'Afropunk always felt like a family reunion to me'
Afropunk, the annual festival of black alternative music and culture, has always felt like a family reunion to me. Each year, I run into friends I haven’t seen in years, many don’t live in New York, but have come to bathe themselves in it: the glow, the color, the good funk of miles and miles of shiny happy black people.
This year’s festival is its 12th and accordingly, Afropunk has reached an awkward adolescence. Last year saw its largest ever festival with an estimated 60,000 attendees; satellite events in Paris, Los Angeles and Atlanta; and the decision to begin charging for admittance. There have also been, inevitably, some growing pains.
Earlier in the summer, MIA was announced as the headliner for the first-ever London festival though she is not black, and freely complained via Twitter that “in America the problem you’re allowed to talk about is Black Lives Matter” accompanied by the hashtag #muslimlivesmatter. I was never going to attend Afropunk London, but still, I felt a pang, seeing a non-black artist, dark and lovely though she is, as the headliner. Wasn’t there somebody else who better fit the bill?
The Brooklyn festival, announcing its lineup, appeared to be thoroughly black and male: Ice Cube, TV on the Radio, Tyler the Creator, and Flying Lotus are the top four headliners, followed by Janelle Monae – and then more dudes. A lot more, including Cee-Lo Green, who, after being accused of rape and drugging a woman in 2014, suggested that if you can’t remember being raped, then it didn’t happen.
Afropunk has since pulled MIA from the London show, and Brooklyn has added Laura Mvula (Cee-Lo remains). Though it was a worthy criticism to question why MIA had been invited in the first place, it’s also meaningful that the festival, despite its sprawling, worldwide reach, is still an organ which breathes and responds to the voices of its patrons.
At least, that’s how I see it. Last year, after Afropunk Brooklyn announced it would charge an entry fee, some said the festival had gone corporate – a harsh criticism for a space that began as anything but. Going corporate means accepting financial support from brands and corporations, but euphemistically means selling out– and is rarely seen as a necessary economic decision. Festival co-founder Matthew Morgan once financed the festival out-of-pocket for $15,000; but since those humble beginnings, the price has swelled to $2m.
When you’re young, as are most of Afropunk’s attendees, as were its founders when they first felt inspired to create it, you often can’t imagine how soothing and seductive financial security is; or, that without some sponsorship, many of the “free” things we love would cease to exist. But when you get down to it, Afropunk’s shift from a one-day black rock event in a parking lot to a multi-city, multi-million dollar blowout is not about money, but about how personal it feels when something we love changes without our permission; about the expectation that its heart and skin will forever stay the same; that black won’t crack.
I feel that. On more than one occasion, Afropunk has been where I reunited with a close friend I’d fallen out with. You can count on seeing your people there, far too many to stop and speak to; and sometimes, as in life outside the gates of Commodore Barry Park, a chance encounter might be your only means of reaching someone who’s floated out of your orbit. Afropunk has never been solely about the music; it’s always been about the full experience of going with one group and leaving with another; suiting up in your Saturday-and-Sunday best; connecting with like minds and faces. Even in a crowd of 60,000, it seems the cosmos swirl to draw our endless brown bodies into perfect alignment.
Like so many things, it’s complicated. But it has to be. What makes Afropunk special is the tapestry of people who come from throughout the diaspora to experience this one, pulsating moment of a thousand kinds of black love: young, old; rich, poor; self-identified punks, and those who just like to lie in the grass and have a good time. If nothing else, it remains like the people it serves: infinite.