 hours, Snapchat stories will be dominated by a time capsule of what the festival organizers have described on their home page as “a day of live music and good vibes.”
It’s clear to anyone with a pulse on black digital media that the zeitgeist is currently led by celebrations of “peak melanin,” “unapologetic blackness” and branded T-shirts to match; it stands to reason that Afropunk is an organic extension of this branch of cultural exultation. However, the Afropunk of 2017 is a far cry from the inaugural gathering of 2005—not to mention the namesake 2003 documentary by James Spooner that was the inception of it all. In little over a decade, the event has gone from a donation-only gathering to a $55-per-day festival with notable sponsorship from international brands such as Toyota, Coors Light and Red Bull.
Transition, of course, is natural. That said, in the wake of this evolution seems to lie the rubble of the original core fan base that Afropunk was conceived to service: a cultural niche that grew out of a film whose original intended title was “The Rock and Roll Nigger Experience.” How does that fan base feel about the current iteration of this space? And what conversations should we be having about the trade-offs between demographic integrity and mainstream appeal?
I won’t pretend to be an in-depth consumer of the punk or alternative rock scenes. In their biggest early-aughts mainstream heyday, I enjoyed the occasional Linkin Park, Jimmy Eat World and Evanescence like any other New York teen that listened to Z100 in addition to Hot 97. The beauty of this city, however, is the ability to form deep connections with people whose varied interests expose you to significant communities you might never have known existed.
In the summer of 2012, a friend introduced me to Afropunk Fest, a donation-only event that two artists I adored, Alice Smith and Erykah Badu, would be performing at. Intrigued, I trekked from my Astoria, Queens, apartment to Brooklyn, where I immediately realized that I was the distinct outsider. I may have been there for a performance of “Tyrone,” but the overwhelming majority were there to see performances from rock groups such as Bad Rabbits, the Memorials and Cerebral Ballzy, all led by people of color and continuing in the tradition of previous performers such as Unlocking the Truth, Bad Brains and TV on the Radio (the latter two of whom were featured in the original doc). Smack-dab in the middle of the park was a half-pipe for what was boasted to be the largest street skate and BMX competition in New York City. Surrounding me were spiked leather cuffs, lip rings and bicycle chains attached to brown faces for as far as the eye could see.
I also ran into my longtime friend Curtis, who has been active in the punk scene for over a decade, regularly making treks to Long Island for staple punk events such as Warpedor attending Bad Rabbits concerts. In the course of talking with him about the significance of Afropunk, he said, “Being in a space like Afropunk is a relief; it’s a chance to be you, as loudly or quietly as possible, without it ever being weird. A place to be celebrated, or even just acknowledged, without being ogled.”
While I quickly assessed that this safe space wasn’t something I could call my own, I was happy that it existed for a community that contends with the duality of self-celebration in a genre that was disproportionately white, and I continue to appreciate friends like Curtis for providing critical context to that unique lived experience.
In the five years since, the photographical vignettes have drastically changed; the sea of brown faces that reflected a punk aesthetic seems to have been reduced to a Where’s Waldo? game in which the reward is a melancholy reminder of what was once the majority. And while it is by no means the fault of the patrons who currently choose to enjoy the new offerings of the organizers, I can’t help wondering what it feels like to be one of those faces who has watched a space turn from familial to minimizing.
I am far from the first person to note the concern about Afropunk’s evolution into the goliath that it is now. Spooner himself disassociated from the event in 2008. In 2013, Devon Maloney wrote an in-depth piece for the (sadly, now going digital-only) Village Voice,noting that “As with all underground movements that reach a certain level of recognition, amplification for Afropunk has become increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to achieve without concessions, and those concessions are usually the minority voice.”
At the time, organizer Matthew Morgan’s rebuttal was that “if it was so mainstream, we wouldn’t have one festival like Afropunk. We would have as many festivals like Afropunk as we do Lollapalooza, Hard Fest, Coachella, Bonnaroo. There would be one in every city.”Of course, since then, Afropunk has expanded its reach from Brooklyn to corresponding festivals in London, Paris, Atlanta and Johannesburg, with the London iteration receiving heavy criticism for initially booking (and later dropping) problematic fave M.I.A. to headline the festival.
