If Afropunk Isn't Punk Anymore, What Is It?
Afropunk started as a space for black people in punk. Is it a distinction worth fighting for as the festival grows?
As the sun set over Commodore Barry Park after the first day of Afropunk Brooklyn on the last weekend in August, thousands of festivalgoers hurried to the lush field where SZA was slated to perform. Many in the crowd couldn’t get into the sectioned-off area as the breakout alt-R&B star opened her set with "Supermodel," and people began to spill out into the common areas. Watching it all, you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking someone might be crushed in the audience, vying for a glimpse. But when I walked into the field, there was no cramming, pushing, or blocking. No one stood in my way or argued with me as I made my way closer to the stage. Those of us who chose to keep moving forward were granted passage. This is the antithesis of most punk, indie, or hip-hop shows—everyone has a story about inviting annoyed looks, passive-aggressive elbowing, or starting a potential fight over moving to a better spot to see. But the stand-your-ground-ethos of self-centered music fans was nowhere to be found at Afropunk on Friday night, in the sea of blissed-out fans waiting for SZA to perform. I saw people enter a weed-induced nirvana as they passed around blunts and sang along in perfect unison. This was an experience that was meant to be shared.
Earlier in the day, revelers descended on Commodore Barry Park to listen to music, enjoy local food, and look amazing while doing it. The muddy walkway dividing the park for the festival served as a de facto runway; many of the impeccably dressed attendees would be photographed and later featured on one of the many street style round-ups that would run online and in print after the festival. Photographers would politely approach their fashion-forward subjects, and many of them were eager to comply. “Who is this for?” a woman asked as a photographer snapped some photos. “W Magazine,” the photographer responded, and the woman’s eyes lit up as she offered up her fiercest gaze.
For the tens of thousands who attend the flagship Afropunk festival every year, this weekend-long event is a utopia of self-care, activism, and entertainment. What began as a small gathering for black punks in a handful of venues across New York City has now become a global brand, encompassing five yearly festivals in five different cities, dozens of smaller events, and a website. From the start, Afropunk operated under the banner of inclusivity, creating a safe space for the marginalized—specifically, black people in the punk scene, the fringe of already fringe movement. But Afropunk’s umbrella has grown to include more and more people, expanding far beyond its original target demographic—and its rapid success has left many who remain critical of the festival’s evolution to ask how much more Afropunk can grow before bursting.
Afropunk began some 14 years ago, when the words “black” and “punk” in the same sentence generally invoked the names of three bands: Bad Brains, Living Color, and Fishbone. James Spooner—a promoter, sculptor, and all-around black punk-rocker—set out to make a movie chronicling the experience of black punks like himself. In the same way that punk bands like Dead Boys and Crass didn’t let proper training stop them from making music—Spooner’s lack of funding and filmmaking experience didn’t stop him from making his film, Afropunk.
Spooner toured the film across the country, eventually culminating in the first Afropunk festival in 2005, with events held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, CBGB and The Delancey. The DIY spirit of punk propped up those early iterations of the festival. “For the first three or four years, the film was all there was. There were parties, but it was the film that created a safe space for those parties to happen,” Spooner told the Fader in 2015.
As the festival grew and got more media attention, Spooner met Matthew Morgan, whose business acumen fostered Afropunk’s expansion. But with that growth came internal turmoil; Spooner became increasingly uncomfortable with the festival’s corporate-sponsored direction. He felt the programming of the festival deviated too far from the original premise of black punk rock. A pivotal moment came in 2008, when a band at the festival covered Buju Banton’s wildly homophobic “Boom Bye Bye”—a song calling for the murder of “batty bwoys” (a slur for gay men). Spooner told the Fader: “At the end of the day I walked away from it because it was a teenager that wants to do its own thing. I can't control my baby anymore, so it had to go out into the world.”
Spooner’s departure granted his business-minded partner the license to broaden the festival further outside of the original niche scope. The addition of former Universal A&R head Jocelyn Cooper (who was responsible for signing Nelly and D’Angelo, among many others) to the festival’s leadership cemented Afropunk’s potential as a major force in the festival landscape. Together, the partners secured more corporate sponsorships, and steered the festival’s programming toward hip-hop and R&B move that left many asking, “Where’s the punk?”
At this year’s Afropunk Brooklyn, across from a row of food trucks and the water refill station provided by the City of New York, a massive display for Toyota served as a reminder that Afropunk, like any major festival, is a business. Conspicuously placed vehicles in the middle of a “punk” festival didn’t always play well with the socially-conscious demographic. The occasional passerby scoffed and laughed at Toyota’s attempt to reach out to Afropunk’s patrons by throwing an “impromptu” freestyle-rap battle. Not one person who walked by seemed to take it seriously, at least while I watched. (Not all brands operated in such a literal manner. Red Bull sold slushies. The Met gave out tote bags.)
Other brands, hoping to making a splash at the festival, have taken a more dicey approach to guerilla marketing. In 2015, Dr. Martens secretly sponsored a small group of trans rights activists who “commandeered” a stage, holding with signs that read #standforsomething, a hashtag that was later revealed as a part of the boot maker’s marketing campaign. But before that came out, those in the audience witnessed a show that many believed to be an authentic demonstration by rogue activists. For Dr. Martens, the cheers from the crowd and collective energy gave the marketing ploy an organic feel, but word of the trans activists quickly spread via social media. (It’s unclear whether the activists were paid by Dr. Marten for their time.)
