Now in its 14th year, the annual AfroPunk festival has become such a social and cultural mainstay, Brooklynites (and global devotees) instinctively know the arrival of the two-day music showcase signals the last hurrah of summer. A heady weekend of free expression (think attendees and performers alike in chiffon, tulle, piercings, African textiles, natural hair, harnesses, cotton candy wigs—how the spirit moves you is all that matters) and the best avant-garde R&B, rap, rock, pop, punk and hardcore the Black diaspora has to offer.
Past years have seen household-name luminaries such as Solange, Janelle Monae, and Lenny Kravitz take the stage. And while some performers were possibly more obscure, this year’s set was no less stellar. The 2019 lineup offered an embarrassment of riches including New Jersey’s own raucous and essential hard core act, HO99O9, bluesman Gary Clark Jr., the creative genius of singer and cellist Kelsey Lu and protean dancer/singer FKA twigs, soul powerhouses Jill Scott and Brittany Howard, jazz player Kamasi Washington, fun time crew Tank and the Bangas, rappers Tierra Whack, Danny Brown, Leikeli 47, Jungle Pussy, Chika and Rico Nasty, retro-soulster Leon Bridges, surprise appearances by Alicia Keys and Rapsody, and a host of other idiosyncratic virtuosos of various stripe.
AfroPunk spring boarded from James Spooner’s eponymous indie documentary film, chronicling Black misfits who found an unlikely home in the culture of punk and all it entails—moshing at shows, creating zines, scouring the rare record shop and, most important, enjoying the camaraderie of other social outliers. Since its inception the AfroPunk organization has exploded into an international entity, putting on festivals annually in Atlanta, Brooklyn, Johannesburg, Paris and London, and spearheading social activism with educational and social oriented talks, workshops and other initiatives.
With growth and success has come the inevitable criticism and controversy to be expected when a grassroots, free community concert in the park catering to Black nerds and punks blows up in relatively short order to become a global happening, attracting corporate sponsors, celebrities, media hype and a sharp spike in entry fees.
In recent years, slide shows of the Black beauties that come to pose, promenade, and preen have become de rigueur for top tier, mainstream publications such as The New York Times, Elle, GQ, The New Yorker, Vogue, even People magazine. Now, we know Black art has and will always attract a diverse audience, and while festival founders Jocelyn Cooper and Matthew Morgan can revel with pride in the grand and unique spaceship they’ve built, such a microscope begs the existential question: what’s the use in creating a forum for Black folk to twist freely on the grass in a state of utter freedom and outré creativity, only to end up right back under the white gaze, as per usual? These conflicting principles came to a seemingly unavoidable head in 2018, leading to controversy and bad press for the AfroPunk organization, when attendee Ebony Donnley alleged that they and their partner were kicked out of the festival because of Donnley’s handmade T-shirt that read “AfroPunk Sold Out for White Consumption.” The incident went viral in the press and on social media, with countless others chiming in to express their disappointment in the incident, and dissatisfaction with how the festival has morphed over the years—a firestorm so big it culminated with the editor-in-chief of the AfroPunk website stepping down in shared frustration. Punk ethos is epitomized by a brash, in-your-face, DIY creed, anathema to corporatization, red carpets and celebrity schmoozing. In fact, Donnley’s simple, handcrafted shirt was punk action personified—inexpensive, palpable and to the point. And as with any worthy protest, it catalyzed a measure of change.
In 2019 AfroPunk adopted “#AfroPunkWeSeeYou,” as its hashtag for photos and videos highlighting its gorgeously eccentric and eccentrically gorgeous supporters—its contrite way of saying, we get it, we messed up and we’re striving to do better. It tacitly acknowledged that, without the kids who scrape together their dollars and pile into cars to road trip in from Atlanta and Chicago, or the elites jetting in from Lagos and London, AfroPunk could not/would not be what it is without the ordinary people who faithfully show up, in smiles and camaraderie, illustrating that year after year, thousands of Black folk can connect for mad fun and kinship, with nary a fist fight or gun drawn, and prove that despite its imperfections and the occasional family squabble, on the penultimate weekend of August at Brooklyn’s Commodore Barry Park, AfroPunk is all fam, all love, where everyone is welcome.