Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of AFROPOUNK
According to the Meriam-Webster Dictionary, freedom is the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint. The United States Constitution proclaims freedom as a primary right, citing that there shall be no prohibition of the free exercise of religion, speech, the press, or of the right of the people to peaceably assemble. The tenets of “No Racism No Sexism No Ableism No Ageism No Homophobia No Fatphobia, No Transphobia, No Hatefulness” expressed and enforced by AFROPUNK have a direct parallel. In 2003, James Spooner released a documentary that spotlighted Black youths who subscribed to a hardcore ‘Punk’ aesthetic. The cult classic provided outsiders a glance into a genre through which people were able to express their beliefs, enthusiasm, fears, and pain in a way that alluded to ‘Punk’ being about more than music. The opening of the film boasts a bold statement in the form of a reply to a song written by Patti Smith titled “Rock n Roll Nigger”:
“This is for every black kid who’s ever been called a nigger…and every white kid who thinks they understand what that means”
As a film, it encompassed a wide range of topics; Among them, the feelings of awkwardness and isolation that many ‘Afropunks’ felt being the only Black kid in a crowd of 300 people, and the tokenization that came with it. Many described what it felt like to be labeled the “safe” Black friend, or for various reasons, not black at all. Conversely, there was a vivid description of the social exile that others have faced as a result of subscribing to “white shit”, and being outcast and abused by members of their own ethnicity, even somewhere as ideologically diverse as Brooklyn. Many punks spoke of their experiences attempting to find a community that was welcoming of both their blackness, and their punk-ness, with much friction involved in the process of defining both. Take for example the lyrics of the CIPHER song “Protoculture (Sankofa)”
They ordered us dead 100 thousand, thousand men, women, and children.
Shackled like chattel. Beat 'til we bled. And they all said.
Round 'em all up. round kill em dead.
Cut off his hair.
Cut off his head.
Burn the remnants of what was left.
Lie to their children while we all rape them.
Whore all their women.
Whore all their men.
Pillage the beauty.
Steal the brilliance that beats in the heart of every human.
Do away with the firmament of the heavens.
Here you have song lyrics with references to the book of Deuteronomy, and the middle passage as told by a black guy who attends predominantly white venues-and the crowd loves it, even if only because they had absolutely no idea what the lyrics referred to. Most people would never have thought hardcore or punk as the platform on which to promote black history, but the documentary itself seemed to straddle the line between racial identity and lack of self-awareness. So much so, that I find it rather indicative of the state of Black America as a whole.
Flash forward to Brooklyn, NY. The year is 2005. The place: Commodore Barry Park. AFROPUNK was no longer just a cult classic film-it was no longer just about punk in general. It had now expanded to represent a movement. Bring me your hijab’d and hoodied, your weaved and fro’d, your conservative, and your scantily clad, hell even your non-black…ALL are equal under the banner of AP:
AFROPUNK now represents expression as a microcosm. Want to wear a 3 piece suit? Cool. Want to walk around in combat boots and daisy dukes with a purple Mohawk? That’s cool, too. Want to sell your hand crafted bowties made from reclaimed fabrics, or your vegan burritos? We have space for you as well. There’s just as much room for the LGBT breast cancer survivor who wants to walk around topless as there is the white kid from San Diego wearing an Atlanta Braves jersey. Once the lights cut on and the sound cranks up, one realizes that everyone was there for the same reason: the music. One comes to realize that music ultimately unites us in ways that other stimuli simply can’t touch. That being said, AFROPUNK is evolving to represent the less desirable traits that come along with the popularization of any other art form: monetization.
Up until recently, admission into AFROPUNK was free. The proliferation of more exposure and bigger names required bigger budgets, leading to upfront charges that inevitably regulate who can and can’t afford to enjoy the festivities. Freedom of expression unfortunately does not always translate to free admission. Sadly, there are few things more stereotypically ‘American’ than having a large scale DIY-style music festival be bought out by those can simply afford to pay more money, even if only to provide bigger names (read: Woodstock/Burning Man). But such is the irony of all things artistic, isn’t it? AFROPUNK was born of a need to represent an alternative to avant-garde, commonly accepted ”Black shit”, yet is now fueled by commercialism, and trendy hashtags. The overarching message of peace and acceptance is presented alongside artists that have been known to promote messages of misogyny, and anti-establishment based aggression. In what other place could you have an entire crowd of sage burning esoterics moshing to Crime Mob’s “Knuck if you Buck” and twerking to Juvenile’s “Back that Ass Up” before tripping out to The Internet’s “Girl”, while boasting t-shirts that read “VERY BLACK”? That being said, there is still space for DIY-ers and community based organizations alike. Black entrepreneurship is endorsed at almost every corner, and Activist’s Row provided space for local Non-profit organizations to advertise their services to those in need-be it safer sex education, or support groups for the abused. Much like hip-hop, AFROPUNK was created in order to fill a void that society at large hadn’t quite worked out yet. Always evolving, it now exists at the intersections of unity, economics, and social responsibility. While many purists may argue that it is slowly erring the path of “selling out”, the prospect of reaching more pockets of the diaspora as a whole does seem promising, with AFROPUNK Paris, and London proving themselves to be something of a success story, even if only when viewed within the context of branding. That being said, I highly doubt groups like Bad Brains envisioned $12 brisket sandwiches, or endorsement from Coors Light in hardcore’s future when they first picked up a guitar. Then again, the Furious 5 probably didn’t see “Bling Bling” coming, either.
So, what is AFROPUNK? Your guess is as good as mine. At this rate, its pretty much taken on a life of its own. With the current rate of exposure technology and a rapidly evolving political climate allows us, I wouldn’t be surprised if a Havana, Cuba, or a Salvador da Bahia, Brazil event is in the works as we speak. Regardless of how you feel about the track AFROPUNK is on, I think we can all safely agree that AP 2016 was undeniably lit as f**k. Which, as far as I’m concerned, is all one can really ask for from a music festival these days.