Photos: The People of Afropunk
The annual event took place in Brooklyn this past weekend, and the community showed why it's one of the best festivals in America.
There is something especially genius about a music festival that meets the moment. Last week in Charlottesville, Virginia, a mob of white supremacists and Neo-Nazis, wielding lit tiki torches, marched through the streets of that southern city. The crowd chanted: "Blood and soil!" "White power!" and "Whose streets? Our streets!," which was first heard nationally during Black Lives Matter protests for justice and racial equality. The images out of Charlottesville were terrifying, and shattered the remaining vestiges that had suggested, with the twice-elected Barack Obama, that America had overcome blatant in-your-face racism. In moments like Charlottesville—or when another unarmed black kid is killed, and for the upteenth time the police officer responsible is cleared of wrongdoing despite footage showing wrongdoing—it's hard to measure what exactly has changed for black Americans.
Seeing images of angry and exceptionally privileged white American men yelling about taking back a country that has been more favorable to them than any of us makes it easy to forget we have safe spaces that ensure the community is seen, heard, and—most importantly—able to enjoy moments free from fighting off oppression. One of those spaces is AFROPUNK, the annual music and art festival that takes place in Commodore Barry Park, Brooklyn. This year, like past years, the festival flew its customary black and white banners against hate: "NO SEXISM, NO RACISM, NO ABLEISM, NO AGEISM, NO HOMOPHOBIA, NO FATPHOBIA, NO TRANSPHOBIA, NO HATEFULNESS."
"AFROPUNK is for anyone who wants to come to the party with the right mindset and who wants to be free," Jocelyn Cooper, who co-founded the festival with Matthew Morgan, once told me. "The community is the blood of what we do. The AFROPUNK festival in Brooklyn and in Atlanta and Paris is really just a celebration of the community."
I first saw this attitude on display early in the weekend when a DJ started playing Jay Z and Kanye West's "Niggas In Paris." In a field of festival goers, with each member of the crowd going jubilantly bar for bar with the song, I spotted Deb, dancing and rapping every lyric. So taken by her energy, I turned on my camera to record her. She saw me and started play rapping to the camera. "Take your pick, Jackson, Tyson, Jordan, Game Six," she spit, shooting an invisible ball into the air. As the beat built, for Jay's next verse, she sashayed toward my camera. "Ball so hard, got a broke clock, Rollies that don't tick tock," she said, tapping the watch on her wrist. We hugged and broke into fits of laughter. We didn't know each other before that moment, and that moment lasted six seconds.
This year, the festival was headlined by Raphael Saadiq and Solange Knowles, with the latter performing songs off her 2016 black protest album, A Seat at the Table. There were also performances by queer rapper Kevin Abstract and sets by gay and lesbian DJs such as MikeQ, Tygapaw, and Kaytranada. The musicians at AFROPUNK were there not just to sing and rap but to celebrate and give voice to communities of difference. That dual responsibility is exactly what separates AFROPUNK from other run-of-the-mill music festivals in America.
The banner of NO's was on full display behind artist, poet, and DJ Juliana Huxtable as she played a Sunday afternoon set. On the fields of the park, many gender non-conforming and QPOC dressed as they would want to be seen. As Juliana played her set, a group of black queer folks talked to me about how they felt represented and validated. "I just love her," one said. "As a trans person, I just like that she's shining."
These revelations cannot quell the anger that has built up in the face of injustice. An installation by the artist Alexandra Bell entitled "A Teenager With Promise"—a large-scale fictitious triptych rendering of a front page New York Times story of Michael Brown with a headline titled after the piece—was reminder enough that anger is justified. But the most progressive music festival in America did foreshadow a profound inclusiveness. SZA and Willow Smith provided youthful performances on the fest's red stage, where they sang of Millennial and Gen Z angst, boys, and living normal lives in the face of all that is wrong. "So, I wrote this song about going to a shitty houseparty," SZA told screaming fans who knew she was readying them for her sobering single, "Drew Barrymore." "Why is it so hard to accept the party is over? You came with your new friends / And her mom jeans and her new Vans / And she's perfect and I hate it, oh so glad you made it," she cooed. The boy standing behind me yelled, "I fucking love you!"
The festival's free loving community ethos was confirmed everywhere you looked. The images the artist and commercial photographer Micaiah Carter captured for Noisey over the course of the festival's two days speak to AFROPUNK as a afrofuturistic space. In one closely cropped portrait, a young brown boy—with a pink du-rag wrapped around his head and a constellation of clear rhinestones across his face—looks directly into the camera lens. The picture is youthful and communicative of a future and softness that competes with recent negative images and those of black boys and men we know not to be true. His decorative accessorizing speaks to a safeness he and many others must have felt at the fest. Another image of a young black girl against a concrete backdrop amounts to a subtle reminder that the community should be unyielding in its demand for black power and inclusive of all black women. With her hair in a halo-like curly afro, the girl wears a sweater dress that has the famous phrase Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, made popular: "WE SHOULD ALL BE FEMINIST."
On Saturday night, Solange took the stage to close out day one. She performed a set that captured both the beauty of the festival, the progress of America, and the alienation of racism. She sang "Mad," before slipping into, "FUBU." The chorus, for the black faces assembled, felt like a rallying cry. "All my niggas in the whole wide world know," she sang enthusiastically, turning the park into a kind of black healing space. "Play this song and sing it on your terms." Still singing, she jumped down off the stage into the crowd. "For us, this shit for us," she screamed. Turning to get face to face with a young black woman, she sang, "Don't try to come for us." The girl in the audience sang the words softly back to the R&B singer. The image was one more of black power, in a weekend full of them.