The topic was again revisited in 2015 by Brian Josephs for Vice, detailing how first-wave participants were “skeptical about something personally impactful being corrupted.” Most recently, in a 2016 package for NPR, Morgan addressed the rapid expansion of the space that Afropunk was occupying by declaring that “It’s punk rock to be black in America.” It’s a sentiment that draws easy concurrence from the inherent subversiveness and defiance of simply existing as a black person in this country, but it remains a distinct shift from Spooner’s intent to emphasize a distinct subculture and “minority in a minority” in favor of hypervisibility and the trappings that come with it.
As Curtis aptly pointed out, “Blackness is a counterculture, a counterexistence, by design. Anything that centers and celebrates blackness is subversive, is punk. That said, I’m also reminded to question the extent to which something meant to be subversive can end up being appropriated back into the normative narrative, supporting that narrative instead of undermining it.”
When it comes to conversations of blackness and black culture—however you choose to define that—it’s easy to talk about systemic progress for the whole and gloss over its unique components, while simultaneously uttering the common refrain, “Blackness is not a monolith.” It is this sort of cognitive dissonance that can overshadow conversations on stratification in the black community and on the tug-of-war with the desire for a cohesive branding of black excellence and black unity; you see it tingeing discussions around black gentrification, “hood” appropriation and the oft-revisited “Diaspora wars.” The labeling of the term Afropunk isn’t exempt from this struggle.
In my talks with Curtis, he examines that balance:
There’s the more abstract question of whether this is even a welcoming space for those folks anymore. Punk is in the name, but it’s not that simple; punk rightfully takes on a different meaning when it intersects with blackness. What that means, though, is that it becomes more difficult to stay open and inclusive. Especially when there appear to be dollars at risk.
It would be unfair to assert that the “punk” has been completely eliminated from Afropunk. In the upcoming festivities, the lineup includes returning act Unlocking the Truth, as well as RebelMatic and Pure Disgust, but a cursory Google search will make it evident that the performances being promoted and highlighted, both via publications and physical posters, are the likes of Solange, Anderson Paak, Sampha and SZA—all artists that I certainly enjoy but are more associated with a punk attitude rather than musical influences.
The aforementioned half-pipe seems to have been reduced to a footnote, with reports saying the previous year’s festival had one tucked away from the main festivities. All in all, it’s not hyperbolic to point out that in search of increasing cultural resonance, the Afropunk of today is largely unrecognizable to the one of the early aughts: a bittersweet victory for a community that had once seemingly found a haven in the brainchild of Spooner and Morgan.
The intent is not to finger-wag at current patrons—paying a ticket to see acts you enjoy doesn’t inherently make you the culprit of erasure—as much as to encourage discussion about how we conscientiously engage in the mainstreaming of black culture and how that mainstreaming can subsume the niches that currently exist and will continue to form.
As it stands, it is not always true that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, especially when the parts may not be seeking more than access to kinship and a shared experience that may not be readily connected to “the culture.” And when that culture seeks to redefine the narratives of a clearly defined genre, it behooves us to examine precisely what may be lost as a consequence and to initiate discourse on how we can best examine, acknowledge and accommodate that loss.
While I may personally grapple with the best way to convey the growing fissure left in Afropunk’s metamorphosis, Curtis incisively identifies the sour notes that bubble on the perimeter of the event in recent years:
What’s different about Afropunk is that it’s a single event, not an entire scene. It doesn’t have the room for local offshoots, niche versions, remixes and reinventions to constantly fill gaps where the general scene fails to. And yet, it seems to have set a high bar for itself over the years when it comes to inclusion and diversity, one that becomes a lot harder to reach when commercial concerns come into play. I still love the idea of Afropunk, but it’s hard to put a lot of faith into it. It is going to take a lot of work for it to continue to be a truly subversive event, and not just another spectacle of blackness, stripped of the nuance and complexities that make us human.
For now, Afropunk-as-genre seems to have been stifled for Afropunk-as-culture, and countering the monolith while also becoming the monolith is a tough tightrope to walk. In the meantime, we should continue to consider the realities of the legacy and tradition that Afropunk was born from, and do our best to include that spirit in future rhetoric and conversations on the identity, subversiveness and counterculture that layer into the various dimensions of black existence.