AfroPunk Festival has been a musical beacon for Black people across the diaspora in the heart of Fort Greene, Brooklyn for over a decade, but I was damn near ready to give up on it this year. The gradual transition from DIY fun to just another Governors Ball clone was bad. The London iteration of the festival flip-flopping on M.I.A. amid her comments on the Black Lives Matter movement was worse. Factor in a bunch of repeat acts from years past (The Internet, Bad Brains, Saul Williams, CX KidtroniX, Monae) and a potentially whitewashed audience (two white people in headdresses and one in a nigga shirt was lowkey horrendous) and I wasn’t exactly ready to hop over to Commodore Barry Park. But amid the sweltering New York heat and constant stage-dashing, AfroPunk 2016 affirmed something in me: the severe need for Black artists to be able to play for Black audiences.
While I initially supported AfroPunk’s decision to charge people for tickets, I also realized that a new barrier to entry had just been created. Tickets to concerts – especially festivals – cost an arm and a leg without the right connections, and considering that the very audience AfroPunk directly appeals to is potentially being ostracized, it creates feelings that cut deep. Artists like Vince Staples and Oddisee have talked extensively about the feeling of predominantly white festival audiences chanting “nigga” back at them, an all too real Donald Glover stand up routine playing on repeat.
That being said, the turnout for AfroPunk 2016 was still pumped to the brim with melanin, which was a surprise for many of the performers. “I’ve never seen so many Black people at my show before,” Flying Lotus said before starting his set for a packed crowd at the Gold Stage on Saturday night, a trend that permeated the whole festival. And having been to two Flying Lotus shows in the past, that’s no exaggeration; so seeing black and brown faces light up during the coda that is FlyLo’s “Never Catch Me” with Kendrick Lamar was affirming to my live music life. It took on many forms over the weekend; Tyler, The Creator wondered where we all were when he was in high school (“You’re all winners and we’re all Negroes. That’s Black Excellence.”) while heavyweights like Saul Williams and Janelle Monáe continued to preach to the choir.
Tonight was special. I baptized myself in Brooklyn. Got to be With my first family and supporters. #AfroPunk I remember being one of the first artist’s to play the first festival. Truly an emotional moment. It is because of you #AfroPunkers that I decided to embrace all of my blackness weirdness even if it made others uncomfortable. All my love. JM Photo by: @dtodd
The Blackness of the audience seemed to hit The Internet harder than anyone this weekend. During their performance of the Black Lives Matter-inspired “Penthouse Cloud,” the tears lead singer Syd The Kid choked back during the bridge were real: “We’ve never performed that song in front of so many Black people before. Been waiting my whole life for this,” she whispered as the crowd lost its mind and immediately slinked into the groove of “Special Affair.” It was nothing less than sobering.
Black culture is leased around the world. Some people like it even more than the actual people it comes from. Common dropped a truth bomb about “coffee stop chicks and white dudes” on The Roots’ “Act Too (Love Of My Life)” that most of us can relate to, but I can only imagine the mixed emotions that come with touring the world and seeing your sound being both enjoyed and exploited at the same time. While AfroPunk has undergone some questionable changes to keep pace with New York’s growing summer festival bubble, it’s still a festival where you can get down with Fishbone before blissing out to Shabazz Palaces without having to wonder where the other Black folks are. It’s a reminder not just for us as consumers of Black art, but consumers of each other. We’re all we’ve got.