Socially-minded causes—without a corporate backer—were also well-represented at the festival. On Instagram and Facebook, Afropunk regularly posted live updates about these organizations. Black Lives Matter, Habitat for Humanity, and Lady Parts Justice League were just some of the many causes who found a spotlight within the festival grounds. Women’s March organizer Linda Sarsour debuted her Freedom Fighters T-shirt line at the Mad Free pop-up shop. The Aids Healthcare Foundation provided on-the-spot HIV testing. The reward: free condoms, a nifty T-shirt, and knowledge of one’s HIV status.
The perfect balance between successful marketing, entertainment and activism is something many brands, especially those that promote art or culture as a product (think of the VMAs), is a tough one to strike. But the question asked of Afropunk isn’t “Is it OK for the festival to grow?” It’s “Well, does the festival still deserve to call itself punk?” In 2017—years after punk’s heyday—it’s a trite question to ask.
Yet it’s become increasingly trendy to imply the festival has sold out, without actually saying as much. Thinkpieces about the death of Afropunk or the cataclysmic mistakes the founders have made along the way abound. The New Yorker wonders if the festival has become gentrified. VICE asks if Afropunk has lost its roots. There are at least half a dozen more pieces raising the question, but the writers are always careful not to form an opinion.
Afropunk’s organizers, however, take no issue in pointing out what punk means to them when asked. Morgan and Cooper did not respond to TrackRecord’s multiple requests for comment, but last year, Morgan spoke to NPR about the festival’s perception. "I look at Sun Ra and Miles Davis and Grace Jones and Bootsy Collins, and they're punk rock to me," Morgan told NPR. "You know, Malcolm X is punk rock to me—redefining that attitude that we've always had. It's punk rock to be black in America."
At this year’s Afropunk Brooklyn, a new stage labeled the Pink Stage was set up in skatepark hidden out of the way. “I didn’t even know this was here,” a woman said as she wandered into the area. Neither did I, and from what I saw, neither did most people. Save for a few stragglers and some spectators watching the skaters, it was a rather desolate affair on Friday. The addition of the stage—headlined by bona-fide punk bands like Pay To Cum, The 1865, Unlocking the Truth, and Brooklyn’s Rebelmatic—shows that organizers have been listening to the negative chatter about the festival’s growth, while still defending their expanded definition of what it means to be “Afropunk” today.
But is the classic idea of punk even something to aspire to? Isn’t “selling out” an outdated concept at this point? Punk died for a reason; it was by design. It was a subculture meant to continually question the authenticity of those who followed it. Punks berated success, and bands like Minor Threat and Black Flag imploded under the pressures of homelessness and starvation. Punk’s overblown sense of self-importance spelled its demise. Like many romanticized subcultures, it was never sustainable—at least not as the wildly stylized and heavily-marketed form most of us are familiar with. It is curious that so many are ready to question Afropunk’s identity when no one raises an eyebrow at Warped Tour, which has managed to survive with a watered-down version of punk and keep attracting teeny-boppers and aggro misogynists year after year.
The commercialization of Afropunk, on the other hand, has opened the door for a wider scope of cultural misfits than it originally catered to—all people of color. Punk’s original guise of inclusivity was an elitist illusion. Afropunk was once a niche gathering—molded after punk’s tenets. And the globally-minded festival has now grown into one of the biggest festival spaces for inclusion. It’s impossible to attend without seeing one of the many signs proudly declaring “no sexism, no racism, no ableism, no ageism, no homophobia, no fatphobia, no transphobia, no hatefulness.” The people I spoke to at the festival seemed to understand the importance of Afropunk’s growth—regardless of what side of the cultural spectrum they came from.
Debbie Desire, an attendee on her fifth year of the festival, said she started going because her little sister was into punk. Eventually, the festival started to include more mainstream bands that Debbie was into, too, making her feel included. “I came here so [my little sister] could connect with other people and realize she has a voice. I now come because it’s become a thing where people of color, disabled people, marginalized people, LGBTQ people come to congregate and enjoy the culture. Punk is anything that is oppositional.”
Still, some come to Afropunk because they once felt excluded in punk spaces. “I was the kid who was the only black person at a punk show, said Tanya Fraser. “Being black is not a monolith. As it’s gotten larger, we’re celebrating all kinds of black diversity. I think it’s beautiful,” she added, as her friends begged her to wrap it up and join them. She later told me they don’t like the same music as her, and in a way, it’s an impeccable sketch of what makes Afropunk work. In this increasingly terrifying socio-political climate where cops reassure white people that they “only kill black people,” Afropunk has created something that is 100% theirs—bringing people of color together in a country that has shown time and time again that they will be hunted down. To adorn, strut, and celebrate black and brown bodies at a time when they are under attack is a subversive act. It’s punk as fuck.
It’s valid to question the festival’s sustainability as it grows its global presence. History has shown us that corporate interests tend to have a way of dismantling important causes through greed. Afropunk’s organizers could succumb to this human impulse. But it’s the attendees who collectively dictate the festival’s vibe. “I was occupying a space that felt foreign to me. I felt like an outsider and was singled out as such. I love that this is now a space we have created for ourselves.” Fraser said.
For the people of color from all walks of life who call this festival their own, this is the new punk.“Some people are saying it’s become gentrified and that it’s not about punk music, which is fine. I think it’s a celebration of black culture.” Desire added. And if this year’s crowd is any indication, they aren’t ready to let anyone take it from them.