“No Sexism”, “No Racism”, “No Ableism”, “No Ageism”, “No Homophobia”, “No Fatphobia”, “No Transphobia”, “No Hatefulness”. In these few words, giant banners along the main stage of the 12th Afropunk Festival declared “Yes to Diversity”, as did the 60,000 diverse people who gathered at Commodore Park in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, New York, from August 27-28.
When you see AfroPunk, you might picture a festival that appeals only to black folks, with a black-only line-up. That’s true in part, but being an black Italian from Rome who was attending the New York edition of this multicultural meraviglia for the first time, I was also interested in finding out a little more about the origins of the festival as it expands onto international terrain [last June Paris hosted its second edition, and London is about to launch the first one on September 24.]
In the beginning, there was was “The Rock and Roll Nigger Experience,” the original title of the 2003 documentary by director-turned-vegan-tattooist James Spooner. Then it was changed to “Afro-Punk: The Other Black Experience”. Spooner was born on the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia, but he grew up on both coasts of US with a white mother and a black father. He was the only biracial kid in his family, but he considered himself to be black. Like most kids growing up in Southern California in the 1990s, he was into the punk rock and skater subcultures (which were predominantly white). This sometimes posed problems for him because at that time, the punk scene was very racist; he recalled that when he would go to shows it was always “white power, swastikas, all of that.” Things changed when he moved to New York during high school. There, he found “a gang of black kids” just like him, and he started feeling like he finally could be who he wanted to be.
As he said, “The fundamental contradiction of black kids feeling left out of rock — which from its very beginning was based on black music — has played a large role in the creation of Afro-Punk.” The movie, made with very little money, tackles hard questions and covers issues such as exile, loneliness, interracial dating, and black power. It highlights the stories of four people who have dedicated themselves to the punk rock lifestyle and found themselves in conflicting situations, living the dual life of a person of color in a mostly white community.
Thanks to the film, Spooner was able to reach many people around the U.S. and formed an online community. A movement was soon born. Two years later, Spooner joined forces with Matthew Morgan, a Caribbean-British self-starter from the music industry, and co-organizer Jocelyn Cooper, and they began spotlighting black bands and artists who were and are often left out by the mainstream [we are experiencing the same issues here in Europe, especially in Italy, but here at Griot we are working hard to change the panorama.]
Before and after the event, I was told by some American and Italian friends that many people have been complaining about the fact that Afropunk is no longer truly ‘punk’ [actually, there were many bands on the stages who spanned a range of different genres, punk-rock not excluded;] that the festival has turned into a money-making event for fashionistas; and that making people pay for a ticket – since 2015 – has damaged the credibility of the festival [it costs $80 for two days and $45-50 for one day.]
I might be wrong, but let me ask a couple of questions. First: how could you expect that such a festival, born to give space and voice to a diverse community, could not possibly grow and become a ‘mass’ event, especially when there is still a whole bunch of underrepresented people out there who are looking for such a platform to be seen and represented? To me, Afropunk, just like Burning Man, was a truly personal experience. Second: if you attend any single show headlining artists such as Ice Cube, or Tyler, The Creator, or Janelle Monae, or TV On The Radio, you are likely going to pay at least $45 or more, whereas at Afropunk you can enjoy a line-up featuring more than 50 artists. I actually think that the price was rather competitive; plus, you can also volunteer for the chance to get a free ticket. And what about the fact that we are talking about an event conceived and run by black people? It’s a one-of-a-kind festival, especially since the music festival landscape is usually monochromatic in its organization, line-up, and audience. The only things that made me turn up my nose were the cost of beer – $8 per can- and the fact that some big artists performed on small stages. Plus, if I were AfroPunk, I would be annoyed at the concert management company because the audio on the stage where Kelela and The Internet played – the Gold Stage – was so bad that I left disappointed both times.
Anyway, as an Italian and outside voyeur who is already aware of certain issues, I was actually more interested in absorbing the energy and reading the pride in people’s gazes, styles, and bodies. I was watching the curiosity on the faces of some grown dudes who seemed having come straight from “Dead Poets Society“, or on the faces of fathers who are probably living in Carrie Bradshaw-style Manhattan flats. I was happily obsessed and distracted admiring the diversity, the vanity, the costuming, the self-expression. Maybe you can get the vibe from watching the videos below.
Afropunk was a very inspiring experience from which I got a lot of positive energy. Besides promoting diversity and creativity, it represents an important push to take action for real change in the world. Thanks Afropunk.
All images and videos | (c) Johanne Affricot – Featured Image | Nathalie Cijntje
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